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Students advocate for policy reversal:

Helena Guan

Mills College students are advocating for the administration to reverse its current policy of dealing with the feral cat population on campus.

Senior Caitlin Strom-Martin is currently spearheading the effort to get all cats on campus trapped, spayed or neutered and brought back to campus to live out their lives.

The process, known as TNR (trap, neuter, return) is widely regarded as the most effective method of controlling feral cats. Volunteers first trap feral cats, take them to get spayed or neutered and receive any urgent medical attention, and then release them in their previous location, where they are cared for on a daily basis.

Non-profits in the East Bay, including Fix Our Ferals and the Feral Cat Foundation, support the practice for being the most effective way to minimize feral cat overpopulation.

Strom-Martin created an online petition entitled “Save the Mills College Cats – Promote TNR” through the Care 2 Petitionsite, on Sept. 23, 2008.

By National Feral Cat Day on Oct. 16 the petition garnered 814 signatures.

As of Oct. 23, the petition had 832 signatures from Mills students and people across the globe.

Before that, Strom-Martin created a Facebook group that currently has 60 members. She said she has also contacted numerous feral cat organizations to educate herself in advocating on the cats’ behalf.

Mills’ official policy is one of trap and remove, where animals including cats are trapped and taken to animal shelters. “We do it humanely,” said Interim Associate Vice President for Campus Planning and Facilities Barbara Haber. “They’re not taken to the slaughterhouse.”

Brent Tolliver of B & M Trapping is hired by the College for live animal removals, and said he has been trapping animals at Mills for about a decade. He said the current feral cat population at Mills poses no issue, and he has not trapped a cat on campus in over a year.”When we first started here, cats were the big issue,” he said. “Now, with the cats, we don’t really have much of a problem.”

Strom-Martin said while she has documented at least 15 cats, many more live on campus.

Haber said cats are only removed if they are “creating a health and safety issue or we receive a complaint regarding an animal or related issues, such as an infestation.”

Yet she also said the College didn’t support maintaining any cats on campus for both safety and environmental concerns. “What has happened to the natural animal population is that they’ve been driven away. Some of our smaller birds and things like that are no longer able to live here, even though we’ve got the creek and the lake and other habitats that would be perfect for them,” she said. “And so that’s a real issue for us as we work really hard to restore the land that we’re responsible for providing stewardship for.”

Part of such work includes plans to reintroduce the once-abundant quail population on campus within three years. But Karen Maggio, assistant vice president for Campus Facilities and Building Maintenance said the cats would threaten such efforts.

Tolliver decides where cats are taken once trapped. He said because he once worked in animal control, staff at shelters such as Oakland Animal Services give more “priority” to animals he brings in from Mills.

He and Haber both said many of the feral cats are adopted into homes.

Renee Jadushlever, associate vice president for Library and Technology, adopted Tuxedo, a feral kitten from Mills’ campus in 2005. “He was an adorable black and white long hair,” she said, that was “very cute, but obviously malnourished.”

A local vet said the cat would be fine with kids. “My children adore him,” she said in an e-mail.

Yet Strom-Martin said she believes truly feral cats are often killed because they can not be rehabilitated. “They’re basically wild, and they’re part of the ecosystem like a squirrel or a bird,” she said.

Strom-Martin said she spoke with Pat Ernesto, the administrative assistant for Campus Facilities, last March. According to Strom-Martin, Ernesto told her that they are against TNR because it will increase the cats’ suffering, and because they carry parasites like fleas. She supported adopting them out to homes instead.

“The hope that all of these animals will somehow get homes in what are overcrowded shelters anyways, kind of struck me as ignorant and lazy as far as policies go,” Strom-Martin said. “It just bothers me on a fundamental level that the College is either ignoring the problem or actively taking a role in destroying animals.”

Jadushlever said in her case, it was a happy ending. “However, there are many other examples of feral cats on campus that did not end in a happy adoption,” she said.

Strom-Martin, who will be graduating from Mills at the end of the semester, said cats will continue to breed if they are not fixed. Plus, she said, “management of them by killing or forcibly removing never really tends to work because there’s what’s called the vacuum effect, in which a population’s been removed, another population comes in to take its place.”

Tolliver calls it a “permanent stationary situation,” and said that “we’re never going to get rid of all the cats.”

According to Strom-Martin, fixed feral cats do exist on campus, where they are regularly fed and managed by volunteers. Volunteers want the details to remain secret to protect them from possible removal. “It would be comprising their safety,” she said.

Haber said she would be willing to speak with any individuals interested in maintaining TNR colonies on campus. But she said it might be problematic to find year-round caregivers for the animals, especially on a college campus where students leave for break.

“There’s got to be people that are able to pay for veterinary services when they need them, keep their shots up, those types of things to keep them healthy because the foundational concept of a trap, neuter and release program is colony management,” she said.

Strom-Martin said based on the number of people she’s spoken with, and the evidence she’s seen from other colleges, it’s possible. “If Stanford can do it, if the University of Texas can do it, if Saint Mary’s can do it, we can do it. We’re small. There’s enough volunteer interest that it could be achieved,” she said.

Around campus, staff members and students feed cats, in direct violation of Facilities’ policy of not giving food to animals.

Tolliver said that once a cat population is under control, feeding them does lessen the chance that they will destroy other wildlife.

Strom-Martin said cats, although hunters, are opportunistic in this way.