Supporters of feral cat colony program swamp council

Supporters of the city’s feral cat colony program crowded into council chambers today to support the program.
Supporters of the city’s feral cat colony program crowded into council chambers today to support the program. mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

About 200 people, most of them apparently cat lovers, packed Columbus Council chambers Tuesday to hear a defense of the city’s Trap, Neuter, Release feral cat colony program, in the wake of recent criticism from members of council.

At a recent council meeting, Councilors Pops Barnes and Glenn Davis criticized the program, which authorizes approved “managers” to take care of colonies of feral cats. The cats are caught, spayed or neutered, examined, vaccinated and released back into the colony. Diseased cats are euthanized.

The program, which was started here in 2013, has come under fire recently because of roaming cat problems in the Sears Woods neighborhood. Neighbors there have complained about roaming cats using their yards as bathrooms and tearing up flower beds, among other nuisances.

As it turned out, the problem cats in that neighborhood were not part of the TNR program. But when those neighbors appeared before council at the recent meeting, Barnes launched into his criticism of the program. His complaint, he said, is not so much about irritating behavior, but about the colonies presenting a threat to public health. Barnes’ primary objection is the fact that captured cats are given a rabies vaccination, but not the recommended booster shot a year later.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several supporters of TNR defended it, saying it is a humane way to control cat population and does not pose a threat to public health.

Peter Wolf, an analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare group in Utah, said statistics show Barnes’ concern about rabies are unfounded. In 2009, a year Barnes cited in his earlier criticism, out of 404 cases of rabid animals in Georgia, only 16 (about 4 percent) of those were cats. Further, he said, since 1960 only two cases of humans contracting rabies from cats have been reported in the United States, and one of those was bitten while traveling in Guatemala.

Among the hundreds of thousands of cats in TNR colonies across the country, not one has ever been reported to be rabid, Wolf said.

“These programs actually mitigate risks,” Wolf said. “From a public health standpoint and a policy standpoint, these programs make really good sense.”

Two local veterinarians also spoke in support of the TNR approach. Dr. Roberta Wrighten, who works for PAWS Humane spaying and neutering cats, including TNR cats, said simple arithmetic shows that the TNR method holds down feral cat populations.

“Using myself as an example, if every two of the 1,300 cats I personally (spayed or neutered) in the last year produced 12 kittens, that would have resulted in at least 7,800 additional cats over the last year,” Wrighten said. “In other words, 7,800 additional cats with no immunity from the rabies virus would likely still be in the community.”

Barnes later repeated much of what he’d said at the meeting last month, citing a paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that states that the second booster shot for rabies is necessary for full immunization.

“The CDC is the gold standard for public health,” Barnes said. “Who doesn’t listen to the CDC?”

In the end, as the presentation was breaking up, Councilor Judy Thomas assured the visitors that eliminating the TNR program “isn’t on the table.”

“I just want to make sure that all of those folks who sent me emails, and I’ve received a lot of those over the last few weeks, and were under the impression that we were coming here today to discontinue the TNR program, that is a misconception,” Thomas said. “That is not our intent whatsoever.”

Rather, Thomas said, it is council’s intention to “take a program that works and make it better.”