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College looks to new policy for feral cats

Mills Campanil

Mills College is beginning to assess the feasibility of a comprehensive population management program for the 15 to 25 feral cats on campus.

The College has had a feral cat population for decades. Barb Haber, interim associate vice president for Campus Planning and Facilities, has said the cats pose a problem because they kill small wildlife and can cause health and safety risks to students.

In the past Mills has hired an animal trapping service to catch problem cats and take them to public shelters in Oakland. Because most feral cats are not tame, they are often put to sleep in shelters.

An alternative is trap-neuter-release (TNR), in which cats are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, brought back to their natural environment, and then cared for.

Proponents say it is not only a more humane approach, but because the cats are no longer able to reproduce, the colony diminishes over time. The cats are also much healthier than if left to fend for themselves.

Representatives from community organizations that work with feral cats last met with College officials on Feb. 11.

Haber said in an e-mail following the meeting that she was “extremely optimistic that we can find a workable solution for the management of the cats on the campus.”

The East Bay SPCA, Fix our Ferals, and Island Cat Resource and Adoption (ICRA)
were present to discuss both short term TNR of cats on campus and a longer term colony management program. Haber said she was working with the administration to approve both items.

It was a follow up meeting to the one Christina McWhorter, Phaedra Gauci and Merry Bates, of Alameda-based ICRA, held on Jan. 23.

McWhorter, the Botanical Garden/Greenhouse coordinator, and Gauci, an administrative assistant for Housing Management and Dining Services, are part of the Native Habitat Restoration Subcommittee within the Sustainability Committee.

While McWhorter acknowledged the campus would probably never be free of feral cats, she said “we need to have better colony management.” She said she has seen birds killed by cats in the botanic garden, and the quail is vulnerable in particular because it is a ground-dwelling species.

McWhorter said the College is still assessing what habitat would be best for the quail, but is planning to create habitat for its reintroduction.

A possible solution is moving the cats from one territory to another using the location of feeding stations.

McWhorter said from what she knew from experts, “It can be done but it’s very difficult.”

Haber said it worked at Stanford University, home to a very successful volunteer-run feral cat management plan, and thought it could work here too.

She said no area would be entirely free from the occasional cat visitor, “but we can certainly move them around the campus so that their normal roaming wouldn’t include spaces where we can encourage the native wildlife to come back.”

Carole Miller, who co-founded the Stanford Cat Network in 1989, the first campus TNR program of its kind in the nation, said moving colonies is not an ideal option.

She said the cats choose areas where there is shelter, protection from the weather, predators and other hazards. “When humans mess with that, they are preempting the good decisions on the part of the cats in the first place,” she said.

Stanford also has an established quail population, and Miller said claims that cats kill wildlife are often exaggerated. More often it is building projects that squeeze out wildlife, she said.

Indeed, McWhorter said she has heard quail were last on campus before the Interstate 580 freeway was built in the 1950s.

Miller also said caregivers cannot control where cats go when they are not eating, but that they can move feeding stations over time. Feeding bowls are moved to a short distance away, where they are still visible to the cat from the previous location, and then left there for several days before moving the bowls a bit more.

About three weeks ago, the College ordered Founders Commons dining staff to stop feeding cats, in an effort to move them from the area. Instead, the cats began entering the kitchen looking for food. Haber said she called in B & M Trapping, but that none of the cats were actually trapped.

Miller said that cats will go looking for food if they are used to being fed. “Most cats are lousy hunters,” she said, adding that as domesticated animals, they fare much better if cared for and monitored by humans.

She said the cats at Stanford have developed relationships with their caregivers, knowing when it is feeding time and recognizing their vehicles.

Currently, volunteers, who keep a low profile, have set up feeding stations for the cats on campus. Before she graduated Mills last semester, Caitlin Strom-Martin spearheaded an effort to bring TNR to Mills and organized for volunteers to care for the cats.

She reached out to Bay Area feral cat organizations, including ICRA, coordinating with them to write letters in support of TNR to the College on her behalf.

On Nov. 4, she said she helped to secretly trap three cats near Founders, who underwent TNR. A cat near Rothwell Center was trapped a week later. All the cats have a notch in their ear to indicate they have been spayed or neutered.

She held a meeting in November with Haber, McWhorter and Kathy Condron from Fix Our Ferals.

McWhorter said the outcome of the meeting was for Strom-Martin and the community organizations to basically “put together a proposal.”

Haber said the process of understanding what a healthy cat management program at Mills would look like has “taken a little longer than anybody had thought.”

Mills officials say it is crucial to have a volunteer willing to actively recruit for more volunteers-outside of students, who are often transient-to develop a comprehensive program that will be staffed year-round.

Haber said the goal is to “get as many cats as possible spayed and neutered before spring, when we could have the potential for a population explosion.”

The campus lawyer and College officers still must approve any program that is constructed.

“My sense is that the administration as a whole is fine with that as long as it addresses the concerns that they have for the environment,” Haber said. “I wouldn’t be spending the amount of time I’m spending on this if I didn’t think it was implementable.”

Both Haber and McWhorter stress that it is really the volunteers who will determine how well a TNR plan turns out.

“The success of a TNR program really relies squarely on the shoulder of volunteers who are running it,” McWhorter said, “who are well-organized and have good relations with organizations in the community.”

“It still remains to be seen,” she added.

Miller said, “I hope that Mills will ultimately accept the humane aspects of such a program,” adding that there are volunteers who care a lot about the feral cats on campus and just need the chance to set up their program.

This is an updated version of the article that appears in print.