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In spring of 2013, Ale, a stray cat, was left in a trap in front of a private Washington, D.C., shelter, then transported to the Washington Humane Society (WHS)—a municipal shelter with a stray contract. Scared and unsocial, he provided only one clue about his former life: He was ear-tipped, signifying that he had been sterilized as part of a community cat colony.
Historically, there had been few options for cats like Ale. The WHS staff had no clue where he came from, and his fear of humans made him an unlikely candidate for adoption.
But back in 2006, WHS had started to rethink the way community (both stray and feral) cats were being handled. Shelter staff and animal control officers knew that there were a lot of free-roaming cats all across the District, but they didn’t feel they had many good options for them. Sporadic trap-neuter-return (TNR) efforts, while helpful, were not bringing about the large-scale change needed. So a new approach was created: WHS CatNiPP (Cat Neighborhood Partnership Program) was born.
D.C. residents were already feeding and caring for community cats, but it was done on a sporadic basis. Bringing together a disconnected network of community cat caretakers can be a challenge, but once you find them and enlist their help, programs like these can succeed beyond expectations.
“We needed a true community cat program,” says Danielle Jo Bays, community cat programs manager for WHS. “The community is involved already. They are feeding the cats and are a vital part of their care.”
At its heart, CatNiPP is a robust and targeted TNR program that sterilizes unowned cats and returns them to their home territory, while also seeking out other unaltered cats in those neighborhoods for sterilization. The program provides free spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations for community cats, information for cat caregivers about best practices for feeding and sheltering the cats once they return home, loaner traps and caregiver outreach to find more unsterilized cats. Funded in part by a PetSmart Charities targeted grant, the program allows WHS to perform more targeted TNR in the neighborhoods generating the most cats.
The CatNiPP program doesn’t just work with community members who love the cats. It also addresses nuisance issues, neighbors with a cat dispute on their hands and other community members who may believe the cats are suffering outdoors. “Sometimes the program is as much about creative problem-solving and mediation as it is about sterilizing and returning cats,” Bays says.
You may be thinking that this program wouldn’t help a cat like Ale, and you’re right. Without knowing where he came from, the care staff couldn’t return him—or other cats in his circumstances. They ended up developing a program called Relo-Cat, which works much like a barn cat program—but Bays and her staff have to get creative about safe outdoor locations, since there are not many barns in Washington, D.C. Creative placements have included small businesses and urban gardens. For businesses that offer these cats a place, Relo-Cat provides a large enclosure for the cats to get acclimated, as well as supplies and expert guidance to help ensure a good fit for both cats and caregivers.
While WHS has had great success with the Relo-Cat program, the shelter uses it only as a last resort. If a cat can be safely returned to her home territory, that’s where she goes—saving the relatively few Relo-Cat opportunities for those cats with truly no other option.
Through Relo-Cat, Ale was paired up with Duchess, another cat in the same boat, and they were successfully placed with dedicated caregivers at the Church of the Pilgrims, a Presbyterian church in D.C. Pastor Ashley Goff reports a significant decrease in the rat population on church property and in the alley of the adjacent apartment building. The church’s neighbors have also noticed a drop in the rat population, Goff says, and they consistently sing the praises of the cats, who have been renamed Foggy Bottom and Unnamed Kitty.
The two cats now enjoy a vegetable garden and the church grounds, and “are part of our ‘web of life’ at Pilgrims, where our backyard and garden symbolically show the interconnectedness between human, plant, soil and animal life,” Goff notes.
Quite a pilgrimage, indeed.