Little Rock official floats cat-colony idea

Animal control chief targets overpopulation of feral felines

The head of Little Rock's Animal Services Division wants to fight feral cat overpopulation by returning captured cats to the street.

Instead of killing all wild cats, volunteers would trap and sterilize the felines. After vaccinations, the cats would return to a colony within the city, where they would be monitored and fed daily.

The idea has some opposition, especially among wildlife conservationists, but Tracy Roark, manager of the Little Rock Animal Village, believes it's the best way to stymie the city's exploding cat population.

"We've been doing the same thing for so long, and it's not working," Roark said. He plans to propose his idea soon.

"Cat colonies" have recently gained popularity in areas where people are eager to decrease feral cat numbers without euthanization.

Feral cat overpopulation is one of Little Rock's largest animal control problems, officials said. Animal control directors around the state agreed that the free-range cats are a pressing problem.

Feral cats are the offspring of pets abandoned by their owners. They aren't domesticated. They avoid humans, spend most daylight hours hiding, and eat whatever scraps or small animals they can find.

The cats reproduce rapidly, causing a number of nuisances -- loud noises, fighting, constant roaming and foul odors produced by males marking their territory. Proponents of cat colonies argue that most of those behaviors disappear after cats are spayed or neutered, and that feral cat colonies also reduce rodent populations.

Roark said controlled colonies may be cheaper than constant cat euthanizations.

The hardest part for Roark will be getting residents to accept the idea of controlled feral cat colonies, said Janet Stockton of Feline Rescue and Rehome in Little Rock. The organization began maintaining feral cat colonies about seven years ago. It cares for 18 colonies in Little Rock.

"Arkansas is a dog state," Stockton said. "A lot of people don't value cats the same way they do dogs."

Stockton added that many people write off cat colonies before considering their benefits.

"We have to change the perception," she said.

Many wildlife conservationists staunchly oppose feral cat colonies because of their effect on birds and small mammals. Cats killed 2̶.̶4̶ ̶m̶i̶l̶l̶i̶o̶n 2.4 billion* birds in the U.S. in 2014 -- the second-leading cause of death behind habitat loss, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.

Little Rock's bird population would suffer from additional cat colonies, said Karen Rowe, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's bird conservation program leader. A single feral cat kills an estimated 40 to 55 birds each year, she said.

Rowe compared feral cats to another problem familiar to Arkansans -- feral hogs.

"Both are not native to North America, both are domestic animals bred for life in captivity, and both have been irresponsibly released into the wild by humans and left to survive on their own," she said. "Both are reproducing in the wild and have significant negative impacts on native wildlife. Both feral hogs and feral cats do not belong in the wild."

The Wildlife Society, a national group of wildlife conservationists, condemns cat colonies because of their destruction of native species and their potential to spread diseases.

In a statement on its website, the group called for the elimination of feral cat populations through adoption to indoor-only homes and through the humane euthanasia of cats that aren't adopted. This is Little Rock Animal Village's current practice.

As Roark toured the animal shelter on a sunny January afternoon, he spoke to the dogs and cats awaiting adoption with a chipper tone, but his demeanor shifted when he entered the room for feral cats. All were unsocial and awaiting euthanization.

"It's unfortunate," he said.

Other Arkansas cities have experimented with cat colonies with mixed results. Cabot passed an ordinance in 2014 allowing cat colonies, but Mike Wheeler, the city's animal services director, said no organizations or volunteers have started a colony.

Sherwood began a barn cat program several years ago, and it has grown each year. Instead of establishing cat colonies in the city, the program allows people with a lot of land to adopt sterilized feral cats from the Sherwood Animal Shelter to control rodent populations.

"We haven't brought in nearly as many cats since we started it," said Robin Breaux, Sherwood Animal Services director.

The colonies managed by Feline Rescue and Rehome in Little Rock are mostly located near restaurants because feral cats like to live in areas with food and places where they can hide, Stockton said.

Cats that have been spayed or neutered and received rabies shots have the top of one of their ears clipped off -- a symbol for a sterilized feral cat. Whenever a caretaker notices a cat without a clipped ear, it's trapped, neutered and returned to a colony.

"We've noticed a huge difference over the years we've done this," Stockton said. "It makes my day."

A city ordinance would make colonies more widespread and put the process in writing, she said.

Metro on 02/08/2016

*Cats killed 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. An article about forming feral cat colonies to control overpopulation in Little Rock in Monday’s editions gave an incorrect number of birds.

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