Green Guide

Trap-Neuter-Return program helps keep stray cat numbers low

Posted October 9

— The way Harold and Gwen Fenhaus tell it, Ms. Crabby Pants, a stray cat with muted colors and a bad eye, started it all.

"She's been around for three or four years," explained Harold Fenhaus, 60, on a recent early morning from a recliner in the living room of his home on Lilac Lane, just east of Canyon Lake Drive.

"Oh at least," interjected his wife, Gwen Fenhaus, 57, from across the room.

"She looks like a train wreck," Harold added.

"She does. She growls and she hisses. She's a scary girl. Yeah, we thought she was dead," said Gwen, before explaining that Ms. Crabby Pants disappeared from the neighborhood for two months while they trapped the other area stray cats and brought them to a local veterinarian to be neutered.

Two days after they returned the traps to the Black Hills Humane Society, though, Ms. Crabby Pants returned triumphantly, a hamburger patty dangling from her mouth. It was then that they realized Ms. Crabby Pants was perhaps more wily than they had originally thought.

"It's not hard to catch a cat," Harold said. "They like tuna fish, you know?"

But Ms. Crabby Pants is different.

"I don't know that we'll ever be able to catch her," Harold concluded. "She's a pretty smart cookie. She pretty much is the one who started all of this."

By Gwen's estimation, they've been feeding the area stray — or feral — cats for the past four or five years. This year, though, has been different.

"Over this last year, it really just exploded," she said of the stray cat population, which started at three or four before ballooning to almost 20 this year.

As they spoke from the living room, around 10 cats and kittens huddled around small, individual piles of cat food on the back porch, quietly crunching on the small nuggets.

"This year we had four females that had litters," Harold said. "We decided we had to do something otherwise we're going to have 100 cats next year."

So, after talking with a nearby neighbor they contacted Dr. Dean Falcon of the All Creature Veterinary Hospital. Together, they decided to begin a Trap-Neuter-Return program.

The program is simple: trap the cats using a basic metal cage with food at one end and a trap door on the other, bring them to Falcon for spaying or neutering, and then return the groggy felines back to the neighborhood before releasing them, the Rapid City Journal reported . It takes less than a day, though the Fenhauses sometimes keep the cats in kennels for a day or two as they recover from the operation.

"The idea has been out there forever but it's hard to convince people to do it because they're worried about the animals coming back in," Falcon said about the program in a Journal interview.

Originally, the Fenhauses planned to neuter the kittens and release them back into the area while also capturing the older cats and handing them over to the Black Hills Humane Society. Falcon, though, quickly pointed out the fault with that idea.

"The way it works is that if you leave animals that are spayed or neutered, they prevent new ones from coming into the new territory," he said. "By keeping the cats there, they protect their own territory and kind of provide a stable environment."

The older cats tend to fend off any unwelcome intruders so the older cats, like Ms. Crabby Pants, remained and the younger ones were neutered or spayed. For his part, Falcon provides the operations at about one-third of the typical cost, which covers the cost of equipment.

"We're here for the community and anything we can do," he said, adding that he hopes to help other neighborhoods implement the program in the future. "We want to give back."

Falcon also explained the importance of controlling the feral cat population early in the process. At about four to six months cats can begin to have litters, averaging two to three litters per year and four to eight cats per litter. In four years, one mating couple can and their descendants can create a cat population in excess of 2,000.

"Once it starts multiplying, the numbers are just astronomical how fast the population will explode," said Harold Fenhaus, citing similar figures.

"We like to have them here, but we don't want them to take over," Gwen added when asked what eventually led them to implement the program.

Plus, Harold hates snakes.

"At first, I didn't like the cats around," he said. "Then one day I saw one of the female cats carrying a garter snake across the yard in her mouth. I thought, if there's something out there that can control the snake population, I will do everything I can to support that, and so that's what got us started."

He said it's been years since they've seen a mouse, too.

In the coming months, Harold and Gwen plan on building a shelter as the leaves and mercury tumble. A bed of hay and a tarp overhead will protect the cats from the frozen ground, biting wind and intermittent snowfall. And come each morning and late afternoon, small food piles will be poured atop the back porch floor. As for the Fenhaus's newfound responsibility, it doesn't sound as though they'd have it any other way.

"If you're going to make a commitment to feed any wild animal, you have to make the commitment forever," Harold said. "Once you start feeding them, it's not fair to that animal to just cut the feed off, especially in the wintertime when they need it way worse than they do in the summertime."

Gwen nodded in agreement, then added:

"How you treat and take care of your animals says a lot about who you are as a person."

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