The executive director of the Humane Society of Yuma asked Yuma County for help in addressing feral cat concerns in the unincorporated areas.
At the request of Supervisor Darren Simmons, based on concerns within his district, which includes the Fortuna Foothills area, HSOY Director Annette Lagunas addressed the concerns during a Nov. 16 board meeting.
The county’s authority over feral cats is limited, according to a staff report. Arizona has no laws regulating cats. They are strictly free-roaming animals.
Cruelty to animals, including feral cats, is criminal conduct by state statute and not subject to county regulation. The county is authorized to trap, neuter/spay and release, and euthanize feral cats, but that is the extent of the county’s authority.
In addition, there is no statutory authority for a county to prohibit the feeding of feral cats.
Lagunas noted that there’s really no way to tell how many cats are in Yuma County, but the closest estimate puts the number at about 50,000, with about 54% being outdoor-only cats and 38% indoor/outdoor.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
“We know that the majority of Americans who own cats will let their indoor cat outside,” Lagunas said.
She noted that “we all want the same things,” which is less cats outside negatively impacting people and wildlife. “People do not want cats to die, they just don’t want them to be annoying,” she pointed out.
From a public health perspective, cats benefit the community by keeping down the rodent population. “The diseases that rodents carry are much worse than what cats carry,” Lagunas said.
Catching them, housing and euthanizing cats is “much more expensive” than sterilizing and putting them back in a process called “trap, neuter and return,” commonly called by the acronym TNR.
“We know that the solution is not to kill them,” she said.
In eight years, 17,000 cats were killed in Yuma County. “It’s not only bad for the cats, it’s bad for my staff. If you can imagine coming into the shelter, and just knowing that that day you’re taking the life of 20, 40, 50 cats,” Lagunas noted.
In 2018, HSOY decided to make a change in regards to cats and switched its focus to TNR. As a result, the number of euthanized cats went down. In 2019, 3,810 cats were euthanized, with the majority being injured or sick or “tiny little kittens.”
In 2020, the cat intake was 1,972 from January through October, “something I want to celebrate because that is so low.” HSOY has trapped, neutered and released 5,108 cats since 2018.
“It’s an awesome number,” Lagunas quipped.
Feeding bans are also not a solution. “Feeding bans, in my opinion and the opinion of the majority of animal welfare people across the country, don’t work. They’re not enforceable, they’re punishing somebody for just being kind,” she said. “In our crazy world, we should not be punishing people for wanting to help other living beings.”
If the county instituted a feeding ban, Lagunas asked, who would enforce it? Who would go out and give little old ladies a ticket for feeding cats? Animal control? Sheriff’s Office? Animal control officers should be “animal protection officers” who help the community, “not the bad guys,” she noted. “Our community needs our officers to spend time on bite calls, cruelty and neglect cases, taking a shelter to the dog stuck outside in the rain, helping people get their pets spayed and neutered, offering food where needed.”
Any type of restrictions on cats will greatly increase the calls for service to officers. However, she added, “I do agree that something needs to be done.” So what’s the answer? “Trap, neuter, return and educate.”
WHY DOES TNR WORK?
TNR works by asking the community to work with the local spay/neuter organization to alter community cats. Each cat has its ear tipped to show it has been altered and vaccinated for rabies. The cats are returned to the location they came from. A caretaker watches over the cats and re-traps a cat if it becomes sick or injured. If a new cat comes into the colony, the caretaker traps that cat and gets it altered as soon as possible.
TNR works because it removes a cat’s ability to add to the population. They won’t be having babies, but also there will be no more yowling, fighting or spraying, which typically happens when they’re mating and protecting their area.
Since altered cats no longer have a desire to mate, they want to keep their food source secure for them and their family. Altered cats don’t pee on boats, cars or front doors. Altered cats don’t roam too far and will typically stay close to their food source. Eventually cats in a colony die naturally, eliminating cats in that area.
A NEED TO EDUCATE
Lagunas pointed out that the community needs to understand the benefits of altering community cats and officers and government officials need to be on the same page and work toward the same goal.
Those who love cats and those who dislike cats need to be educated on how to manage cats around their homes. “Plucking them out of their environment and killing them didn’t work. We tried it for years and years,” Lagunas said.
HSOY is willing to hold town hall meetings to address community cats in any area of the county.
What about those that don’t want the cats? Lagunas suggested educating homeowners on “easy and cheap” ways to keep cats out of their homes. “Cats are very trainable,” she said.
A trick is to flip mats or carpets over to expose the “nubby” side and lining them along the property. “Cats don’t want to walk on that,” she noted.
There are also sensors that make noises that humans barely hear but cats hear very loudly “and they don’t like it.” Other sensors spray water when a cat walks by, teaching the cat not to go into that area.
Lagunas wrapped up her presentation by noting that HSOY is willing to help educate the community, assist animal control officers with talking to the community members who have cat issues, perform TNR services at a reduced cost at the shelter and attend community meetings or town halls as experts on community cats.
In exchange, HSOY asked Yuma County to help identify and educate community members who are having issues with cats, assist HSOY in conversations with community members by visiting their homes and allow officers to provide assistance to the community with regards to cats rather than enforce more ordinances.
“I’m going out on a limb and telling you that if you do these things, your cat nuisance calls will decrease,” Lagunas said.
She also asked the county to match a Arizona Companion Animal Spay/Neuter Grant of $5,000 received this year. With that money, HSOY is hoping to alter another 105 cats. In 2019/2020, grant funding allowed 144 cats in the unincorporated areas to be altered. If Yuma County choses to match the grant, HSOY could alter 210 cats, which would have a “big impact,” Lagunas said.
The TNR program is free across the entire county. Persons who wish to participate may sign up at catstats.org/yuma. Right now, the program has about 330 different colonies. They may contact HSOY for traps, which are available with a deposit which is returned.
Ideally, Lagunas said, the county would provide traps too. At $70, the traps are “pretty costly,” she noted.
Simmons asked what happens if a citizen with cats around their homes doesn’t want to participate, as is the issue with several homeowners in the Foothills. He pointed out that the county can’t force them to do TNR.
Diana Gomez, director of the Yuma County Public Health Services District, said that the county has a limit of cats a homeowner can have. Planning and Zoning and Public Health can first give them the TNR option. If they’re not compliant, then the county can follow through with enforcement.
Lagunas said that in the past 16 years she has not seen a feral cat situation that hasn’t been brought under control. “I promise you, I can even take you to a location where two neighbors were fighting badly, it was hostile,” she said, explaining that the situation was fixed after providing some education and the cats were trapped, neutered and released.
“Those caring for cats don’t understand it can be a nuisance. They think they are doing what’s right for the cats. We want to know those places and talk and see if we can figure it out,” she added.
Chairman Tony Reyes asked that an action item for matching funds be added to a future meeting agenda.