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The challenge of a rural TNR project

Connecticut advocate finds an uphill slog

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2013

Laura Jordan’s persistence in helping feral cats in rural parts of Connecticut has paid off in “spayeds.”

By the time Laura Jordan arrived at the abandoned property in Ashford, Conn., on a rainy winter day in 2009, most of the cats she’d expected to find had disappeared. But amidst piles of junk left behind by the eccentric previous owner, she saw a kitten with an infected eye, and her longhaired calico mother.

Jordan, then manager of the Sterile Feral TNR program for Our Companions Animal Rescue (OCAR) in Bloomfield, Conn., raced to the town hall to get permission to trap on the property—but was told she had to get the landowner’s OK. She was able to track down the owner, but when she talked to her, she says, the woman seemed to think it was fine for the animals to wander off into the woods and die.

“The baby was too sick to travel, and the mother wouldn’t leave her,” Jordan says. Fortunately, Jordan was allowed to place a trap on a neighboring property, and she caught both cats when they wandered over. The kitten’s eye had to be removed, but she was young enough for Jordan to socialize and adopt out.

Overall, though, the experience left Jordan deeply concerned about the local attitudes about cats. It’s a problem in many rural areas, where a lack of resources and more utilitarian attitudes toward animals can create challenges for advocates. There’s often not much support from the government, either: In Connecticut, for example, the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Control Division doesn’t consider cats a government responsibility. Most municipal shelters and animal control officers don’t get involved with cat issues unless there’s a public health or nuisance concern.But the state department of agriculture has provided vouchers—through its Animal Population Control program—to OCAR and other nonprofits to address the welfare of cats. OCAR’s TNR program enables people to care for feral cats, offering training, trap loans, and spay/neuter information. Financial assistance is sometimes available, but caretakers are expected to pay for the services and trap, transport, and recover their cats. OCAR offered a training class so people could learn to do the trapping and transporting themselves, but the group got little interest from Ashford residents.

After her experience in Ashford, Jordan appealed to Susan Linker, OCAR’s chief executive officer. Jordan wanted to apply for a grant to set up a TNR program for Ashford. Linker liked the idea, so Jordan sought the support of Ashford’s town officials, dog warden, and veterinarian Catherine North of North Veterinary Clinic, who she hoped would come on board to do surgeries.

Jordan and Linker met with one of Ashford’s selectmen, Ralph Fletcher, and gave him information about the proposed Ashford TNR program. Fletcher was concerned that the program would cost the town money, create liability issues, or be opposed by other town officials worried about Jordan poking her nose into other peoples’ business. However, once Fletcher learned more about the proposed program, he and other officials supported it.

That approval was important, Jordan says: “If someone said, ‘Geez, you know, that Laura, she wants to fix my cats,’ the [officials] would say, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s a good girl. Go ahead. Let her.’”

Support from Ashford’s dog warden, Chris Abikoff, was also essential. Initially, Abikoff thought Jordan’s program sounded too good to be true. But once Jordan explained TNR and TNR’d some cats Abikoff had been caring for on her property, Abikoff realized that her fears—about injuring the cats, expenses, and so forth—were unfounded. Before the program, Abikoff had lots of cat complaint calls to deal with, but not much to offer the callers in terms of services. “It’s difficult,” says Abikoff. “It’s really difficult because some of the people you talk to it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just a cat.’”

Jordan didn’t need to do much to convince North to participate. The veterinarian had been spaying and neutering feral cats in her clinic for some time. Her involvement with Ashford’s TNR program was cemented by a conversation with clients who had bought a house and started feeding cats and kittens on the property. The family initially thought the kittens were cute and kept them around so the children could play with them, but soon there were kittens everywhere.

While the father of the family was in her office one day, North started talking to him about rabies exposure. “Now you’ve got your kids handling these cats that are running off into the woods and just coming into your garage and expecting to be fed.” The father’s suggestion was to just kill all the cats, and he wanted to know how much it would cost. North said she would spay and neuter the cats for the same cost.

Before North jumped into the Ashford program, though, she discussed some medical concerns with Jordan, such as what OCAR planned to do if a cat was FeLV positive or not a good surgical candidate. While North is able to examine pet cats before surgery, she knew she wouldn’t be able to do that with feral cats, and she wanted everyone involved to understand that some unexpected anesthetic deaths might occur.

