An estimated 20,000 cats are born annually in Trumbull County.
By TIM YOVICH
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
NILES -- An attempt by Niles City Council to address the community's stray cat problem highlights the different approaches among Mahoning and Shenango Valley agencies that care for unwanted felines.
Agencies that care for stray and feral cats say, however, that there's a growing problem in dealing with them. And, they agree that spaying and neutering the animals is the answer in the long term.
According to the San Diego-based Feral Cat Coalition, there are an estimated 60 million wild cats in this country. The coalition estimates that a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce 420,000 cats in seven years. The coalition advocates that feral cats should be trapped, spayed or neutered and returned to caregivers who feed them.
Barbara Busko, president of the Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County, estimates that 20,000 cats are born annually in the county. Busko explained that some of the owners destroy many of the cats by drowning them rather than finding homes for them.
"It's an enormous problem, and Niles is trying to take its first step," Busko said, in attempting to control the population. Niles council's safety committee has been discussing the possibility of licensing cats much the same way dogs are, so their owners can be identified.
There are no regulations governing cats in Niles. Mark Morrall, part-time Niles animal control officer, has become frustrated with nothing being done and has decided not to respond to cat complaints. Morrall is now telling people to call their councilman if they have a cat complaint. Before, he was trapping strays. If he couldn't find the owner or a shelter to take them, they were destroyed.
In Cleveland, Mayor Frank Jackson is proposing a similar program to trap strays, take them to the city kennel and destroy them if not claimed in three days. Cleveland would treat cats the same as dogs.
Atty. Patricia Knepp, the Trumbull County Humane Society's president, acknowledges that the wild cat situation "is out of control." There are shelters that take them in, assure that they are spayed or neutered, immunized and adopted. The problem is that there are just too many cats to deal with, she explained.
For Knepp, euthanizing them is out of the question. "It's punishing animals for the faults of the people," Knepp said, pointing out that spaying and neutering is the acceptable long-range solution.
Feces in others' yards
Some homeowners complain cats that roam free use their porches and flower beds as a litter box. These homeowners maintain they have a right to live without the nuisance. But Knepp responds, "Does the animal know any different?"
The county humane society operates a farm at Tod and Dover avenues where cats and dogs are fostered. It was started by Knepp's late father, Atty. John Leopardi. From the farm, the humane society works to place cats by working with Cats Are People Too in Warren.
Knepp maintains that the population of homeless dogs is reduced through a spay and neuter program, and the same could eventually occur with the cat population.
Busko, of the Animal Welfare League, said that sometimes cats have to be euthanized. "We try not to put animals down. We can't warehouse them their entire lives," she said of her organization.
Debbie Agostinelli, league shelter director, said about 750 kittens and cats are brought into the shelter annually. If they are healthy and can be placed, they are held until a home is found for them. Some have remained at the shelter since March, she noted.
Last year, the league's shelter euthanized 170 cats because they were diseased or sick.
Busko said she thinks that homeowners should not have to put up with cats that use their properties as litter boxes. She said it's unhealthy because children who play in those areas can become ill, as can other cats.
Some communities don't address the problem.
Warren police animal control officer John Onatz said the city doesn't have a policy on cats. "We do nothing," he said. Onatz said that the Trumbull County Dog Pound refuses to take cats and he sometimes turns toward the Animal Welfare League to handle them.
The animal control officer said he's not flooded with calls concerning cats. Most times when he receives a cat complaint, Onatz explained, he scares it away and hopes it doesn't return.
In Girard, Mayor James J. Melfi said there is a stray cat problem. The city received about a half dozen complaints during the past summer and fall. "We don't have the means to catch stray cats. There's a void out there," Melfi said.
During Niles council's committee meetings, it was made apparent by those representing various animal-oriented groups that cat owners should have their pets spayed or neutered, and keep them indoors. Many spoke against a cat licensing program in Niles to identify the animals' owners. They argue that identification tags on a collar may cause some animals to hang themselves while climbing outside.
Busko and Agostinelli somewhat differ in their approach. But they both think cats should be licensed like dogs and have either an ID on a collar and a microchip implant under the skin.
Busko, who owns four dogs, said she thinks cats should be treated the same as dogs. For example, required licensing of cats may put a financial burden on those of low income and seniors on fixed incomes, but so does the licensing of dogs.
Angels for Animals
Canfield-based Angels for Animal sees about 100 cats daily at its shelter south of Canfield. It takes in animals from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. Diane Less, Angels co-founder, said the shelter has several programs for caring for cats, or euthanizing them.
One program costs 60 that includes spaying or neutering, vaccination for rabies and screening for feline AIDS and leukemia. Another costs 90 with the addition of deworming, flea control and inoculation. Angels has a "Show Us the Mommy" program in which pregnant cats are spayed for 60 and each kitten spayed or neutered for 15 each.
Less explained that there is also a program in which a pregnant cat is put under anesthesia to be spayed. During the procedure, unborn kittens lack oxygen and die. If cats are simply dumped off, they too, are euthanized. "The buck has got to stop somewhere," Less said of euthanizing animals, adding: "We don't believe in killing adoptable animals."
Less explained that Angels keeps about 150 cats in its shelter at any one time. If the cat is adoptable and there is no room in the facility, it is turned over to a foster caregiver who keeps it until there is room in the shelter, where they can be returned and adopted. Angels doesn't euthanize simply because there isn't enough space, she explained.
The program in the three-county area is working, Less said. She estimated that in 1990 there were 500 cats for each available home. That has been reduced to 75 cats per home.
Less and Busko have reservations about using trap-neuter-release to deal with homeless cats. This calls for these cats to be caught, spayed or neutered and released for people to feed. Busko pointed out the cats can be mistreated, if not killed, because they are outside.
Less said such cats are still forced to live like wild animals and are being struck by vehicles. She said painless euthanizing is a better remedy.
Tom Tulip is executive director of the Mercer County Regional Council of Governments, which operates the Shenango Valley Animal Shelter. "It's a growing problem in Mercer County," Tulip said of unwanted cats, noting the shelter takes in about 200 annually. They are also taken in by individuals and rescue groups such as the Mercer County Humane Society, so that the cats can be adopted. At the shelter, Tulip explained, there is a realistic approach that feral cats or those that are ill must be destroyed.
One of the salvations in the Shenango Valley is that a "cat farm" southeast of Pittsburgh takes in many of the cats that are captured or turned in by owners who can no longer care for them.
Sharon, Pa., doesn't have much of a problem with stray cats, said Frank Smeraglia, the city's code and zoning administrator. If a cat is causing a nuisance in a neighborhood, he explained, a civil complaint can be filed against the owner. Smeraglia acknowledged that not being able to identify the owner causes some cats to simply disappear.
Spay and neuter program
Dr. Pamela S. Fritsch, owner of Fritsch Veterinary Clinic in Howland, who has attended the Niles hearings, will begin a pilot program to offer a low-cost spray and neuter program for cats. The cost is 25 for males and 35 for females.
Preregistration for 50 cats is Wednesday with surgery Nov. 22. The program will run monthly. Dr. Fritsch, a member of Cats Are People Too, said the program will decrease the homeless population in the spring. Those interested can pick up a form and prepay at the clinic, 8224 E. Market St. For more information, call (330) 856-9670.