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No-kill shelter has disputed definition of humane

The 21 cats are silent, more afraid than angry. Each hunkers in the rear of a wire trap cloaked with a blanket. The traps line two long tables, one for males, the other for females. At 9 a.m. Thursday, all are in queue for spaying and neutering. By Sunday, will be returned to the sites of their colonies.

This is the rented warehouse of Forgotten Cats, a year-old nonprofit and Felicia Cross' contribution to the perpetual struggle to curb the population of feral cats. Cross of Centreville, is as cautious about revealing its location as the felines are of humans. Among the dozen Delaware organizations that focus on feral cats, Cross' guarded disposition is common. Most are small operations that rely on volunteers and generous veterinarians to trap neuter or spay, and return cats - a method known as TNR - to the countless colonies that grow exponentially throughout the state, mostly near housing communities.

"Think of it as a faucet with a sink overflowing," Cross says. "You can mop the floor all day long and you're not gonna catch up. All you have to do is turn off the faucet. That's what we're trying to do. But there are a lot of faucets"

The volunteers' concerns are rooted in their sometimes tempestuous relationships with the state's larger animal welfare organizations: The Delaware and Kent County SPCA's, and the Delaware Humane Association. All champion humane methods of population control. Their definitions of what are humane, however, often differ. Two philosophies-the no-kill TNR method and the traditional adopt-or-euthanize solution are warring.

Cross, 44, is a civil engineer who for the past eight years has been a stay-at-home mom. She was a construction manager when, in 1991, she found a kitten on the site she supervised. She named him Cory, and he lived out his life with the Cross family.

While Cross was living in Ireland in 1999, someone asked her to help catch a few feral cats. After about six months, she started a branch of Cat Action Trust, based in England. Her branch in one year trapped 700 cats within a 50 mile radius.

She returned to Delaware in 2001 and wanted to continue her efforts, but neither the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals not the Humane Association had a program that fostered the TNR method on a large scale. So Cross bought a dozen traps and started what in February 2004 was incorporated as Forgotten Cats.

She's a modest woman, slight of frame. She'd be content with an anonymous role. The success of Forgotten Cats, she says, is a product of its volunteers. Four core volunteers donate more than 40 hours a week to trapping and caring for animals. Another 10 to 15 people trap part time or offer foster care.

The group sterilizes at least 100 cats each month. At least 20 of those are put up for adoption. The goal, Cross says, is to sterilize 500 a month. Forgotten Cats funds surgery by asking for private donations and for funds from residents who request service for colonies of cats.

In the 2 1/2 years since Cross began her local effort, Forgotten Cats has helped secure more than 3000 sterilizations, Cross says. Last year, the Humane Association sterilized 2428 cats. The Delaware SPCA, according to its website, sterilized 2348 animals (cats among them) in 2004. Whereas the more renowned groups have the majority of those cats delivered to their doors by owners or caretakers, Forgotten Cats and similar groups throughout the state shuttle personal vehicles loaded with traps and cat food to the sites of the colonies.

"They're willing to go trap the cats and have the surgeries done and bring them back" to where they were captured, said Kevin Usilton, executive director of the Humane Association. "That's a service that no one else is providing."

Usilton commends Cross' achievements, and he supports the TNR method, but he says people should work with existing agencies rather than start their own. Usilton thinks partnerships with strengthen with time. Stilted communications, though, makes the prospect unlikely in the immediate future. "It's very unusual for there to be cooperation and dialogue among animal organizations," Usilton says. "They're not 'people' people."

NEW APPROCHES Philosophies clashed in July when members of several downstate animal groups met with John Caldwell, executive director of the Delaware SPCA, in Dewey Beach, Vivian Barry of the Historic Lewes Cats Society, according to a July 16 article in the Cape Gazette, called for Caldwell's resignation.

The advocacy groups had - without financial assistance from the SPCA - sterilized and vaccinated cats that had been earmarked for euthanasia in SPCA facilities. Several of the groups claimed their work bolstered the SPCA's adoption numbers and merited reimbursement. "We simply cannot do that," Caldwell was quoted as saying. "It's not possible. Their mission is rescuing; ours isn't."

For Caldwell to rescue an animal is to save one in distress. The SPCA, as its name indicates, is charged with preventing cruelty to animals. And while Caldwell laments the euthenizations that are lawful after three business days of care at the association, he questions the quality of a feral cat's life.

"I just don't totally agree with their philosophy," Caldwell says. "I think pets need to be in a loving home. They need human contact. ... Their rebuttal is, 'At least the cat's alive.' But my response is, 'What kind if life is that?' "

Becky Robinson, national director of Alley Cat Allies, based in Bethesda, Md., hopes to change the minds of people who share Caldwell's sentiments.

"It's kind of like saying there shouldn't be homeless people," she says. "The reality is there are millions of these cats out there. ... We have an antiquated animal control municipal system in this country. We have cities and towns that are charged with whatever laws they're supposed to enforce, which usually are to protect the public from free-roaming animals. It's never really been a priority that we help cats."

Robinson says that the trap-and-kill approach is not organized, systematic or comprehensive, noting that people are less likely to make a call that could result in the euthenization of animals than they are to help care for a nearby colony after cats have been returned. The system "is not a solution," she says. "It's a Band-Aid approach at best.

"One can only imagine how many millions of dollars are spent by individuals who are caring for these cats," Robinson says. "Our real goal is to change the way animal agencies approach the problem."

TNR's National Influence Alley Cat Allies' Web site (www.alleycat.org) lists seven states with at least one area that has publicly funded TNR programs, including New Jersey. Thirteen states (not including Delaware), the site says, have privately funded groups. And four states each have at least one joint venture.

An 11-year TNR project including 155 cats in 11 colonies on the University of Central Florida campus found that the method reduces populations - in January 1991, colonies ranged in size from there to 25 cats; by April 2002, every colony was smaller, with up to 5 cats.

In December, the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, and the Alliance for Philadelphia's Animals announced a goal of a no-kill Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, local groups often travel to neighboring states for reduced rates of high volume veterinary procedures.

Gail Dunning of Glasgow is president of SNAP (Spay/Neuter All Pets), based in Chesapeake City, Md. "I, as a resident of Delaware, am very embarrassed," she says, "that we have to take these cats out of state to get help."

Forgotten Cats no sterilizes 30 cats a week, and it has a back log of 70 colonies; for 50 of them, the people who contacted Forgotten Cats can't yet afford the veterinary costs.

"We get the dregs," Cross says. "If they're sick, they're ours. If they're not tame or sociable, they're ours. It's up to us to turn them into little fluffy balls of purring."

Thursday morning, two veterinarians arrive at the warehouse and report to the modest but gleaming white surgical room. A volunteer lifts the towels off the traps on the tables.

One kitten, a 4-month-old domestic longhair without a name, was spayed on Valentine's Day. Though adorable, it hisses when approached. It's going back to the Pennsylvanian who called about a colony. She plans to tame the kitten and find it a home.

"You're not only helping animals," Cross says. "You're helping people. You're helping people in desperate situations. They're torn. ... And quite frankly, what I'm doing isn't enough."

 

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