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Stray Cats Hearing: Feline Advocates, Bird Watchers Spar

Tuesday, March 19, 2013
by Ted Cox

Cat advocates overran bird watchers at a hearing on Cook County's feral-cat colonies Tuesday.

Yet with Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) insisting nothing was formally at stake, the two sides produced surprising agreements, starting with their mutual interest in taking stray cats off the streets.

Jenny Schlueter, a feral-cat caretaker in Humboldt Park and director of development for Tree House Humane Society, spoke for many when she said the two sides "both want the same thing. We want fewer free-roaming cats."

But they did clash over how to achieve that end, as they had in the past.

"We're not anti-cats," said Donnie Dann, an Illinois Nature Preserves commissioner. Yet he said a recent study estimating that cats kill 2.4 billion North American birds a year "settles any argument" about whether cats damage the environment. He went on to attack the county-approved cat colonies, based on a program to trap, neuter and release feral cats.

"TNR has not been a successful method for control," Dann said, calling it "a failed strategy."

While cat advocates decried euthanasia for strays, Dann said, "We object to another E word, extinction."

Yet Collette Walker, of Triple R Pets, one of three leading agencies administering the cat colonies, rallied dozens of the agency's 486 cat caretakers, and they dominated public comment at the hearing, albeit politely.

"This is a policy we know works," Walker said, and she was echoed by other cat caretakers.

Leading up to the hearing, the line to get into the audience gallery stretched down the hallway outside the County Board Meeting Room and into the elevator lobby. Estimates of those trying to get in ranged from 100 to 200.

Ann-Marie Shapiro, a federal research ecologist, attacked the "extremely weak science" in the report on cat carnage, adding, "I'm kind of surprised it was even published."

Judy Pollock of Evanston, however, attacked the "secretive" nature of many cat colonies and their caretakers, saying, "We haven't seen the study that says TNR works."

Dr. Donna Alexander, head of the county's Department of Animal and Rabies Control, tried to address that, saying that before the feral-cat ordinance took effect in 2007, several local municipalities were euthanizing 500 cats a year at an average cost of almost $250 a cat.

“Municipalities were spending $122,500 per year and not reducing the feral-cat population,” Alexander said. “The program has prevented the birth of 336,000 more feral cats and saved municipalities $612,500.”

Rochelle Michalek, executive director of PAWS Chicago, another leading colony sponsor, said that since 2008, 17,500 stray cats had been sterilized and vaccinated in Cook County, at a cost of $1.5 million — all of it privately funded, without any government contributions. She added that colonies reduced an average of 41 percent over three years and estimated there are currently 7,000 cats at the county's 1,000 approved colonies.

"Those number are coming down," Alexander said. "And that is our goal, to reduce the number of free-roaming cats."

Dr. Stanley Gehrt, of the Max McGraw Foundation, testified on a study showing that cats do not go deep into forest preserves, due to threats of falling prey to coyotes.

"They're actually avoiding forest preserves," he said. "Cats and coyotes are separating themselves."

Gehrt vouched for the unbiased nature of the study, saying, "We do not have a dog in the hunt, so to say."

 Many on both sides of the issue said they liked all animals and agreed on that basic goal to reduce free-roaming cats — both house pets and feral strays. "I think you both respect each other's side," concluded Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago).

"This was never about trying to pit people against one another," Suffredin said.

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