Feral felines a growing problem in city

Connie Pinkerton of Grand Junction watches from the fence line as a feral cat approaches a bowl of salmon she left in a downtown Grand Junction alley. Pinkerton is trying to befriend the cats so she can trap, spay and release the felines.

The alley is silent, quieter still under a padding of snow, until the car’s headlights appear. Suddenly, from underneath a fence, around a corner and under the bellies of parked cars, an assortment of cats spills out into the roadway, their bodies silhouetted by the lights. By the time the car door opens and closes, up to 30 cats appear, some still hanging back in the shadows. All of the felines seem to know what’s going to happen next—a routine some of the cats have depended on for years.

For more than four years, Connie Pinkerton of Grand Junction has been feeding this colony of feral cats in an alley in downtown Grand Junction. The colony grew out of control, she said, when a neighbor there fed stray cats until abruptly stopping after being threatened with a citation by city code enforcement officers. These days, Pinkerton tiptoes in the darkness to feed the cats. She whispers as she talks to keep from drawing attention to herself and to keep from scaring the felines, many of which she recognizes. After building their trust, Pinkerton will trap the cats to have them spayed or neutered before returning them outdoors, an attempt to try to stop the cycle of unwanted cats.

“It used to be when I trapped, I was able to find homes for these cats, but not anymore,” she said, spooning out a gooey mixture of dry and wet cat food onto the pavement. “It’s just a huge problem.”

There are no city or county regulations against feeding feral cats. However, Pinkerton has been cited by the city for littering for her efforts.

Residents feeding stray cats is a scene that plays out every day across Grand Junction and Mesa County, according to cat lovers. Some people who feed cats follow up by trapping them to have them spayed and neutered, while others do not.

There are conflicting schools of thought over whether people should do anything about the strays.

Mesa County Animal Services officials say the department regularly receives complaints about people feeding stray cats. Cats can spray urine, dig up flower beds and eat birds.

“People don’t like the idea of having feral cats around,” said Shauna Humphreys, Mesa County Animal Services manager.  “It could be in the future we have some kind of program (for feral cats). It’s not something we have in the works.”

Residents within Grand Junction city limits can have up to three cats. Mesa County residents can have up to five pets, which can include a combination of cats and dogs.

Cats often become feral when their owners move and leave them behind. Sometimes students take on cats while in college, abandoning them when classes end. Owners failing to spay and neuter cats can cause rapid increases in feline populations.

Stray cats can be an issue in any city center, said Mark Chamberlin, a veterinarian at Animal Birth Control, 502 
28 1/2 Road. Chamberlin offers reduced-rate spay and neutering services, which proponents who trap cats regularly use.

Chamberlin said he thinks it’s best for cats to be taken care of after being spayed or neutered, and not returned to the streets.

Still, he said, having them spayed or neutered is better than doing nothing.

“It diminishes us to turn a blind eye to suffering,” he said. “There’s a feral cat problem anywhere there’s food.”

Chamberlin said he’s somewhat opposed to the concept of feeding stray cats because it may escalate cat populations. He thinks cats may be able to be trapped without regular feedings.

“Most stray cats are kind of hungry,” he said. “At the bare minimum, they need some shelter.”

The issue of feral cats may be coming to the forefront because people over the years have become more concerned with the general welfare of animals, he said.

Trapping feral cats isn’t for everyone, though. Chamberlin said he works hard to educate folks on how to do it correctly.

“While I encourage people to do it, I wouldn’t want them to rush into it,” he said. “It certainly works better when there’s not emotion in it.”

Feeding cats before trapping them often is the only way to earn their trust, said Val Mazrin, president of Cat’s League and Assistance of Western Colorado, CLAWS. The nonprofit group cares for up to 150 cats, some of which are elderly or injured, and houses about 120 felines in its shelter. The group works to earn grant dollars to reduce spay and neuter costs.

“The colonies learn who their caretakers are,” Mazrin said. “It’s the easiest way to trap them. People are not so nice to cats in general. Then feral cats have it really bad. People shoot at them, kids get at them. They definitely have a reason to be cautious.”

Trapping and following up with the spay, neuter and release method is an effective way to control the feral populations, she said.

CLAWS, however, cannot take on feral cats unless they are 12 weeks old or younger. Still, some cats considered feral can make good pets with proper care and a stable environment. Other cats that have long been feral and may seem vicious at first can learn to trust one owner.

Those cats may always be outdoor cats, thriving on a farm or in a rural area, Mazrin said.

CLAWS is centered around keeping cats from being needlessly put down. The agency and Grand Rivers Humane helps Mesa County Animal Services find homes for cats that otherwise would be euthanized.

“There’s a lot of cats (at the CLAWS shelter) but if their only alternative is to be killed, you’re between a rock and a hard place,” Mazrin said of reasons CLAWS harbors unwanted cats.

Cats, historically in Mesa County, are far more difficult to adopt out than dogs. And they are more plentiful. Mesa County’s shelters have long been bursting at the seams with cats, with black cats and older cats the most challenging to find homes for.

Mesa County Animal Services last year euthanized 2,219 animals. Of that total, 1,059 were considered unhealthy and untreatable cats, which also may be considered feral, the agency reported.

An additional 459 cats that may have been adoptable if more resources were available to rehabilitate them also were euthanized. Sixteen cats that were considered healthy and adoptable were euthanized.

Housing one animal for one year costs $58, according to Mesa County Animal Services. That price tag seems like a bargain compared to Boulder’s Humane Society, which lists costs at $345 a year to house an animal, or Denver’s Dumb Friends League’s costs, which run $316 per animal per year, according to figures obtained by Mesa County Animal Services.

In some regards, people like Pinkerton, who trap cats to have them spayed and neutered, should be thanked for doing a job that local governments haven’t tackled, Mazrin said.

“Obviously the current solution isn’t working with the feral population,” Pinkerton said. “They’re just everywhere. People are so fed up they drown them in the irrigation ditches or take them to the desert. If people could just see there are alternatives, and euthanasia isn’t one of them. The laws need to change so we don’t have to sneak around in the dark.”


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