Webinar presenters Jennifer Toussaint and Marnie Russ answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Community Cats: How to Garner Support for and Run a Successful TNR Program. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: So, Marnie, you talked about the kittens, are the kittens you’re dealing with solely feral kittens? Or are these also domesticated litters but the owners simply didn’t get around neutering or spaying cats in time.
Marnie Russ: We actually don’t discriminate, and we really try and work with trappers, because we know that they have an immediate need, but we’ve gotten to the point now where we rarely are able to really have to say no to anyone. We will take any kitten in need.
Audience Question: Did you find it difficult finding caretakers to agree to your contract? We have groups that feed cats, but they are often afraid of animal control.
Jennifer Toussaint: Yes. That’s a fantastic question. Thank you, Suzanne. So, initially, that was that boots on the ground, door to door. So, we had to sit and have tea with individuals talk about our program, talk about the shelters, mission, and our vision for the future of community cats, and be honest and authentic in that conversation about what we could provide, and what their expectations of us could be. I will let you know that I was one of the founders of the pet pantry at AWLA. And it started with me and a few animal control officers, gifting food to those caretakers during those initial conversations so that we could offer that olive branch. So, they realized we were there to help them in the mission of caring for these cats, to help them get these cats healthier so that the cats weren’t at risk of contracting illnesses or injuries that could, unfortunately, need to them no longer being a part of the colony. And to support those caretakers with ever specific questions they had that came up.
Audience Question: You mentioned state-based spay and neuter funds. And I swear, I think I virtually saw just about half the audience’s ears perk up when you mentioned funding that might be available. How can they do research to find out where are these types of funds? Are there are certain parts of state government or county government where these funds might be located? What’s the best way to kind of start hunting for those dollars, because so many people need them?
Jennifer Toussaint: Yes, as I said, there are grants that you can get through animal welfare organizations. So, if you are looking for $50,000 to get a program off the ground, you’re going to need to go to those larger grant organizations upfront. But like I mentioned, we got a basic grant, it was $15,000 at the start. We have supported the program through that license plate funding here in the state of Virginia. So, there is an organization called Alley Cat Allies that actually has a web page that talks about by state if you do have grant funding available for spay-neuter and links to the areas that that state funding is available through. I recommend, especially if you are part of an organization that has a relationship to your county or city, or community, also talking with your local representatives about funding avenues for this type of work. So, go to your state or local representatives and say, “Hey, we want to start this kind of program, can you advocate for us? Are you aware of any funding that might be available at a state level?”
Audience Question: What is the best way to not only get the community involved, especially get those local vets to get involved in order to start fixing the cats or providing additional veterinary care. What are your recommendations to getting your local area vets onboard?
Marnie Russ: I’ll take this one to start. One thing that I did is, when I first started this, I knew that we wanted to prioritize neonatal and bottle kittens. So, I knew that we would need very specialized folks. So, I would go with a friend of mine who is a pharmaceutical rep for veterinarians, and she would do lunch and learns, and I would have her bring me with her. So, I would bring bottle babies, and I would be talking to vet techs and vets about what we were doing at the shelter. And that was really a good way like Jen was saying, to get people excited about what the Animal Welfare League of Arlington was doing. I would leave the kittens with them, you know, we would have a new foster via vet techs. So those kittens were coming in daily to these. So, it was really because they became acutely aware of what we were doing, and other people wanted to get involved. I would say the majority of our bottle baby fosters are vets or vet techs.
Jennifer Toussaint: And, and for those adult cats, how we garnered support for the actual spay-neuter side of the community cat program. We talked with them about safeguards we could put in place for their staff. So, a lot of the concern was well, “I would love to help but we don’t have the training needed to handle community or feral cats.” You know, their animal care and veterinary technicians have never handled a cat in a trap. They didn’t know that there are some basic tools that they can have that make it very easy to anesthetize the cat in the trap. Therefore, they’re not doing any hands-on handling of the cat until the cat is fully anesthetized. We actually brought cats in traps the first couple times, animal control officers assisted hands-on, so that we can do kind of hands-on training with the shelter or the veterinary staff to show them that, really, it was kind of very similar to any cat that they might see from an owned individual and show them the ease of the program. So, I really advocate with getting in the doors and showing them what this might mean and how this looks in person.
Audience Question: What is ear tipping or ear notching? Is it the same term referring to the same task, or can you expand on that again for those of us who have never heard that phrase?
Jennifer Toussaint: I actually included a photo on slide 16 of the presentation. So, let me see if I could just jump back to that photo. I had it circled in red, so you can see literally what I mean. See how the cat is missing just the top third of her left ear in this picture. That is a way that we identify that cat has received the community services and that cat is spayed, she is vaccinated, and she has a designated caretaker, so, she’s already gone through our program. It’s important to know which cats are spayed and neutered and which cats aren’t, because when you trap cats, I love the male cats, but the male cats are the ones that have a tendency to go back in the trap next time we come out. If you have a caretaker that has 30 cats, you might break that up into 5 or 6 different trapping sessions. And so, when you go back, you don’t want to retrap cats that have already been spayed and neutered. You want to use your time wisely, especially those veterinary spots if you have about who’s willing to do the surgeries. So, we let those cats back out of the trap. They have that ear tip. We know they’ve been spayed or neutered which is surgically done, while anesthetized is done by licensed veterinarians. It’s very, very minor but it’s such an easy way, even from a distance of knowing that a cat has already been spayed and neutered. So, if you can see in that photo, I hope that’s helpful.
Audience Question: I know that the wildlife folks, for example, Humane Society of the United States, have talked about how we will tag or chip, wild animals to track what they’re doing. Do you do the same thing? Do you microchip these feral cat communities to study what they’re doing and to kind of follow population patterns and such?
Jennifer Toussaint: So, microchipping actually does not allow us to data track a cat. So, microchips do not work in that digital way in which you can follow them around. Yeah, so they’re not GPS. So that does help you identify a cat when they come in. Initially, at the start of our program, we had to decide funding-wise where we were going to invest money and we decided to invest in preventatives rather than microchipping. Microchipping can get quite costly when you’re doing 400 cats in the first year. And so, we strategically talked with the veterinarians, and where the priority was the well-being of the cats and the microchip doesn’t add specifically to the cats’ overall health well-being. I do know a lot of community care programs that do microchips, our program still does not because of the way that we can manage our cat populations, but it really is specific to the program and the comfort level of the individuals who are overseeing the program.
Audience Question: Jen, there’s a feeling among some of the folks that TNR programs really just don’t work and that in reality, don’t effectively address the goals for controlling or mitigating the size of community cat populations. I know you talked about your experience, or is this a jurisdiction by jurisdiction kind of story, or what’s your take, and what’s your advice?
Jennifer Toussaint: Yes, when about these programs, there’s such a large disparity in how these programs are run. So, what TNR means to our community, or what our program did does not necessarily mean the same in another community that’s only doing spay-neutering, maybe not vaccinating. Maybe they don’t run the program year-round as I mentioned. In order to truly see the decreases that we’ve seen here in Arlington because we can statistically prove those decreases. This is a year-round effort. This has not stopped in 10 years. This is not something we did for a year and we figured it would fix all of our problems. And we went back to business as normal. We are pulling kittens out of these programs to prevent, you know, that repopulation in certain areas. This is a very comprehensive and targeted program. I understand the skeptics, we had staff that was skeptical, right. We had never seen this be successful. All we knew at the start of this is that we knew what we were currently doing was not working and we needed or wanted to do something different. And so, we’ve tried it out for the last 10 years, and we stand here with the statistics to prove that it worked.