Program aims to help solve feral cat problems

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A cat isn’t just a cat — it’s a responsibility. And with wild cats becoming more and more of a problem in local communities, animal activists are working harder than ever to meet the problem head-on in a humane and effective way.

The city of Oneida has been looking for a solution to the wild cat problem across the wards for a while now. At the Jan. 7 Common Council meeting, Oneida Mayor Helen Acker said the city would look into a solution after an Oneida resident brought concerns of a cat population in his area.

Allison Nickerson is the president of R-CATS in Rome, a non-profit organization, which has been using the trap-neuter-release method since 201. The Rome Common Council passed a resolution in 2011 supporting TNR as the human approach to addressing the homeless cat situation in Rome.

“TNR is the most effective and humane method,” Nickerson said. According to Alley Cat Allies, catch and kill is ineffective, as it has no permanent impact on the population of outdoor cats.

Through catch and kill methods, a cat colony can be reduced but that territory is then left open to cats from outside territories. And that range can be large — up to two miles. Untrapped cats continue to breed and move into the newly available territory, perpetuating the cycle.

“Cats are extremely territorial,” Nickerson said. “If you take away a colony, believe me, there are cats just waiting in the wings to fill in the spot. That’s why TNR is the best solution.”

Through TNR, cats are neutered or spayed, vaccinated, microchipped, and then returned to their colony. From there, no new cats are born and cats from outside territories can’t move in. Kittens less than eight weeks old can be socialized and then adopted; in some cases, adult cats can be socialized and adopted.

Cats who have already been trapped-neutered-released can be recognized by the missing ear-tip.

There’s no cost for R-CATS’s service and 99.5% of money raised, Nickerson said, goes to helping the cats. The only cost she hasn’t been able to mitigate is the liability insurance, she said, but she’s been working on lowering it.

When she started out, Nickerson said R-CATS was a full-service TNR program, complete with volunteers who went out and trapped cats, transported them, and dropped them off.

“The challenge, like many programs out there face, is volunteers,” Nickerson said. “It’s maintaining a reliable and dedicated team.”

“When the program first got off the ground, I had very high hopes because I knew of so many people in Rome who were helping the homeless cats,” Nickerson said. “What I discovered very quickly once things became official is that a vast majority of people didn’t want anything to do with a formal program. And there’s a legitimate reason for that I have to respect.”

These people, she continued, wanted to go under the radar because of a large bias in the community against cats and in particular, wild cats.

“People who are helping these cats have genuine concerns for their own safety as well as the safety of the cats,” Nickerson said. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve called the Rome City Police on individuals who have threatened me, threatened my property, and have threatened to hurt or kill the cats because they hate them that much. So you’ve got people who want to help the cats but they don’t want to go public with it. Because they’re afraid of repercussions for either them or the animals they’re caring for. And that’s a sad, but consistent commentary.”

When it comes to issues of abuse, Oneida County has had a contract with Central New York SPCA for humane investigations since 2015. And as of Jan. 1 this year, the SPCA have a contract with Madison County. “Just before Oneida County signed the contract [in 2015], I had an incident where someone who didn’t like what I was doing,” Nickerson said. “I went out my back door and there was a kitten left there in a puddle of blood. It was shot through and through the neck with either a BB gun or a pellet gun, according to the vet. And somebody in Rome did that.”

R-CATS came very close to closing its doors in January of 2017, due to the amount of work and the lack of a team. Nickerson had tendered her resignation as president pending a qualified person taking over — but that never happened.

When push came to shove and the phone calls came in, Nickerson continued R-CATS work in a different capacity.

As of Jan. 2017, R-CATS serves as a vehicle for TNR as a funding program. Applications are sent out to people who are taking care of homeless cats in the area. R-CATS gets as much information as possible and the cats are trapped by caretakers and brought to the vets R-CATS work with for neutering, spaying, and medical care.

