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Population controls

Volunteers, shelters, local governments join effort to control rapidly growing numbers of stray cats

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2011
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Cats of many colors pour from the woods outside Stoughton Center as a dark sedan inches down a quiet side street. Soon, it’s surrounded.

It’s 5 p.m., and dinnertime, and the group of guests appears like clockwork - fluffy and sleek, old and young, wild and not so wild - as they have every day for the three years since Nancy Hatchfield heard their cries at her office door.

Over time, the West Bridgewater resident has managed to round up all but one of these feral cats to be spayed or neutered, and vaccinated, with the help of the South Shore Humane Society. She returned them better equipped for life outside.

There’s Smudgie, Delilah, and Chloe, and 15 others she feeds twice on weekdays and once on weekends, including Grandmam, the skittish mother of many of them.

Hatchfield is not alone in her work as the population of feral cats explodes around the suburbs south of Boston, and the country. A survey by Harris Interactive shows that more than 40 percent of Americans have fed a stray cat in their lives, and one out of five has done so in the past year.

Meanwhile, animal welfare groups are stepping up their efforts to spay stray cats, while local governments are strengthening regulations for cat owners.

“Somebody has to do something,’’ Hatchfield says.

This wooded spot in Stoughton is one of an estimated 75 feral cat colonies identified by the 15-town humane society that includes Abington, Braintree, Hanover, Hanson, Hingham, Holbrook, Hull, Milton, Norwell, Quincy, Randolph, Rockland, Stoughton, Weymouth, and Whitman.

But the cat overpopulation problem stretches to all corners of the region, said society president Mary Connolly.

“People don’t get it with cats,’’ she said. “Many with household pets don’t spay them or keep them inside. And they wander a lot more than you realize. Cats can breed three times a year, beginning at about 4 months.’’

The result? An estimated 200,000 feral and abandoned cats and kittens statewide, said Alan Borgal, a 37-year veteran of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which also runs a shelter in Dedham.

Borgal suspects that in this tough economy, many pets are abandoned by owners who can no longer afford to care for them.

Ferals, also called back-door kitties and community cats, are unsocialized and can’t adjust to life in a home. “Friendlies,’’ or those who became lost or are abandoned, as well as kittens born in the wild, can be semi-feral and are more likely to adapt if caught in time.

Feral colonies stretch from Quincy and Weymouth, to a Freetown church with more than 50 cats, and exploding populations in Stoughton and Brockton, said Borgal.

“I know the shelter system,’’ he said. “And this has been a banner year for cat births.’’

The rescue league’s 30-foot spay truck makes its rounds of the region, stopping at humane societies and animal-control offices to perform as many low-priced sterilization surgeries as it can, said Borgal. The success rate is good.

“There was a colony in Dedham with 30 cats that is closed now,’’ he said, meaning the cats no longer reproduce. “And we are hitting Brockton, trying to do Plymouth and Bristol counties, and the Cape.’’

Colonies shrink when the cats have no new kittens and members wander off, or eventually die.

Another colony of three dozen cats at the Westgate Mall in Brockton has been reduced to just a handful, said Connolly. She and others also recently sponsored a spay/neuter clinic at the Holbrook Animal Control office, where rescue league staff performed surgeries on 23 feral cats and several owned by low-income residents.

Efforts to update the state’s 78-year-old animal control laws to fund training and provide a tax check-off for spay and neutering programs are moving slowly on Beacon Hill, Borgal said. Other states, such as Rhode Island, are making strides with laws that require licensing of cats as well as dogs.

Some communities, like Braintree, require people who tend to cat colonies to register them, he said. A Worcester law prohibits residents from owning more than three pets.

Connolly said cat owners, especially those in apartment complexes and mobile home parks, must be required to spay and neuter their cats, keep them inside, and implant a microchip for identification, and governments should impose more protections for cats.

Animal control officers in most towns are not mandated to handle cats unless there is “imminent danger,’’ she said, “which makes it sound like they are waiting in the bushes to attack you or drag off your children.

“Rounding cats up and taking them away to be euthanized doesn’t work,’’ she said. “We train people how to trap, and we’re all just little old cat ladies in tennis shoes.’’

No one wants to euthanize feral animals, but it sometimes has to be done if the cats are sick or have been injured in fights, Borgal said.

He also said he knows volunteers are tired, broke, frustrated, and experiencing compassion fatigue.

“I just tell everyone to focus on one cat at a time,’’ he said.

In Norwood, Janet Donohue has fed a handful of feral colonies, including a group of 20 cats near an auto body shop that is down to just one, another with two cats, and a third with six cats.

But there are probably 1,000 feral cats in Norwood alone, said Donohue and others affiliated with the Neponset Valley Humane Society, including concentrations at apartment complexes, Norwood Airport, and near a Petco animal supply store on Providence Highway.

Donahue’s mother tended a cat that lived under their house for years, and she has followed suit with two that come to her own yard.

“I just feel like these animals need help,’’ she said. “They don’t have a voice, and a lot of people don’t care. This is something I can do.’’

Judy Ambrose, president of the Neponset Valley society, agrees that “trap, neuter, and return’’ is the only answer, but still it isn’t enough. Money is scarce and the numbers of cats is increasing.

“We have managed colonies where we see it working,’’ she said. “But there are so many abandoned animals that the line with ferals is blurred.’’

Everyone who does cat rescue work has more cats than they want, said Ambrose - “I have five.’’

Back in Stoughton, the sun is setting and the temperature is dropping fast. Hatchfield will soon leave for the day and she issues a last call for food.

“Come on, guys,’’ she says, as a furry orange ball inches closer to her feet.

“Morris,’’ she says. “You are getting brave.’’

Tigger, sinewy and striped, licks the spoon used to serve food and then hops into the back seat of Hatchfield’s car. He is the tamest of them all and an obvious favorite. She regretfully shoos him out as she packs up, while several retreat to the woods, slink behind the dumpster, or linger tentatively a few feet away.

“When you love cats, you love cats,’’ she says with a sigh. Still, she said, her heart breaks.

“I lay in bed at night and think about it being 18 degrees, worrying they will freeze to death,’’ she said. “I wish I could take them all home.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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Feline facts

►There are 45 cats born for every household in the United States; with those numbers, not all cats will live in a home.

►Massachusetts is the only state in New England that doesn’t have a spay/neuter program set up by the Department of Agriculture.

►Euthanasia is the number one documented cause of death of all cats in the United States. According to a 2006 National Animal Control Association statistical survey, 66 percent of cats in shelters are killed. For feral cats, the kill rate at pounds and shelters rises to virtually 100 percent.

►Although the exact number of feral cats in this country is not known, some scientists estimate it is same as the house cat population, or about 82 million.

Sources: Alan Borgal, Alley Cats, The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy Shelter Statistics Survey, The National Animal Control Association, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals