WO passes TNR ordinance on first reading

Photo Courtesy of Judy Stier A kitten West Orange TNVR rescued from a sewer.
Photo Courtesy of Judy Stier
A kitten West Orange TNVR rescued from a sewer.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council passed an ordinance on first reading at its Jan. 5 meeting officially establishing a Trap-Neuter-Return program for the township, something local animal rights advocates have been calling on council members to do since they passed the controversial wildlife feeding ban in September 2014.

The ordinance outlining the rules for a potential TNR program was approved on first reading by a 4-0-1 vote, with Councilwoman Michelle Casalino abstaining. The measure will be heard on second and final reading at the Feb. 9 council meeting.

TNR refers to a practice in which feral cats are captured, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and returned to where they were found; supporters say it is the most effective and humane way of controlling a community’s homeless cat population.

Though West Orange TNVR has been practicing these tenets since forming in December 2014, the ordinance gives the town’s endorsement to the practice in addition to providing legal exemption from other cat ordinances and the feeding ban to resident caretakers. It also lays out the operating rules for such a program, starting with the fact that no colony — or group of feral cats living together in the wild overseen by a caretaker — may be within 200 feet of a school or day care center. Colonies also cannot be located on private or public property without the approval of the appropriate property owner or government official, according to the measure.

The duties of the sponsor, which is the animal welfare organization that manages TNR on behalf of a township, are also dictated by the ordinance. Specifically, it must register all cat colonies, ensure that caretakers are complying with ordinance requirements, help resolve any complaints regarding the conduct of caretakers or their cats, and maintain records regarding colony size and location, as well as the vaccination and sterilization of cats.

Additionally, the measure says it is the sponsor’s responsibility to report annually to West Orange the number of registered colonies it has, the total number of cats within those colonies, the number of those cats that have been sterilized and vaccinated and the number of cats and kittens that have been adopted or fostered.

The caretakers working under the sponsor have obligations as well, according to the ordinance. Among them, caretakers must notify sponsors of all colonies for registration; make reasonable efforts to trap, sterilize and vaccinate feral cats within a colony, in addition to updating vaccinations as required by law; maintain medical records for all cats and give yearly status reports on colonies to the sponsor; and work with the sponsor to resolve complaints. Caretakers are also expected to provide food and water to their cats on a regular basis, though the measure stresses that food must be placed outside after dawn and be removed before dusk, and that food should not stay in the open for more than two hours during that period.

As for enforcement, the ordinance mandates that the sponsor will have 45 days upon written notice of a complaint to remedy any nuisance. If the problem is not corrected during that time, the township has the right to remove the offending cat. And if any caretakers or the sponsor organization itself routinely fails to resolve issues within the deadline, the township can also remove the caretakers’ colonies and rescind the organization’s sponsorship.

In return, the ordinance states that if the township or an animal control agency discovers an unregistered cat colony in town, the caretaker will be given a 30-day grace period upon written notice to register the colony with the sponsor without the risk of having any cats removed.

All these provisions came as a result of the collaboration between West Orange TNVR, township health officer Theresa De Nova, assistant township attorney Ken Kayser and Councilman Jerry Guarino, who hashed out the ordinance over the past several months. In the end, West Orange TNVR founder Judy Stier said her organization was pleased with the measure that was passed.

“I think it’s very good,” Stier told the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 8 phone interview, adding that West Orange TNVR will act as the township’s sponsor. “I think we did well. A couple things (we wanted but didn’t get), but I think it’s best to have everybody agree. And I think we did that.”

Stier specified that she would have liked to see a 60-day period for resolving complaints instead of a 45-day window as the People for Animals welfare organization recommends, but she said West Orange TNVR will just have to make it work. She pointed out that her group has actually never received a single complaint in the year it has been operating, a trend that she hopes will continue.

The West Orange TNVR founder said she would also prefer that the feeding provision did not mandate a two-hour time limit since it could be difficult for people who have to work all day, but she said that she understands the township’s concerns about the food attracting wild animals if left out for long.

In addition, Stier said she is happy knowing that the township will provide West Orange TNVR with people to contact immediately in the event that cats have to be trapped on public property, such as the time her group had to quickly remove a cat and her kittens from a sewer. But her concern is what will happen if the township declines to allow a colony to reside on its property when it comes time to return fixed and vaccinated cats to where they were found.