Down on the Farm

In 2010, PetSmart Charities approved Jordan’s grant application to spay and neuter feral cats in Ashford, and Jordan was on top of the world. The grant, $22,900 over a two-year period, enabled her to buy 40 traps and pay for sterilizing and ear-tipping 520 feral cats. OCAR paid for topical anti-parasitic, vaccines, and any necessary medical treatment.

With grant money in hand, Jordan was ready, or so she thought, to start trapping feral cats in Ashford. But she soon found that there were many roadblocks she hadn’t considered. “It was really peeling back some layers of a nasty onion,” says Jordan.

She learned that although suburban cats were often deemed a nuisance, Ashford dairy farmers welcomed the cats for their mousing skills—but the welcome wasn’t particularly warm. Some farmers threw out a handful of kibble to supplement the cats’ rodent diet, but ignored the cats’ thinness and parasites. In addition, because a lot of kittens died, the farmers wanted a steady supply of more cats and weren’t keen on cutting off their supply by spaying or neutering the ones they had.Her biggest challenge, though, was working in a rural area where people are very private, cats are considered just part of nature, and properties can’t be seen from the road. “You could get in trouble [for trespassing] just for driving down their driveway,” Jordan says. “So the chances of them letting a stranger on to TNR, you know, are slim.”

Jordan sought to connect with farmers through advertisements in the local newspaper and on the town’s website. She made fliers and put them in residents’ newspaper boxes and posted them at the gas station, country store, and veterinarian’s office.

No one called. Jordan was getting nervous. She feared failure and embarrassment if she had to return the grant money. She knew she could convince people if she met them face to face, so she started tabling at the farmers’ market every Sunday and gave her fliers to everybody who came by.

She started having monthly classes at the town hall. “‘Oh, there’s Laura again,’ they’d say, ‘scheduling her class that no one comes to,’” Jordan recalls. Still, she persevered.

Initially, Jordan planned to tell farmers that she’d gotten a grant, but would appreciate their paying for the TNR surgeries. She quickly ditched that idea to remove any objection the farmers might have to letting her TNR their cats. But when she told them her services would be free, many didn’t believe her. They also expressed suspicions that she would stick them with a big bill afterward, or sue them to get the money.

When Jordan visited her first farm wearing dressier clothes—trousers, collared jersey, blazer, and loafers—she got the cold shoulder. When she visited the next farm, she changed up, wearing her chore clothes—ripped jeans, a torn wool coat missing buttons, dirty rubber muck boots, and a sweat-stained baseball cap. That seemed to help. Farmers always asked if she was a local; Jordan is convinced she was able to gain their trust because she lived on a small farm in Ashford.

“I’d be super professional and tell the farmers, ‘I’ll be in here, I’ll be out of here, I’ll have [the cats] back to you tomorrow, and they’ll be good to go,’” Jordan says. She’d offer free cat food if they’d let her TNR the cats. She explained to the farmers that they were expected to continue to provide food and shelter and call her if any cats got injured or new ones appeared.

Jordan got positive feedback from some farmers—the cats are still getting mice, they look better, they look healthier, they look fatter—but for the most part, she never heard from them again. In fact, they were insulted when she tried to follow up. What are you questioning me for? What do you want from me now? Isn’t it enough that I let you fix my cats? “I just kept my mouth shut, my head down, and I kept my eye on the ball,” Jordan says. “I wanted to get those cats fixed.”

A Measure of Success

She trapped an average of 10 cats per week. The minivan’s seats were removed to accommodate 15 36-inch-long box traps. Her downstairs became a supply storage area. Because it had no window, but had heat and an air cleaner, it was the perfect holding/aftercare space for the cats. In the mornings, Jordan made the 10-minute drive to the veterinary clinic with the cats. In the afternoons, she picked them up, overnighted them downstairs, and the next day she transported them back to their colony.

Initially, most of the cats came from farms with large numbers of cats—one had 25—but after she had TNR’d about 280 farm cats and was more trusted and known in the community, Jordan started getting requests for assistance from homeowners who wanted to help one or two cats on their property. That’s how Jordan met Johanna, a single mom who worked long hours as a nurse’s aide and had no extra money to help the few ferals she’d been feeding in her yard. Johanna was so appreciative of Jordan’s help that she trapped about 50 cats on her own, which helped Jordan immeasurably. Johanna even socialized kittens during the two years she helped.Jordan also got calls from people who were concerned about a neighbor’s cats; she’d ask them to pass along her phone number. When that harvested zero calls, Jordan began asking the caller for the neighbor’s phone number and called the neighbor herself. That was outside her comfort zone, but it turned out to be more effective.

