With its warm climate and raised houses, New Orleans is the perfect environment for feral cats. Europeans brought the first domestic cats to North America several centuries ago, and they've been an invasive species ever since.
In order to control the population, the Louisiana SPCA offers a low cost service to trap, neuter and return feral cats to their neighborhoods.
Helen Southard keeps feral cats.
“Everybody’s eaten. They get fed twice a day, and usually at lunch time they get hard food and they get can food mixed together. Or they’ll get tuna fish. I just like to mix it up and keep them interested. And once they get their bellies full, look out. They’re all over the place,” Southard says.
Until about five years ago, she was more of a dog person, she says. But then her neighbor passed away, leaving behind a clowder of feral cats (a clowder, by the way, is what you call a group of cats).
“I saw that they were providing a service, killing rodents in the area — especially after Katrina with all the vacant houses out here. So I just decided, okay let me feed you. And I went and got a bag of cat food and I’ve been doing it ever since. One turned into, like, two, and all of a sudden I had a village outside,” she says.
Helen liked the cats, but she needed some help caring for them. So she called the Louisiana SPCA.
“That’s how I met Heather. We started talking on the phone and she came and she helped me fix them. So no more babies! That’s it. We’re capping it off at about nine,” she says.
She’s talking about Heather Rigney, the LA/SPCA’s ace feral cat wrangler. Four days a week Heather hops in an old moving van and travels around the city trapping and releasing feral cats.
Here’s how it works: if you have outdoor cats on your block and you think they’re reproducing, the LA/SPCA will loan you some traps. You trap the cats, bring them to the shelter to be spayed or neutered, then release them back into your neighborhood.
Or you can ask the LA/SPCA to help you trap them. Heather will swoop in to the rescue.
“What we’ll do is we’ll set the traps and monitor them twice a day. Any cat that’s in a trap will be transported to our community clinic. They’ll be given surgery the following day if we pick them up on our evening shift, same day if we get them early in the morning. They recover overnight and get released the following day. All the cats that are with us receive surgery, a rabies vaccination, an ear tip — which is a marking indicating that they’ve been fixed,” Rigney says.
The traps are long, rectangular cages. They look sort of menacing, but they’re not harmful to the cats.
Heather is formidable when she’s out in the field. She’s comfortable talking to cats…
“This is why we cover with a towel, so they don’t panic. I know, I know. Well, you need to have surgery. I don’t see any ear tip on you. You get to come for a ride today!” she says as she calms an anxious trapped cat.
...and the humans who feed them…
“Thank you so much, Miss Mona, and I will be seeing you either this afternoon when I check on the traps, or tomorrow morning when I drop off," she says as she leaves one of her many stops one morning.
Mona Lisa Washington is fond of her cats.
“Three of them look like little swirls, so we call them swirlies. And then we have two real real black ones we call midnight,” Washington says.
But she couldn’t handle the constant onslaught of kittens. So she put out the cat signal to Heather.
“Heather and them definitely came out and did a wonderful job. I’m just so happy because I wanted to keep them. I think this is a wonderful program,” she says.
Click below to hear Heather Rigney talk about the bond people have with their feral cats and one of her most memorable clients.
There’s a whole community of non-professionals around the city who trap as both a hobby and a way to help out.
Robert Sanders and his wife Ramona run a small non-profit that provides cat trapping services. Just like Heather, they trap feral cats by request, bring them to the LA/SPCA for surgery, then return them to the neighborhood.
“It gives me something to do. You know, idle hands, you get in trouble. When I first got out of the military I didn’t really know what to do. Katrina come along and it kind of like filled that void in me, and I just kept sticking at it,” Sanders says.
Robert is a dedicated trapper. Maybe too dedicated.
“After Katrina we used to do a lot of trapping out in the East. One night we were trapping and it was me and this other girl. We were out there and we had about 70 traps out. And the National Guard was patrolling out there, and there was gunfire. The National Guard come flying around the corner and told us we better leave cause there was gunfire, that they were leaving too. We stayed on, kept trapping the rest of the night,” he says.
There’s no question that feral cats keep rodent populations down and often delight their caretakers. But, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that cats are... cue the ominous music... an invasive species.
Tom Sherry is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University. He specializes in migratory bird populations.
“They’ve been included in the 100 most destructive invasive species. They’re a very important invasive species and we need to consider them an invasive species. They don’t belong here. They didn’t evolve here,” Sherry says.
Professor Sherry stresses that there aren’t a lot of scientific studies about the impact of feral cats on bird populations. But from the few that have been published, ecologists are beginning to draw some troubling conclusions.
“You can come up with estimates that are fairly robust as to what the impacts of cats are in general in North America. And based on those kinds of studies, cats kill about four times more birds in particular than the next largest human impact, which is buildings, from running into buildings,” he says.
So, the data shows that feral cats are having a significant impact on native birds. What could that mean for us?
“The biggest impact of cats in areas like the United States probably is to kill birds that eat insects. So an indirect effect might be an increase in insects that would otherwise be eaten by those birds,” Sherry says.
Professor Sherry says that from an ecological standpoint, the costs of maintaining feral cat colonies far outweigh the benefits.
And his proposal for solving the issue is pretty simple:
“Keeping cats indoors! I mean, I have owned cats at different times in my life. I don’t hate cats. I’m not against cats at all. I like cats. They’re fun, they’re wonderful animals. But we get that satisfaction as humans by having them indoors without them doing the destruction that they do.”
Or, short of that, we could go a more fanciful route…
“The obvious other alternatives are putting bells on cats. There’s a company in Vermont that produces red bandanas that are put on cats that make them much more conspicuous and easier for birds to see and avoid being preyed upon.”
Outdoor cats may do more harm than good, ecologically. But they also play an important role in the lives of the humans who feed them. People like Helen Southard.
“Well, it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the mornings,” she says.
Maybe a new technique could save birds and keep feral cat numbers in check. Instead of just trap/neuter/return, we could one day see trap/neuter/bell/return. Just a thought.