Feral cats growing problem for McCook
That cute little cat sunning itself on the sidewalk may not be exactly what you think.
In fact, it may actually be a feral cat that lives in the shadows of every town or city, in abandoned neighborhood houses or garages, storm drains, canyons or bushes.
It's a problem every city faces and tries to to address, said McCook Humane Society director Lorie Prestes. Although feral cats are not one of her top priorities -- she listed dogs at large and an animal control officer as more pressing concerns -- it's still a growing problem.
The offspring of abandoned cats or strays, feral cats may look like an ordinary cat but have had little or no human contact when young. As they haven't been socialized by humans, they view people as dangerous and if captured, react violently. Feral kittens under the age of two months can become domesticated, Prestes said, but older ones remain wild and cannot be adopted out. All Prestes can do with those is hand them off to area farmers, who don't want a pet but want to keep the mice population down.
And the cats are prolific. Prestes estimated the McCook feral cat population in the thousands, which seems high until you read the statistics. Feral cats can start breeding at three months of age, according to the ASPCA, and in seven years, one female cat and her offspring, estimated at about 2 kittens out of a litter, can produce a staggering 420,000 cats.
Although some city residents feel sorry for the cats and leave out a steady supply of food, that's a mistake, Prestes said.
That's because it encourages the cats to stay, which results in cat colonies that can range from 15 to 100, depending on the location and health of cats.
The colonies lead to territorial cat fights and garage doors and other areas being sprayed by male cats during mating behavior.
Other problems arise when domesticated animals in the area become infected by diseases carried by feral cats through scratches or fights. Diseases run the gamut from distemper and rabies to fleas and ringworm, she said.
For Prestes, the worse-case scenario with feral cats in neighborhoods are kids who think they are rescuing a "lost kitty," when in fact what they've really scooped up a feral cat too sick to protest. Intimate contact with the cat could lead to the child becoming infected with a disease the cat is carrying, she said, the least of which being ringworm.
Food left outside can attract other wild animals such as raccoons and possum, Prestes added, which will attack domesticated animals if they feel their food source is threatened.
"Cats are very smart and resourceful; they won't starve," she said, whether it's catching birds or finding food in the trash.
If you really care about the cats, the best way to help them is the trap-neuter-return program, Prestes said. With "TNR," a feral cat is trapped in a humane cage, taken to a vet to be spayed or neutered and sometimes vaccinated, then released back into their territory. This curtails the growth of the colony, reduces the fighting and spraying associated with mating behavior and increases the quality of life for the cats.
For the past two years, Prestes has responded to calls of feral cat colonies in the city by setting up "TNR" traps in area hot spots. But lack of manpower and money mean the the results are negligible.
"They procreate faster than I can remove them," she admitted. "But something is better than nothing."
McCook City Council member Colleen Grant has also been keeping an eye on the problem and has been vocal about it for the past few years.
"Before that I was just astounded," she said. Grant said she first noticed feral cats about five years ago, when she drove her car along U..S. Highway 83 one night. Cats were diving into storm drains and running off the highway, she said and the landscape was so full of the animals that "it looked like it was moving."
Grant and Prestes are both on the McCook Animal Control Review Committee and in the future they want to address feral cats more aggressively. For now, they hope people will become part of the solution rather than the problem.
"People sometimes think we're against cats because we discourage feeding the feral ones," Grant said. "But if you're that concerned, use a humane trap, have the cat spayed or neutered, then release it."
In the big picture, "We're never going to solve the feral cat problem totally," allowed Prestes, who has taken her share of verbal abuse from irate citizens on the phone, demanding that feral cats be removed from their neighborhood. Traps only go so far, she's tried to explain.
"But what we can do is moderate it or cut down the population, for health and humane reasons."