Funding comes primarily from local community fundraising, a grant from the Walmart Community Foundation, and in recent years, the Save a Life Campaign. “We were at the bottom of those 29 people Staffworks helps with their Save a Life Campaign, but R-CATS had a personal best with $4,006 raised,” Nickerson said. “And Staffworks matched it with another $4,006 for a total of $8,012. It’s such a great thing.”

There are valid concerns for those dealing with wild cats in their neighborhood, whether finding them in a dumpster or walking all over vehicles, but there are ways to deal with them in a humane way.

By placing feeding stations and moving them slowly over time, Nickerson said she’s been able to move cat colonies away from areas used by people. “I remember being in contact with a woman who bought a large property in Rome that came with feral cats,” Nickerson said. “There was a whole colony. And she had neighbors that were concerned on either side of her. The cats were being fed on the front porch, so she made a feeding station on the rear of her property. By doing that, it keeps the cats out of her property and her neighbor’s. There’s a lot of things that can be done.”

Those worried about feeding cats and attracting skunks are advised by Alley Cat allies to not leave food out for too long and instead feed at the same time and location each day. For those looking to keep cats off their properties, their cars, or gardens, fragrances like fresh orange and lemon peels, wet coffee grounds, and vinegar can be used to deter cats.

Nickerson said it can seem costly for people to get their cats taken care of, but abandonment is not the solution.

“Some people are being told it can cost up to $500 [for spaying and neutering],” Nickerson said. “I understand, that’s rent. That’s a car payment. That’s food for a month. But when people ask ‘What is the solution’, you have to look at why these cats ended up on the street to begin with.”

Oneida County residents are lucky, she said, because there are low-cost programs out there to help people, such as Stevens-Swan Human Society.

“There are low-cost options out there,” Nickerson said. “A majority of them are tied to income, but they are out there.”

Oneida resident Ron Demauro is looking to set up a TNR program in the city of Oneida. He had approached Nickerson last year, she said, to see if she could extend the R-CATS program into Oneida.

“I don’t know what the program will look like, but Ron asked if I would be an advisor and I’m happy to do that,” Nickerson said. “Anything I can do to help them avoid some of the pitfalls and setbacks R-Cats encountered trying to get the program running.”

For the last 10 years, Demauro has been working with a Siberian husky rescue operation owned by his cousin Jim Demauro. He felt the need to branch out into cats after the need became apparent in the city of Oneida.

“The issue needs to be addressed and I’m stepping up to the plate to see what we can do to help out,” Ron Demauro said.

Ron Demauro is currently working with Nickerson to get all the paperwork to establish a 501c3 non-profit organization by the name of “Madison County Cat Coalition”.

After getting established and getting some fundraising under their belt, Demauro said the first step would be to identify the local cat populations in the city of Oneida and trap-neuter-release the smaller colonies first before going after the larger ones to keep everything contained.

Ron Demauro said after establishing a 501c3, he’d like to see about working with the city of Oneida.

At the end of the day, the issue surrounding wild cats isn’t one that just happened spontaneously — people are the cause. Ron Demauro said he knows of someone in the area who has had around 60 cats abandoned on their property for the last year, near their barn.

“As long as people view cats as disposable pets, you’re going to have this issue,” Nickerson said. “It’s sad, but I think it’s entrenched in society. Cats just aren’t valued as dogs are. Killing cats isn’t the answer. Rome was catch and kill for a very long time. And it didn’t work. It’s never going to work.”

The best way to support organizations like R-Cats is to make a tax-deductible donation, Nickerson said, and come to any event.

To learn more about TNR, visit alleycat.org/vacuumeffect

To learn more about R-Cats or how to help, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/rcatsrome/

To help Ron Demauro and the Madison County Cat Coalition, a donation can be made to Paris Hill Cat Hospital in Paris to help cover costs of neutering and spaying. Paris Hill Cat Hospital can be reached at 315-737-7585.

There will be a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the Madison County Cat Coalition on Sunday, Feb. 2 from 1 to 5 p.m. at Origlio’s Wagon Wheel in Oneida.

To learn more about finding low-cost animal care, visit humanesociety.org/resources/having-trouble-affording-veterinary-care

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