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Published December 25, 2009, 12:00 AM

A freeze on feral cats

PAAWS group to step up its spay and neuter efforts
A Fargo group is expanding its efforts to put a lid on the number of feral cats in the city’s mobile home parks.

By: Helmut Schmidt, INFORUM

A Fargo group is expanding its efforts to put a lid on the number of feral cats in the city’s mobile home parks.

Minn-Kota PAAWS plans to trap feral cats in January and February. They will spay and neuter as many of the animals as possible before mating season begins in March, said Carol Sawicki, clinic manager for People Advocating Animal Welfare Services.

There are 300 to 500 wild, unsterilized cats prowling Fargo’s mobile home parks alone, Sawicki estimates. One city official put the citywide total at 700 to 900 cats, she said.

Until now, the program has quietly purred along for several years, sterilizing 1,600 cats annually, mostly for low-income families, Sawicki said.

But that hasn’t really taken a bite out of the feral cat problem.

“They’re everywhere. We help people all over the city that have colonies. This is nothing new. We’re just focusing on the hot spots, said PAAWS member Lori Magelky.

The idea is to stop rampant reproduction, and keep the population stable and healthy, which in turn is healthier for pets and people who come into contact with them.

The costs of the feral cat trap, spay and neuter program are covered by grants and donations, Sawicki said. Mobile home park residents also will be offered the same services at reduced fees for their pets.

The cats will be tested for feline leukemia and vaccinated for rabies and distemper. Their ears will be notched so observers can easily tell they’ve been sterilized, and they’ll have microchips embedded to identify them, Sawicki said.

Fargo city commissioners recently granted $3,000 to vaccinate and treat the feral cats. At $20 a cat, that will treat 150 cats.

Feral cats with feline leukemia will be euthanized because the disease is a serious health risk for cats and easily transmitted, Sawicki said.

Magelky hopes the campaign does more than scratch the surface of the problem.

“We’ve been doing this five years, and we still see all these cats going to the pound. We thought, we need to do something more,” Magelky said.

Kari Waller, one of the Fargo Police Department’s community service officers, says she thinks the efforts of PAAWS have already made a difference in the number of feral cats she and fellow officers have dealt with this year.

“We’re going to help as much as we can,” Waller said. “If they can catch the cats, I think this will help, I really do, … It will free up a lot of our time.”

On Tuesday, PAAWS was spaying and neutering six cats for a man who was taking care of 10 strays.

Fargo veterinarian Danielle Oetker did the procedures, with help from Sawicki.

The animal shelter at 2125 1st Ave. S. is now full, with 80 cats.

The “cat rooms” each hold up to 10 or 12 cats when full. The cats lounge and twitch their tails on window shelves, paw at cat trees or lair up in cat condos, occasionally coming out to brush a stranger’s leg in search of a scratch.

The holidays have been a good time for adoptions. Ten cats were adopted last week, Magelky said.

Not all of the feral cats captured near restaurants, industrial areas and mobile home parks are returned to the wild.

Those that show promise of being tame enough to live with people are given time, sometimes months, to adjust. Others may be given to farms, where they are welcome as mousers.

Missy, a black and white domestic short-haired cat, was an adult feral living in a Dumpster at the north Fargo Subway, Magelky said.

Now, she happily accepts a caress, dipping her head to encourage a scratch behind the ears.

Feral cats, once treated, no longer produce litters, and many behaviors such as fighting and spraying disappear.

Stable groups of ferals keep out other cats, and clear areas of nuisance animals, such as rabbits, rats, mice and moles.

“We didn’t invent this wheel. This is something that’s been done in many towns,” Sawicki said of the trap, neuter and spay program.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583