There are tens of thousands of feral and stray cats in Mecklenburg County.
Some view these cats as a nuisance and threat to wildlife, while local advocates argue cats of all kinds – domesticated, feral and stray – deserve to be treated humanely.
Oct. 16 is even National Feral Cat Day.
A feral cat is free-roaming, born in the wild, without an owner. Stray cats are lost or abandoned.
A female feral cat can have up to three litters of kittens a year, which is how the population can quickly get out of control, said Melissa Knicely, communications director for Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department’s Animal Care and Control.
They’re spotted frequently near restaurant Dumpsters, around apartment complexes and in the woods behind grocery and convenience stores, searching for food.
“Almost any restaurant we go to, there are kitties, Dumpster kitties, then another tom cat comes along and they reproduce and there’s another family,” said Knicely. “It’s just a constant cycle.”
Animal Care and Control dealt with nearly 7,600 cats in fiscal year 2011, and 1,263 of those were feral. Because most feral cats aren’t adoptable, many had to be euthanized.
Animal Care and Control took in 143 feral cats in fiscal year 2011 from south Mecklenburg zip codes.
“A lot of people do complain to us,” said Knicely. “There’s not a leash law on cats. They get on their cars, scratch their cars and go to the bathroom in their gardens they pay a lot of money to get maintained.
“And the other side says we have responsibility to these cats.”
Local volunteer advocacy group Friends of Feral Felines hosted a meeting for about 35 people at the Morrison Regional Library recently to discuss the county’s feral cat population.
About 35 concerned citizens, rescue groups and representatives from CMPD Animal Care and Control attended.
Co-director of Friends of Feral Felines Ann Gross works with feral cats in North and South Carolina, finding the best, most humane way, to manage cat overpopulation.
The group has a number of “caretakers,” or people who bring food and water daily to feral cat colonies. Some colonies have up to 100 cats.
Friends of Feral Felines argues that the overpopulation will ebb as more cats get spayed and neuter surgeries that prohibit reproduction.
She lauds the practice of “Trap, Neuter and Return.” With TNR, people humanely trap feral cats and take them to a shelter or veterinarian’s office, where they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies, and have their ears clipped for identification. The trapper then releases the feral cats into the wild.
The idea behind TNR is to decrease the feral cat reproduction rate, while allowing cats to die natural deaths, instead of being caught and euthanized, which costs taxpayer money. “We’re always looking for new ways to help these euthanasia numbers,” said Knicely. “There aren’t enough people out there looking to adopt cats compared to the quantity we have.”
The Humane Society of Charlotte charges $50 to spay a female cat and $30 to neuter a male cat. Rescue groups such as Friends of Feral Felines, get a 10 percent discount and don’t have to make an appointment, said Shelly Moore, director of the Humane Society of Charlotte.
Experts estimate there are 50 million to 70 million feral and stray cats in the United States. This is the same number as are owned and spend all or part of their time indoors, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
But contrary to what people think, feral cats aren’t usually carriers for rabies, in the same way that raccoons and bats are, Knicely said.
She has only seen two rabies-positive cats this year, and they were both euthanized.
Suzie Gilbert, author of “Flyaway,” a book about her experiences as a bird rehabilitator, told the New York Times in 2009 that she has seen firsthand the damage cats do to birds.
“People who wouldn’t dream of taking a shotgun and blasting a bird out of a tree, let their cats outside, which accomplishes the exact same thing but in a slower and more horrifying way,” said Gilbert.
But representatives from the national feral cat advocacy group Alley Cat Allies, disagree, arguing that the No. 1 threat to birds and wildlife is humans’ impact on the environment, not cats.
“The thing is, feral cats have traditionally been seen or put in a bad light as far as the community, and this (TNR) is hope for them – that they can live peacefully as long as they are sterilized and vaccinated and have the proper care,” said Gross. “We don’t have to euthanize them all.”