An unknown number of feral cats stalk, lounge and pounce in the wilds of New Canaan.
Strays & Others, whose founder and president is Claudia Weber, traps feral cats found in New Canaan and takes them to a veterinarian for vaccines and spaying or neutering. The organization cares for cats who seem friendly and tries to find homes for them. Cats who are too feral to be domesticated are placed back in the wild and fed from time to time during the cold winter months.
"People from other towns, as well as right here in New Canaan, dump cats and dogs they no longer want and expect that someone else will take care of them," said Weber, who also is the town clerk, in a press release. "Some of these animals are cats who are not spayed or neutered. As the result, New Canaan now has several pockets of semi-feral cats that are starting to breed out of control -- and the population is exploding."
The problem of feral cats is not confined to New Canaan, however.
"It's a problem everywhere," said Gordon Willard, executive director of the Westport-based Connecticut Humane Society. "No one knows (how it's solved). That's really the bottom line ... Cats can have three litters of kittens per year, and their geometric growth rates can outstrip anyone's ability to put it in check."
He said some methods to reduce the population, like euthanasia, have not been effective. But a newer effort, which has gained steam in the past 15 years, of trapping, neutering and spaying feral cats has been met with some enthusiasm.
One problem, he said, is determining whether a cat is feral or not. A feral cat is one that does not have significant human contact and lives in the wild.
The issue is compounded by the addition of house cats into the wild, where they frequently join feral cat colonies. Some cats are simply let into the wild if they are unfriendly or if their owners move and they become strays, said Priscilla Feral, president of the Darien-based Friends of Animals.
"If stray cats have kittens, they become feral and the offspring are not used to human handling. And if you don't get them adopted the first 13 weeks of their lives, they're not likely to be chosen," she said. "Trap, neuter and release programs work well. Populations decrease, but through attrition. Most of the feral cats that have been put into a shelter leave dead."
Attrition means death due to old age, the elements, predators or starvation.
Because of the cost of veterinary work, the town's Animal Control Department does not handle feral cats.
"We have a couple of places where there are feral cats and most of the time Strays & Others handles them," said Animal Control Officer Maryann Kleinschmitt. She fields about 10 calls per day about missing and found cats.
"If the town wanted to handle feral cats, it would have to pass an ordinance. Feral cats can mostly fend for themselves, but unlike raccoons, who hibernate for six weeks a year, you have to feed them."
Founded in 1985, Strays & Others has provided medical care and spaying and neutering for more than 4,300 animals, and receives 5,000 calls per year, according to the release.
"At any given time, we're caring for 50 or more animals without any paid staff or a permanent shelter facility," Weber said. "For us, this is simply a labor of love."
The group is seeking funding from the Feral Cat Grant Program, run by the state Department of Agriculture, which in fiscal year 2011 allocated $77,000 to 17 organizations.
But Strays & Others needs more help.
"We are reaching out to the community for volunteers to assist in transporting these animals to and from the vet, to offer temporary shelter while they heal from their spay/neuter surgeries, to serve as foster families for mom cats and kittens, and for help in finding loving homes for the ones who tame up," said Janice Bouton, Strays & Others vice president and manager, in the release. "Volunteers are also needed to feed and care for the cats at our temporary cat shelter."
Leaving the issue unchecked would also have negative consequences, Willard said. For starters, feral cats could have rabies, which they, in turn, could transmit to roaming house cats.
Birders, too, have worries about feral cats, which Willard calls "bird-killing machines." The American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats kill between 500 million and 1 billion birds each year in the United States.
Such are the issues at stake for Strays & Others.
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