1 of 3

Buy Photo

Casey Christie / The Californian

The many feral cats in Hart Park never seem to be lacking for food with many going to the park on a regular basis volunteering their time and expenses to feed the cats.

2 of 3

Buy Photo

Casey Christie / The Californian

A feral cat sits next to a large, plastic bowl in Hart Park to be used to feed the cats.

3 of 3

Buy Photo

Californian columnist Lois Henry

So, the Kern County Animal Control shelter will phase out accepting feral cats starting July 1.

Let the freak-out commence. Kidding! Don't freak out. Really, it'll be OK.

While the surprise announcement by Animal Control Director Jen Woodard last Tuesday caused concern among some that the move would spur even more animal dumping, my question was: What took her so long?

Back in January I advocated the shelter stop taking in every animal that came its way and spoke with Woodard about starting with ferals. At the time, she wasn't inclined but has since changed her mind.

I think it's a good thing. In fact, if handled correctly, this could be a great improvement for our shelter and I'll explain why.

Kern's kill rate for cats overall is 78 percent.

For ferals, it's 100 percent.

That's because ferals aren't adoptable. They're essentially wild animals, un-handleable.

They're held for five days (in two communal pens, torture for any wild animal) and then euthanized.

Woodard estimated the shelter houses and kills about 1,200 feral cats every year, a small portion of the 10,000 total cats that come through the shelter annually.

There are an estimated 140,000 free-roaming or feral cats in Kern. So, obviously, killing 1,200 every year does nothing to decrease the population.

By one very rough guesstimate, it costs about $100 per feral cat for the county to house, feed, care for and then kill it.

That means we're spending about $120,000 a year to kill cats for no actual benefit.

Sounds like a pretty dumb and expensive extermination service to me.

Despite fears that the new policy could cause an explosion in the feral cat population, the shelter handles such a miniscule number compared to the overall population that experts agree it won't make the situation any worse.

But turning away those cats and freeing up money, employee time and shelter space could be hugely beneficial, according to others in the animal welfare biz who've already traveled this path.

Woodard is just at the beginning stages of this new policy so she hasn't figured out every twist and turn.

Her goal is to be able to give residents bringing in feral cats other options.

Those could include having the shelter vet set days aside to spay and neuter feral cats by appointment, or having a contingent of private vets offer the service with county reimbursement, or even have it done through a nonprofit.

Then the resident, an animal control officer or, again, a nonprofit, would release the animal back to its original digs.

Yes, that means back to the neighborhood, business, park or other habitat from whence it came.

That's the part of what's known as TNR (trap, neuter, release) that's going to cause residents the most confusion and even anger, Woodard predicted.

If you're having a problem with cats spraying, fighting, yowling and making a mess in your yard and you go to the trouble and expense of renting a trap and finally catch the animal, why on earth would you want to let it right back out where it started?

It's an understandable concern, Woodard agreed.

But here's where science and education come in.

People who've studied animal colonies know that if you take out one or two members of the colony, at best all that happens is new animals come in and replace those you've eliminated.

At worse, you reduce the competition for food, water and shelter, so the remaining animals ultimately have larger litters and those offspring have a better chance of survival, which actually increases the population.

Better to reintroduce sterile members back into the colony and reduce the population over time, or at least keep it stable.

Besides, a sterile cat isn't going to spray and have screaming matches with rivals at 2 in the morning.

So, while it seems counterintuitive, releasing the animal back to its home territory is the best way to deal with problem populations.

Going the TNR route can also drop intake and euthanasia rates at shelters. Sometimes dramatically.

After a robust TNR program was introduced in San Jose three years ago, the cat/kitten intake dropped by 25 percent.

Euthanasia rates dropped by a whopping 65 percent.

"The number of dead cats we pick up went down by 17 percent as well," said San Jose Animal Control Director Jon Cicirelli. "A shelter is the truest barometer of whether a program is working. So, if the numbers are down in all three indicators, we can assume it's working."

Over three years of the program, the shelter has altered about 7,500 cats, he said.

The timing for San Jose was great in that a new shelter with a spay/neuter clinic had just been completed when the program was begun.

Cicirelli explained that San Jose never turned away ferals. It took them in, altered them and turned them over to a nonprofit partner, which returned the cats to neighborhoods. The nonprofit also handles all the education and works with citizens.

Even without that kind of Cadillac program, though, the benefits still outweigh potential problems.

The Sutter County shelter stopped accepting ferals last summer, dropping the cat impound rate by half, according to shelter Director Diana Beard. That's freed up space for adoptable cats and kept the shelter population healthier.

Lacking San Jose's resources, shelter staff cobbled together brochures using information from Alley Cat Allies that explains the benefits of TNR and they direct residents to the local SPCA for help in altering ferals, Beard explained.

"We've had a few people upset, but most understand," Beard said.

San Jose and Sutter County are on opposite ends of the resource spectrum but in both cases, not housing feral cats has been the right thing to do.

For us, here in Kern, the next step will be establishing a strong spay/neuter program.

The Board of Supervisors committed, on record, to pay for such a plan. And there are plenty of local organizations independently trying to make headway on the spay/neuter front.

The ingredients for success are there. Let's stir the pot and get this cooking.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com.