BALTIMORE - When the Baltimore Community Cats Project was launched last July, animal advocates set a goal of neutering and vaccinating 10,000 city street cats in three years.
Nine months later, they’re nearly a third of the way there.
“There’s never been a program like this before,” said Jennifer Brause, executive director of the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter.
The $1 million partnership with the Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities is the latest way BARCS is working to curb the city’s cat population, part of the trap-neuter-return policy legalized five years ago.
The Humane Society of the United States pegs the number of feral cats in the country at as high as 50 million, though no one tracks the exact number in Baltimore, Brause said.
But if nobody catches and neuters them, that number will keep multiplying.
“It’s a problem in this country,” said Jeanne Lesko, co-founder of the Annapolis cat rescue group Cats ‘R Us, which gets calls daily for help trapping cats. “The more you feed them, the more babies you’re going to have.”
But animal advocates push the trap-neuter-return strategy for dealing with street cats over bans on feeding felines or euthanization. Cats are humanely trapped and taken to a veterinarian to be neutered and vaccinated, then released into the outdoors.
Through Community Cats, 3,000 Baltimore street cats have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
“TNR wasn’t legal in Baltimore prior to 2009, so a lot of people were receiving citations for feeding cats that were outside,” Brause said. “If you were feeding them, you owned them, and they were not allowed to roam outside. People thought they were doing a good deed.”
Trap-neuter-return is also used in other cities, including Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, Jacksonville, Fla. and San Francisco, according to the advocacy group Alley Cat Allies.
“The traditional approach to feral cats has been trapping and killing them, and that doesn’t work,” said Elizabeth Holtz, a staff attorney for Alley Cat Allies.
She said studies have shown that if a group of animals, like feral cats, are taken out of one area, a similar group of animals from a neighboring region will move in and take their place.
“It’s called the vacuum effect,” Holtz said.
When BARCS took over Baltimore’s animal shelter about seven years ago, the shelter saved about 250 animals a year, Brause said. Now, it saves more than 8,600, largely because of its focus on adoptions and transfers to animal rescues.
She said it’s difficult to relate that increase to TNR, though she expects the Community Cats program to lead to a decrease in euthanizations.
“Those 3,000 cats would have probably come into the shelter,” she said.
The Baltimore Community Cat Project targets three types of cats. Feral cats are considered wild animals, while community cats are cats without owners who live outdoors. Strays are cats that are found outside and may have owners, or they may not, Brause said.
BARCS uses ear-tipping to identify cats that have already been through the TNR program. When the cat is under anesthesia to be spayed or neutered, the tip of the left ear is surgically clipped.
Animal advocates say TNR is preferable to a feeding ban, which they say can lead cats to roam further in search of food and can actually increase calls to local Animal Control officers.
“There’s no denying a sterilized, vaccinated cat is better than the alternative,” said Laura M. Nirenberg, legislative attorney for cat initiatives for the Best Friends Animal Society.
During the 2014 General Assembly session, Sens. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s, and Norman Stone, D-Baltimore, introduced a bill that would have pre-empted local policies prohibiting caregivers from providing food or medical treatment for unowned, free-roaming cats. It was cross-filed with legislation in the House.
Neither piece of legislation made it out of committee, a fact Nirenberg attributes to a busy session.
She hopes to lobby for the legislation in future years.
“Criminalizing kindness is bad public policy,” she said.
READ MORE: Hunt on for feral cats
In 2013, the General Assembly passed a bill to encourage low-income residents to get their pets spayed or neutered by providing low-cost vouchers for the surgery and making competitive grants available to animal shelters and rescue groups.
“When the cats reproduce, they end up roaming the streets, and they have kittens after kittens after kittens,” said Benson, who co-sponsored the spay/neuter bill. “It really is a problem, especially in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County.”
Bans on feeding feral cats have been challenged successfully before. Three summers ago, a judge in Prince George’s County Circuit Court ruled the county’s Animal Control officers couldn’t issue warnings or penalize people for feeding feral cats.
A proposed ban on feeding stray and feral cats in York, Pa. was tabled this month after opposition from residents.
“I argue it’s a violation of civil liberties,”