Most environmental studies and biology students learn this within their first few classes: Every ecosystem has a species-specific carrying capacity. This means that every place can host a limited population of one animal based on the amount of resources that the ecosystem has and can regenerate for that animal species. Once the species is overpopulated, it can cause big issues for other animals and for themselves, including over-feeding, disease, and species extinction.
At Hiram, Veticus, a club dedicated to students pursuing a degree in veterinary practices, has begun a process to keep the feral cat population in Hiram at healthy levels.
“Cats have been living outside for thousands of years, and it’s only been in the last century that cats have come inside, due to the invention of cat litter. The Hiram ferals are perfectly content to live outside, as that’s all they know,” states Emily Yeckley ’19, president of Veticus and a neuroscience major on the pre-vet track.
However, too much of a cute and fluffy thing is too much of a cute and fluffy thing.
“Feral cats actually pose a lot of risks to the environment. They kill a lot of small animals. They’ve caused extinctions of bird and reptiles species. They can decline an area’s population density of a lot of small animals, and they are heavy competitors for food. They are also vectors for certain human-borne disease like rabies and toxoplasmosis,” adds Hannah Bennett ’19, a biology major with an educational licensure at Hiram College and the vice president of the Environmental Action Crew from Hiram, Ohio.
“Trying to adopt out the cats would be a disaster, and cruel for the cats. The outdoors is their home, and most of them are terrified of humans and would never be good candidates for adoption. The traditional approach to dealing with feral cats is extermination. This fails, however, because of the vacuum effect and simple population pressure—if you take cats out of an environment, other cats will just move in,” explains Yeckley.
Therefore, the club has settled on the “Trap Neuter Release Project”, or TNR for short, as the solution.
“Everyone wanted to do something about [the cats], but up until this year, no one had. Last year, Jenni Heid and I started seriously discussing how Veticus could help. TNR was chosen as hands down the safest and most effective way to help improve the lives of these cats. I started to research how to set up a TNR program here in Hiram, and with the help of One-of-a-Kind pet shelter and Toby Franks, Founder of The Together Initiative for Ohio’s Community Cats and Serves on the Board of Director for Spay Neuter Ohio, we were able to put together a plan and protocol. So far we’ve trapped and spayed 5 females,” explains Yeckley.
She continues: “If there are ‘x’ amount of resources, there will always be ‘x’ amount of a population, especially because these cats don’t have any obvious predators here. This is why TNR is so important: because we are returning the cats we trap back to their home and aren’t re-locating them. Over time, this will result in a healthier, vaccinated and flea treated community of cats.
“Really for this to be effective, we would have to capture 71% of the cat population to actually reduce their numbers gradually through sterilization. One of the hopes is that we can continue this year to year to get the percentage that we need to drop the population. Every cat caught so far is female, which is really important. If there is a female that is not sterilized, a male will find her when she goes into heat because her pheromones can be smelled from far away. It’s actually really good that we have found only females so far,” says Bennett.
Stephanie Cipa ’21 and Alexis Polcawich ‘21 have also been a big part of this project, and Hiram community member, Kate McDermott, is providing shelter for the cats before and after surgery.
So, how do these students safely capture and release a feral cat?
First, a feeding area is established. A controlled amount of food is placed within it, not giving so much that pests will be attracted. The cats are fed only in daylight or evening hours in the same place and same day for one to two weeks before the capture. Once this process is established, the food is kept away for 24 hours. Then, wet food is placed inside the cage to attract the ferals. Cardboard and newspaper is lined along the bottom of the traps to protect the cat’s paws, and a towel is thrown over once one is captured to reduce his/her stress.
After a feline is caught, he/she is held for one night before and one night after surgery to ensure the cat’s health. When ready, the cage is placed back at the trapping site and the towel is pulled halfway off to reorient the animal to its environment. Then, the feline is released into the wild with the hope that the ecosystem will be repaired over time with each cat that goes through TNR.