An orange tabby cat sniffs at a trap set behind a gas station in Rockdale County. He decides to wander in, tempted by the food at the other end of the trap. He treads just a few more steps and the trap slams shut.
The cat turns in frantic circles and Jan Fields throws a towel over the cage. A big smile comes across her face.
"This is great," she said. "I've been wanting this one for a long time."
She quickly dials up a veterinary clinic on her cell phone to set up an appointment for the cat's neuter operation. It's 8:45 a.m. and she'll get the cat to the vet just under the deadline for that day.
Fields has played out this scenario behind the gas station dozens of times in her attempt to get this particular feral cat colony under control. So far, it seems to be working. She estimates that where there were once 100 cats there are now only about 30.
Fields practices trap-neuter-return as she attempts to stabilize and eventually reduce feral cat colonies. She began her efforts two years ago at the gas station site when she became disheartened by the incredible numbers of feral cats living there.
"I drove by the gas station and was shocked, truly shocked, at the number of cats hanging out at the station," said Fields, who has two dogs and is allergic to cats. "Around the pumps, around the trash cans, in the Dumpsters, in the middle of the parking lot. They were everywhere. It was so hard to see all of these stray cats, or what I thought were stray cats. I tried to figure out what to do to help instead of just calling animal control."
If Fields had taken the cats to animal control, because they were feral, they would have been euthanized. Feral cats differ from stray cats, who are domesticated and were once a pet, because they have not had regular human contact and are not adoptable.
Fields searched for alternatives and educated herself on the practice of trap-neuter-return, or TNR. In TNR, cats are trapped and then provided veterinary care which includes a spay or neuter, an ear-tip (to mark those who have been sterilized) and a rabies shot. They are then returned to the location where they were trapped.
Fields located a low-cost spay/neuter clinic and has performed TNR on more than 60 cats; she also feeds and waters the colony and provides shelter to the cats. She believes that TNR is the only viable method for addressing feral cat colonies, and that trapping and euthanizing cats is cruel to the animals and a waste of resources.
"It's not only a humane alternative but an effective alternative," Fields said. "When you fix a cat and put them back out there they protect the colony by not letting other cats in."
The Humane Society of the United States, which estimates that there are 10 to 50 million feral cats in the U.S., endorses TNR as a way to control feral cat populations. According to the Humane Society's Web site, TNR stabilizes the population of a feral cat colony, keeps other cats out (because cats are territorial by nature) and eventually reduces numbers as cats die off. The life span of a feral cat is only about two years, but cats can reproduce at four months old and have two to three litters a year.
Though Fields has financed and performed the work on the colony herself, she will begin volunteering with Altered Feral States, a non-profit designed specifically to aid the public in getting feral cat colonies under control through TNR. Altered Feral State Director and Founder Carolee McKay said she persuaded Walton County officials to change its ordinances to distinguish between feral cat caretakers and domestic cat owners, and also to recognize TNR as an option for controlling feral cats.
"It's the most fiscally responsible way to deal with the feral cat population," McKay said. "We can TNR four to five cats for the same amount it costs the county to trap and put down one cat."
Neither Rockdale nor Newton counties has a policy addressing TNR, and animal control does not have the resources to send workers out to catch cats. Residents are allowed to check out traps, catch the cats themselves and return them to animal control. Adult feral cats and most kittens cannot be adopted out and are euthanized, though not all cats euthanized at animal control are feral.
McKay said trapping and euthanizing cats from a colony is not a successful solution.
"Unless they get them all, they will never stop. They're just pouring money down a black hole," McKay said.
Altered Feral States, which serves Walton, Rockdale and Newton counties, offers the public help in TNR. Volunteers from the group will set traps; catch the cats; take them to a vet for sterilization, ear-tipping and shots; and return them to the original location. There is no cost for the service, though donations are accepted.
"These cats are here because we've abandoned domestic animals who produce in the wild and those cats grow up unsocialized and they are our responsibility, and if I can give a few minutes a week to offer a humane method of management that enables the feral cats to live out their lives and not overpopulate, then I've done the right thing," Fields said.
For more information on Altered Feral States, visit www.alteredferalstate.org or call 404-502-8587 or 770-787-4549. For low-cost spay and neuter programs, visit www.paradoxspayneuter.com or www.atlantapets.org.