“The cats have been there — we didn’t put them there,” Stier said. “That is their territory. I don’t know where else I could possibly put them.”

The issue lies in the fact that cats are extremely territorial; they refuse to leave an area they view as their turf, which is why TNR groups always try to return cats back to where they were trapped and manage the colony there. Stier said West Orange TNVR could train a colony located on public grounds to move somewhere else — a process that would entail gradually moving its food source to different spots offsite until the cats finally arrived at their new home — but this would take a long time and require the permission of the new site’s property owner as well as the owners of all the sites along the way. She said her organization could also try removing a cat and placing it directly in another established colony, but she said there is a good chance that will not work since the cats might not react well to one another.

Stier said she hopes neither option will be necessary, adding that West Orange TNVR would try to work something out with a property owner before it came to that.

De Nova, on the contrary, strongly feels that the township should not grant West Orange TNVR permission to return cats to public property, telling the Chronicle that no colony should be maintained on West Orange-owned space under any circumstances. This was a point she and township business administrator Jack Sayers stressed prior to the ordinance’s approval, their argument being that allowing feral cats to stay on public space could pose a health hazard and liability to the township.

Aside from that, De Nova told the Chronicle that she is also concerned about letting the cats roam free since the ordinance does not limit how many cats a caretaker can manage or even how many total colonies the township can contain. With so many feral cats in the open, she said the spread of disease and the possibility of residents being bitten could become public health threats. She pointed out that odor and feces complaints could also be a problem, though TNR advocates say spaying and neutering eliminates typical nuisance behavior in cats.

Additionally, the health officer said she would have preferred for the sponsor to get a shorter window to resolve complaints since most health issues are addressed in 10 to 30 days before court action is taken. De Nova said the health department received 75 cat-related complaints in 2015.

Mandating that the caretakers be residents of West Orange would also have been a good provision to prevent nonresidents from trying to maintain colonies in town, De Nova said.

Still, the health officer was not willing to rule out the chance that TNR could be successful for the township.

“Only time will tell how successful the program will be,” De Nova said in a Jan. 7 email. “If the parties involved in maintaining the cats can abide the parameters of the ordinance, that would be a good start.”

The council members themselves seemed largely enthusiastic about the possibility of TNR being approved in West Orange. Guarino in particular said he was “ecstatic” to see the ordinance passed on first reading after all the effort he and the other interested parties put into crafting it. Now he hopes the measure will be approved on second reading.

“At the end of the day, we become a very humane town and we show other people an example of how they can write their ordinance,” Guarino said in a Jan. 7 phone interview, adding that implementing TNR does not cost the town anything.

Guarino, who also helped West Orange TNVR obtain nonprofit status late last year, said Stier and her group should be lauded for their passion in caring for feral cats and willingness to help the township work toward implementing TNR. He said West Orange TNVR is made of the types of residents who make the community so great.

Casalino also praised West Orange TNVR for the “amazing” work it does saving the lives of feral cats. Her abstention from voting was due to her unfamiliarity with TNR.

“It’s a new topic to me,” Casalino told the Chronicle in a Jan. 8 phone interview. “My colleagues had more time to process it because they had a full presentation last year. Obviously I was not on the council at that time, so I would just like to take my time in examining the facts about TNR and its successes in other townships.”

The councilwoman said she is currently in the process of researching TNR and reaching out to other towns that have programs to learn how it works for them. Until she has gathered enough information, she said she does not know how she will vote at the Feb. 9 meeting. Prior to abstaining from voting on the ordinance’s first reading, Casalino proposed an amendment that would have required the sponsor to notify neighbors that a colony was in their vicinity. But that provision was rejected by the rest of the council in a 3-2 vote, with only Casalino and Councilman Joe Krakoviak voting in its favor.

Meanwhile, West Orange TNVR will continue rescuing feral cats following a successful first year. Stier said her group has so far trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned 71 adult cats. She said it has also done the same for 38 kittens, 33 of which were later adopted.

But that success came as a result of a lot of time and expense for the group, which pays for all procedures despite running entirely on donations. Potential donors or volunteers can reach out by visiting www.wotnvr.com — she said West Orange TNVR only has five regular trappers and could always use more, who would be trained and certified by Stier.

Yet even with all the stress involved with running a nonprofit organization, Stier said the effort is well worth it.

“I’m not going to tell you this is easy, but the rewards are wonderful,” Stier said. “We’ve saved lives. We really have.”