Fur flies over controversial feral cat release program

by Suzanne Leigh

When Tom and Terry O'Connell reported a feral cat in the backyard of their Sunset District home to the San Francisco SPCA, the couple was ruffled by the animal nonprofit's response. The SPCA told the O'Connells, both retired city employees, that they would provide a cage to trap the feral cat, have it neutered at its clinic and then release it back to the couple's yard, where it would continue to access food from neighboring areas.

The O'Connells reluctantly agreed to have the cat returned to their yard after it had been neutered, but they made it clear they would not feed it.

"Had the feral cat been a dog, they wouldn't have suggested sending it back to a resident's backyard," says Terry O'Connell, who says she is "not a cat person," but has donated to the SPCA for about 20 years. "It seems very irresponsible. Either the animal should be found a new home or put to sleep. The SPCA talks about the thousands of feral cats it neuters, without mentioning that some cats are just tossed back into residents' yards."

The O'Connells' concern is shared by many residents, who complain about feral cats' nocturnal yowling and screeching, scavenging for food and health and safety risks to humans and birds. There have been reports of heated exchanges between exasperated residents and SPCA staffers, neighborhood rifts among those who feed feral cats and those who regard them as pests, as well as harassment of volunteers who care for them.

These issues are not new to Linda Fleming, a longtime feral cat-trapper, who feeds cat colonies and together with her seven-year-old son Justin socializes kittens of feral mothers so they can be adopted.

"People complain that feral cats are dirty, noisy and attack people - but that isn't quite correct," says Fleming, a former criminal prosecutor who currently works as a director of operations for a training company.

By definition, feral cats are unsocialized and fearful of humans, preferring to remain under the radar until nighttime, she says. "They don't attack unless they're cornered."

Unlike dogs, cats bury their feces and do not confine their bathroom habits to one spot. Cats, even ferals, take pride in keeping their coats clean and a dirty cat is a red flag indicating illness, says Fleming, who lives in the Sunset.

"It's true that unspayed cats - feral or not - are noisy at night when females are in heat and males fight to mate with them. But this is a good argument for spaying all cats," she says.

Fleming, together with Mary Ann Buxton, a Richmond District resident and coordinator of the SPCA's feral cat program, and John "Rocky" Rockwell, a Sunset resident and airline pilot, are proponents of the controversial "TNR" policy - trap, neuter and return, which they say is the best means of curtailing the population, improving the health of existing ferals and making them less aggressive. Before releasing a feral cat, the tip of one ear is removed during spay surgery to prevent repeat TNRs.

The three volunteers return neutered ferals to their cat colonies where they feed them - or to backyards, such as the O'Connells,' where they have access to nearby food sources.

Fleming's experience with TNR indicates the policy is effective, "unlike euthanizing ferals at the request of residents," she says, which would result in new feral cats moving into the area.

In 1997, Fleming started feeding a feral cat colony in Golden Gate Park. "It was initially populated by maybe 60 cats, but thanks to TNR, it was reduced to 21 and was eventually down to just three," she says.

Buxton's program is responsible for neutering approximately 1,000 feral cats each year, of which around 20 are euthanized due to medical reasons. She has been feeding feral colonies since 1993 after noticing "a group of skinny teenage cats scavenging through restaurant garbage cans." She continues to feed four of those former teenagers, who are now "well-fed, healthy, much older cats," and also manages seven cat colonies and fosters feral moms and their kittens.

Like Buxton, Rockwell is frustrated by intolerance toward cats and specifically ferals, which he attributes to the perception that "unlike working dogs, they do not have any real value, apart from rodent control."

This hostility is fueled by misconceptions, says Rockwell.

"A common one is that cats are a menace to birds, but they are way down on the list of real dangers. Far behind habitat loss, pollution and other birds," he said.

Buxton agrees and believes better information could correct public misperceptions. As for those critics, like the O'Connells, who believe the SPCA's TNR policy is irresponsible, Buxton is unequivocal: "TNR should not be confused with dumping an unwanted pet outdoors in the belief that it will thrive. Is TNR optimal for all feral cats? No. But accusations of irresponsibility need to be directed to the appropriate perpetrators: owners who fail to neuter their pets, or those who decide they don't want them anymore and force them into a feral existence by abandoning them."