Jordan’s program’s success was to be measured by fewer feral complaint calls to OCAR and the dog warden; she also met her goal of TNR’ing 520 cats. “I think the numbers [of overall cat-related calls] actually went up,” says Jordan, noting that people who had been used to ignoring cats in need now had a resource to help them.

Thanks to the Ashford TNR program, Abikoff was able to go from saying she didn’t deal with cats to passing along Jordan’s number. But people didn’t call Jordan, and they didn’t want Abikoff giving Jordan their phone numbers. To get around this conundrum, Abikoff started asking people if Jordan could visit their farm on a certain day, and, they would say yes, because they knew and trusted Abikoff.

Abikoff thinks the program has been great not only for the cats, but for her—complaint calls to animal control have decreased because, as word-of-mouth spread about Jordan’s program, people knew they should call her instead. It’s also been great for the farmers, because they have fewer cats to care for. “They’re always getting cats dumped at their barns so there’s this never-ending supply,” Abikoff says.

Abikoff referred some people to Jordan, but a “Feral Cat Friendly” sign at North’s veterinary clinic also prompted inquiries. The clinic referred passersby and callers to trapping instructions that Jordan set up on OCAR’s website. “It’s taken a lot of the burden of the education off of myself or my office staff,” says North, allowing them to focus on the cats’ medical needs rather than negotiating with clients.

“The actual surgery time, itself, is negligible considering all the rest of the time that the commitment takes,” says North, “and that’s where I think Laura really made that program work. She was able to best utilize our time.” One clinic employee became the dedicated feral cat receptionist; only employees with current pre-exposure rabies vaccinations were allowed to work with feral cats. The clinic fit feral cats into its two-mornings-a-week surgery schedule after clients’ pets were done.

North was surprised by the condition of the feral cats. “I would say with the exception of the old, battle-scarred intact males, [the cats’ health was] astoundingly good,” she says. Most of the cats arriving for the first time were in good health, but the ones who were accidentally retrapped were in better shape overall than those who hadn’t yet been TNR’d.

Although colonies have stabilized, there’s still more to be done. “I know that there were a fair number of those people who got frustrated with the number of cats and would just shoot them,” North says, “and as a cat lover, you want to be able to prevent that.”

She and her staff had recognized the need to address the feral cat population through TNR, and they found working with feral cats satisfying and worthwhile. She believes it’s essential that advocates and veterinarians sit down, listen to one another, see what they can agree on, and stay focused on their roles. In addition to feeling good about helping, North has reaped other benefits: Many caregivers who originally came to North through the TNR program are now paying clients who bring their pet cats to her clinic.

When Jordan reached her goal of 520 cats in May 2012 and the grant funding ended, Ashford residents became eligible for OCAR’s regular Sterile Feral program, which asks people to come to a training class, learn how to trap and transport cats to and from the clinic, and pay a small part of the cost. There were few takers. However, 40 feral cats from other towns in Connecticut were brought to OCAR for TNR.

Jordan loved the Ashford TNR program and OCAR’s support. But she felt conflicted about returning some of the friendlier cats to their colonies; some were friendly enough that she thought they could be placed in homes, but she didn’t have a rescue partner to help with the process. At the time of the Ashford program, OCAR had few foster homes available. When Jordan was able to find foster homes, friendly cats were vetted with other funds and eventually placed with adopters.

Jordan says her ideal TNR program would include one or more people to do the trapping; a veterinarian who’s willing to provide services for the cats; a rescue partner who could help get friendlies and socialized kittens adopted; a food and shelter program; and a mentor. Bryan Kortis, program manager for PetSmart Charities and a longtime feral cat caretaker, was Jordan’s mentor, providing advice and helping her problem-solve as she managed her project.

In October 2012, six months after Jordan wrapped up the Ashford TNR program, OCAR opened its new brick-and-mortar sanctuary in Ashford, and Jordan was chosen to be its feline director. She’s happy as can be that people aren’t calling OCAR to take their barn cats. “I solved that problem,” she says, “before the sanctuary even opened.”

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.