MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Although the Maplewood Board of Health seemed pleased to hear a report that 145 feral cats had been trapped, neutered or spayed, vaccinated and released, board President India Larrier had some tough documentation questions.
During the Board of Health meeting, which took place Jan. 5, during the Maplewood Township Committee meeting and is composed of the committee members, Health Officer Robert Roe reported that, in its first year of operation, Furry Hearts Rescue, the nonprofit assigned to handle the township’s three-year pilot TNR program, had scooped up 145 cats for the program.
“That’s a large number,” Roe said. “If they can keep that up, we’re sure to see good results.”
Under the TNR program, Furry Hearts registers “caretakers,” residents who volunteer to care for the feral cat colonies. These caretakers are responsible for trapping feral cats; having them spayed or neutered, vaccinated and ear-tipped as a means of identification; and then returning them from whence they came, with the caretakers providing food. Only registered caretakers are allowed to feed feral cats; nonregistered residents will incur fines if caught feeding the cats.
While Larrier, who was re-elected Board of Health president at the meeting with a vote of 5-0, was pleased to hear that 145 feral cats had been spayed or neutered and vaccinated, she told Roe that Furry Hearts’ most recent report just doesn’t “do it.” Recalling problems with reporting that have been brought up many times prior by Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee, Larrier told Roe that she needed numbers by which they could measure the success of TNR this year.
“We do need the numbers for the colonies,” Larrier said. “We can’t ascertain how well you’re doing with this project if we don’t know how many cats there are in the colonies — how many there were in the colonies.”
The rationale, as has been explained many times by Brownlee, is that if the township does not know how many cats there were to start with, the township can’t know how effective the program is; taking care of 145 cats via TNR means something very different depending on whether there were 1,000 or 10,000 feral cats in the township prior to the program.
“But now there’s no more kittens; that’s the thing,” Salene Sachs of Furry Hearts said at the meeting.
Furry Hearts did not respond to the News-Record’s request for comment.
As for counting the cats, that’s where it gets difficult. It has been argued by Furry Hearts representatives in the past, as well as TNR advocates in other towns, that it is nearly impossible to provide a cat-count due to issues such as cats roaming, reproduction and the sheer number. Sheila Plotnick, a volunteer with the Kearny TNR effort, told the News-Record in a Jan. 8 email that the difficulty faced by Kearny TNR, which also recently passed its one-year anniversary, comes from resources.
“I would say the biggest obstacle in counting feral cat populations would be the time and effort required from people who are already quite busy,” Plotnick said, describing Kearny’s TNR program, which is similar to Maplewood’s. “Everyone involved in TNR is a volunteer, all with career and/or families and/or other obligations in addition to whatever TNR work they take on.”
Nevertheless, some TNR organizations, like Kearny TNR, have taken a stab at quantifying their feral cat numbers. Plotnick explained that Kearny TNR did come up with an initial number, though the number was more of an estimate than a hard fact.
“The initial number was derived from estimations made by the people caring for — or otherwise aware of — the cats,” she said. “Feral cats will congregate around a food source and those food sources are almost always provided by human activity, whether intentional or not. So, between the kindly pre-TNR cat-feeders who proudly reported how many cats show up in their yard for the breakfast buffet every morning, and the restaurant owners who less tolerantly reported how many cats descended on their dumpsters every night, we were able to extrapolate a very rough estimation of how many free-roaming cats we had in Kearny. This information was gathered from anecdotal reports and also from records of calls to Animal Control.”
While not the most scientific process, it did create a base number by which Kearny officials could measure the success of Kearny TNR. Plotnick added, however, that the best way to count the cats is to count them as a township engages in TNR.
The other number Larrier requested had to do with the humans involved with Maplewood’s TNR program.
“I would like to know the exact number of caretakers,” Larrier said. “I understand that there are caretakers who are not officially caretakers. That’s not acceptable because, according to the ordinance, if you’re not a registered caretaker, you can’t do this.”
Larrier stressed the need to register all caretakers and then to cite all nonregistered caretakers for breaking the law.
Sachs, who said she prefers to call these people “caregivers,” said she had just recently registered another caretaker and would get the total number for Larrier.