Members of the San Juan Animal League, Humane Society of the Four Corners and One Homeless Cat at a Time and other animal activists are holding a trap-neuter-and-release clinic this week in an effort to manage the population of feral cats.
Controlling feral cat colonies around San Juan County is an ongoing battle, especially during this time of year when cats are more likely to breed.
One cat can produce as many as three litters each year, and kittens can go into heat when they are as young as four months old, said Kristin Langenfeld, a volunteer with the San Juan Animal League.
Langenfeld learned first-hand about feral cats when she bought her Farmington home nine years ago.
“There was a mother cat and several kittens living around a shed in the yard,” Langenfeld said. “The mother may have been a stray that had a litter and then from there (it) became a feral colony.”
Langenfeld began feeding the cats and painstakingly captured them one at a time to get them spayed, neutered and vaccinated.
Langenfeld's story isn't unique to the Four Corners, though her effort and expense for care may be.
“We need the community to get on board with spaying and neutering, and until we do, the problem will not go away,” said Amy Hardin, a volunteer for the Humane Society. “Removing the cats from an area — private or city property — and euthanizing them, only creates a vacuum that more cats will fill.”
Hardin has seen the situation too many times to count. A resident sees a stray or feral cat, takes pity on it and feeds it. Before long, other cats have come along, and that single cat suddenly grows into a colony of 15 or 30.
“The ideal is that you get them fixed and then return them to where they were found,” Hardin said. “This is the message we need pet owners to hear loud and clear: please get your animals spayed and neutered as part of your responsibility as its owner.”
Feral cats, called so because of their inability to bond with humans, live hardscrabble lives that are far shorter than their domesticated counterparts. On average, they live four to six years. They are also susceptible to death by larger animals, diseases, automobile strikes or starvation.
Samantha Embry, volunteer coordinator and animal control officer for the city of Farmington, says the Farmington Animal Shelter — like all shelters in the county — takes in many more animals than it can adopt out.
“If not adoptable, we try to find alternative resources for the cats,” Embry said. “We work with the humane society and other area nonprofits and try our best to get them adopted, if someone, for example, wants a barn cat, but euthanasia is something we don't like. But our hands are tied.”
Embry said the new Farmington shelter, expected to open in the fall, will be able to accommodate 98 cats — up from its current limit of 25 — and will have space designated solely for feral cats.
“It's a matter of education and humane treatment,” Embry said. “We want cats humanely cared for. The humane society does a great job, but we're dealing with an uphill battle taking in more animals a day than we can adopt out.
The shelter charges a $60 adoption fee for an adult cat, which covers spaying, neutering and vaccination.
“It's not their fault they're homeless,” Hardin said. “Sadly, people don't regard or treat cats as much as they might dogs, so it's an educational as well as cultural issue.”
This week, Hardin and a group of area volunteers coordinated funding and veterinary care to begin the process of trapping feral cats and taking them to be treated before releasing them.
On Wednesday, Hardin, with volunteers Kathy Vickers and Cecil and Marvin McIntyre, visited homes in Flora Vista, Farmington and Bloomfield with a goal of trapping 28 cats.
They brought dozens of humane trap cages, cans of wet food and plenty of blankets to the Farmington home of Kellie Nightingale. When they arrived in the early evening, several cats were milling around the front porch, visibly eager for dinner.
Nightingale had contacted Hardin, concerned that some of the cats were suffering. One was missing an eye, and others were young and vulnerable.
Feral kittens can be domesticated but only up to when they reach 10 or 12 weeks, Hardin said. After that, they stand little chance of being a successful adoption.
With thousands of free-roaming cats in the area, the group's work seems like an almost Sisyphean task. But Hardin believes the greatest help will come when pet owners act responsibly and have their animals spayed and neutered.
“The feral cat problem keeps growing as our populations grow,” Langenfeld said. “When we throw them out and leave them behind, we don't realize the mess we're creating. Hopefully, a change in attitude and a shift toward greater responsibility will take hold.”
For more information on spay and neuter assistance, call the Humane Society of the Four Corners at 505-334-6819.
James Fenton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.