Government

Iowa City, North Liberty turn to trap-neuter-return to control feral cats

Dr. Jenni Doll performs surgery on a cat Feb. 22 at the Iowa Humane Alliance regional spay/neuter clinic in Cedar Rapids. The male cat was not ear-tipped or tattooed, both signs of being neutered. Doll confirmed in surgery that the cat had been neutered, and so tattooed its belly. The low-cost clinic can spay or neuter up to 40 animals in a day and offers special packages for community cats, including a “Last Litter” program for mother cats and its litter of kittens. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Dr. Jenni Doll performs surgery on a cat Feb. 22 at the Iowa Humane Alliance regional spay/neuter clinic in Cedar Rapids. The male cat was not ear-tipped or tattooed, both signs of being neutered. Doll confirmed in surgery that the cat had been neutered, and so tattooed its belly. The low-cost clinic can spay or neuter up to 40 animals in a day and offers special packages for community cats, including a “Last Litter” program for mother cats and its litter of kittens. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Howard Wittenberg is fed up with stray cats coming into his yard.

The longtime Iowa City resident told the Iowa City Council he’s tired of cleaning up after them, tired of trying to catch them and tired of seeing birds attacked.

“There’s so many of them just running everywhere,” Wittenberg said Tuesday night. “Get someone to adopt them. If they’re not fit to be adopted, maybe just put them down.”

The council, however, approved the first consideration of an alternative that could curb the feral cat — also known as community cat — problem in the city.

The ordinance would allow residents to trap community cats, have them spayed or neutered and then release them to where they were found. The approach is commonly known as trap-neuter-return, or TNR.

“It’s something the community has been asking for for many years,” said Chris Whitmore, Iowa City’s Animal Control coordinator.

The city now has limited options when it comes to feral cats. If a feral cat — one that isn’t fit for adoption in a typical home — is brought to the Iowa City Animal Center, city staff will try to find it a home as a barn cat. However, Whitmore said, it’s becoming harder and harder to find farms to take them in.

If the city can’t find a home for the cat, the cat is euthanized, Whitmore said. In 2018, the animal center euthanized 96 feral cats, Whitmore said, about 45 percent of them coming from Iowa City.

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“We euthanize too many cats because they were born out in the community,” she said. “That’s not a solution for anyone.”

The Humane Society of the United States advocates for trap-neuter-return as the only effective way of managing and reducing community cat populations, said Preston Moore, Iowa’s state director for the society.

For years, communities tried to control the cat population through trapping and euthanizing or trapping and relocating, Moore said. Both are ineffective, he said.

“The cats that remain in the area just breed more quickly,” Moore said. “There’s a void in the ecosystem, so to speak, and they fill it. By encouraging communities to approach this through sterilization and rerelease, those cats maintain their territory, they don’t breed and stop new cats from coming in.”

Under trap-neuter-return in Iowa City, residents would be able to check out a trap from the city. The trap is free, though there is a deposit. Once a feral cat is captured, residents can take it to the Iowa Humane Alliance, a regional spay-and-neuter clinic based in Cedar Rapids. The animal then is returned to the community. The city staff would not be responsible for catching or returning the cats.

“It is a commitment on the homeowner because it does take a little time,” Whitmore said. “Most people are willing to do that.”

Whitmore also said getting a cat spayed or neutered is free for Iowa City residents through the Florence Unash Program, named after a former Iowa City resident who donated money upon her death to subsidize the spaying and neutering dogs and cats.

In Iowa City, a feral cat will be returned to the community if determines no one else owns it, it has been deemed healthy and if it has been ear-tipped, vaccinated and spayed or neutered.

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Iowa City is not the only local community considering such an ordinance. North Liberty also is on the verge of allowing the trap-neuter-release process as part of a larger update to its animal control ordinance, said Grant Lientz, North Liberty’s city attorney. The third and final reading of the ordinance is set for next week.

Like Iowa City, North Liberty’s ordinance would let residents capture, spay or neuter and then return a feral cat.

“My understanding is research suggests that when we have stray cats, simply removing the cats from the area doesn’t do anything to control the population,” Lientz said. “Other cats will move into that cat’s territory, reproduce and make more cats.”

Other communities in Iowa with a trap-neuter-return policy include Tiffin, Des Moines, Fairfax, Vinton and Hiawatha.

“I do think it’s catching on,” said Moore. “It’s been catching on, really, throughout the country and I think Iowa is starting to pick that up and hopefully will lead the way with it before too long.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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