Three years after the City of El Paso switched from its policy of euthanizing feral cats to instead supporting a trap-neuter-return program, El Pasoans are finding ways to coexist with community cats.
Community cats, or feral cats, are ownerless cats that live outdoors. They make their homes, often in small colonies, in neighborhoods. While some can be friendly towards people, most are not socialized and cannot be adopted.
“The cats are our neighbors, we just have to learn to live with them,” said Patti Hack, director of the Cats Spay/Neuter program at the Humane Society of El Paso.
In 2016, El Paso Animal Services discontinued its practice euthanizing feral cats. It now runs a program to vaccinate and neuter or spay the cats that are captured by volunteer groups and residents. The city pays local veterinarians for their services. The cost can run $50-$80 per cat.
Ramon Herrera, Marketing and Public Engagement Manager for El Paso Animal Services, said that for fiscal year 2018 City Animal Services paid about $230,000 to treat and release 4,627 community cats.
Herrera said that under the previous euthanasia model, Animal Services housed the cats in their shelter for a three-day holding period. The city paid about $60 per animal to house and care for the cats during the holding period. In addition, the city incurred costs to pick up the cats and then deliver them to a landfill after they had been euthanized.
In 2014, the peak year of the euthanasia program, El Paso Animal Services euthanized 9,543 cats and spent about $573,000 just to house and care for the cats during their holding period, Herrera said.
“Year after year after year we were euthanizing and euthanizing thousands and thousands of cats, and that didn’t solve the problem of the homelessness of the cats,” Hack said.
She explained the problem continued because of the “vacuum effect” where, as soon as one colony of cats is removed, another moves into its place and reproduces.
The Trap, Neuter, Return strategy
In the community cat program, however, cats are returned to their original locations and they protect their neighborhoods from invasion from other ferals due to their territorial nature.
While some El Pasoans question the idea of returning the cats, both the Humane Society and advocacy group Sun City TNR maintain that a trap, neuter, return strategy is not only the best way to reduce the feral cat population, but it is also the most humane.
“The purpose for returning the cats is that is their home,” said Terry Guerra, secretary of Sun City TNR. “It is against the law to trap them and dump them in other areas because basically that is a death sentence.”
Sun City TNR, which previously operated under the name Sun City Cats, is a non-profit organization that partners with the Humane Society and El Paso Animal Services to carry out the community cat program.
Sun City TNR organizes groups of volunteers to trap feral cats that have been reported to them. They help to educate the public on the importance of spaying and neutering, and on the benefits of TNR and community cats.
Once the cats have been returned to their outdoor homes, Sun City TNR further educates residents on how to be colony managers and care for community cats.
Guerra said a universal sign that a cat has been through the TNR program is having its ear tipped.
“This helps to assure that we’re not accidentally trapping the same cats over and over again,” Guerra said.
Sun City TNR currently owns 125 traps and estimates that they are able to trap and “fix” 3,200 cats per year. In partnership with City Animal Services they sponsor a monthly mass veterinary clinic where 100 cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
Even at those numbers, the group admits it is struggling to keep up with the large volume of feral cats in El Paso due to years of cats roaming freely and reproducing year-round thanks to El Paso’s warm climate.
Neighbors working together
While Sun City TNR serves all of El Paso county, some neighborhoods are taking it upon themselves to trap and neuter or spay the cats in their own communities.
Bob and Carolyn Niland, owners of Camelot Corporate Condominiums, started a community cat program for their gated community in 2012 after receiving numerous reports from residents of feral cats and kittens roaming the property.
“It got to the point when we went out to take trash out at night and put it in the dumpster, cats would jump out,” Bob Niland said.
The Nilands read up on solutions and found out about other communities that ran TNR programs. Over the following months, they formed a “feral cat committee” in their community that worked as a team to catch the cats.
In total the Nilands trapped 37 cats on their property, including 14 kittens. They socialized the kittens and adopted them out, and spayed or neutered the adults before releasing them back onto the property.
Niland said that residents at Camelot have embraced the program and share in caring for their community cats. The cats roam as they please around the property. Some spend their days lounging in resident’s yards or even napping inside homes that they are welcomed into, although most still keep their distance from people.
“Some of the cats have adopted (the residents),” Bob Niland said.
The Nilands see how effectively community cats at Camelot keep other ferals off the property. In the seven years since they initiated the program, they’ve only had to trap two new cats.
While some El Pasoans express concerns that free-roaming cats may draw predator animals to their neighborhoods, Hack said there are preventative measures that can be taken. This includes feeding the cats at set times during the day and only leaving the food out for an hour at most.
“The food is what actually attracts predators,” she said.
The Nilands said that the community cats at Camelot had not attracted any additional predator animals, despite the property’s location against the mountains, because the feeding of the cats is closely monitored. Instead, the cats have decreased the number of rodents and pests in their community.
“They haven’t created additional problems that wouldn’t be there, or greater, without the feral cat program,” Bob Niland said.
The Nilands pointed out that it’s now easier than ever to start a neighborhood TNR program because so many more resources, including Sun City TNR, exist than when the program at Camelot was started.
The key to success, they stressed, is teamwork among the community.
“This program can definitely be successful,” Carolyn Niland added. “It’s not only important for the health of the cats but for the health of your community.”
Rachel Haddad, a volunteer coordinator with Sun City TNR, said that El Pasoans need to be patient and allow the TNR program the time it needs to have the desired impact on the number of free roaming cats in the Borderland.
“This isn’t a problem that occurred overnight, so it’s not going to get fixed overnight either,” she said.
For more information on the community cat program, or to volunteer as a trapper, Sun City TNR can be reached through theiror Instagram .