Helen Woods didn’t intend to get so involved with the stray cat caretaker community in Laurel. It was her rescue cat, Sunshine, who started it all.
“He brought home a friend one day,” Woods said. “When I tried to find this friend’s owner, my neighbors said they recognized him as a cat they were feeding. And I realized just how many people were feeding these cats. Each courtyard had one or two people feeding the cats.”
Woods started a trap-neuter-release program in her own townhouse community to keep stray cat colonies stabilized without euthanasia, and said she and other residents in her community have trapped several dozen over the last five years. She now is heading a group of residents working to get the city to create such a program in Laurel.
“I’d like to see an immediate end to trap-and-kill policies,” Woods said. “But the question the city has to deal with is, if they stop trapping and killing, what are they going to replace that with?”
Currently, Prince George’s County and Laurel euthanize feral cats — ones that are not socialized and cannot be handled or adopted — said Rodney Taylor, director of Prince George’s County animal management.
“For years, not just in Prince George’s, but in the whole region, we’ve been trapping cats and euthanizing them,” Taylor said. “But TNR is a new philosophy, and it’s something we want to look at. We’re looking at other jurisdictions and gathering information.”
Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia all have enacted TNR programs through their animal control agencies. Other surrounding jurisdictions euthanize feral cats, according to the Bethesda-based nonprofit group Alley Cat Allies.
Taylor said he did not have an estimate for how many feral cats were in the county or in Laurel, but characterized the roaming cat population as “large.” Alley Cat Allies generally estimates the stray cat population by dividing the human population by six. By that estimate, the city of Laurel has about 4,185 stray cats, and Prince George’s County has about 144,000.
At a workshop Feb. 15 on feral cat care hosted by Alley Cat Allies, Laurel Mayor Craig Moe told a crowd of more than 70 residents that he is not yet taking a position on the city implementing TNR, which would be run by the animal control division of the Laurel Police.
“We’re all going to learn,” Moe said. “Some of this is all new to us.”
Laurel Animal Warden Jennifer Volack said between March and December, she picked up 81 stray cats in Laurel, and 90 percent of those were feral. Volack said records were not available for earlier periods for comparison.
More than 20 area residents at the workshop said they already are trapping and paying to neuter the outdoor cats in their neighborhoods, and more than 30 are feeding or otherwise caring for cat colonies.
For Woods and other feral cat advocates, including Alley Cat Allies, TNR provides the most cost-effective and only humane way to deal with outdoor cat populations.
Aileen Walden, community programs director at Alley Cat Allies, said trap-and-kill procedures used by most animal control agencies don’t work because new cats move into the area to fill the space left by trapped cats.
“Do you want your tax dollars to be spent on a process that doesn’t work?” Walden asked. “When the community is deciding how it’s going to deal with cats, we hope that they make decisions about being a cat-safe community.”
Advocates also say that, in addition to stabilizing populations, spaying or neutering reduces the cat behaviors that neighbors complain about, such as scratching, spraying, yowling and fighting, which are behaviors related to mating.
Volunteers who trap and neuter or spay cats pay out of pocket for the expenses, which can cost as much as $250 at a private veterinarian office.
Organizations, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, periodically run Spay Days with the procedure available for free or at a low cost. Laurel-area cat advocates say that’s not enough to deal with the large populations of stray cats that need to be fixed.
But a new, privately run clinic is slated to move into the city that would provide lower-cost spay and neuter procedures.
Brad Howard, the business manager for Spay Now Inc., a clinic in Grasonville, said he has seen patients coming from the District and Virginia to take advantage of their spay and neuter prices, which range from $45 to $55 for cats. Laurel, he said, seemed like the perfect location to open a second clinic, being at the intersection of four counties and accessible to the District and Baltimore.
“We’re trying to reach a market that might otherwise not be using vets,” Howard said, adding the clinic is narrowing down possible locations and hopes to be open sometime this summer.
Walden said all of the interest, from community members at the workshop and from Howard’s clinic, plus the interest from the mayor, bodes well for the cat population in Laurel.
“We’re here to support them,” Walden said. “But with so many people caring for cats, it’s really encouraging.”