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City and suburbs try to deal with feral catastrophe

Arthur J. Robinson was so fed up with the stray kittens that had overtaken his Seneca-Babcock neighborhood that he trapped 14 of them, took them to a veterinarian to have them sterilized and returned them to where he found them.

At her manufactured home park in the Village of Alden, Susan Dobson has resorted to sprinkling her flower beds with ground pepper and cayenne pepper to keep feral cats from using the garden as a litter pan.

And Lancaster lawmakers have dealt with a slew of cat-related complaints ranging from concerns over a woman who was feeding cats in a subdivision off Aurora Street to frustration with neighbors who allow their cats to do their business on other people’s property.

Call it a catastrophe.

For many, feral cats – and owned cats that are allowed to roam freely – are making something of a nuisance of themselves across the Buffalo Niagara region. In Buffalo alone, there’s an estimated 45,000 to 90,000 unowned cats that prowl the streets.

And government leaders in the city as well as towns and villages are grappling with how to keep the kitty population under control.

In Buffalo, city lawmakers are considering ways to reduce the cat population.

They have talked about legislation to encourage citizens to trap, neuter and return feral cats. The plan could become a template for other communities.

But it has been the Common Council’s recent unanimous, though unbinding, endorsement of a “no-kill” philosophy that would mandate a 90 percent “save” rate at shelters that has divided the local community of animal advocates.

Advocates say by mandating that shelters save, or keep alive, 90 percent of the animals that come through their doors, fewer healthy animals would be euthanized.

But others, including the SPCA Serving Erie County, fear that a strict no-kill policy will lead to shelters becoming crowded, with limited space to treat homeless animals.

“Nobody wants to kill animals,” said SPCA Executive Director Barbara S. Carr. “People who want to say we’re going to make Buffalo a no-kill city – how? It’s not about words. It’s about hard work and trying to come up with solutions.”

Both sides agree that trapping, sterilizing and returning feral cats is an effective strategy for controlling the population.

But Buffalo Humane President Carol Tutzauer and lawyer Peter A. Reese, who have successfully lobbied the Common Council about encouraging no-kill at the city shelter, say having the no-kill philosophy would better encourage the practice of trapping and sterilizing.

If feral cats are trapped and killed, another population of cats will simply move into the area, animal experts said.

Three-and-a-half years ago, the county received a $5 million grant from Maddie’s Fund, a California-based animal welfare charity, as a way to end euthanasia of healthy cats and dogs and those with treatable illnesses.

The goal is to make Erie County a “no-kill” community by Oct. 1, which will be met, said Carr, who applied for the grant.

The grant has helped subsidize sterilization for cats brought in by people like Robinson, who paid just $10 for each surgery. Carr estimates that 17,000 cats will be spayed or neutered during the five-year grant, which ends Oct. 1, 2014, going a long way toward curbing kittens being born in the wild, she said.

Tutzauer, of Buffalo Humane, has questioned the success of the Maddie’s grant and wonders what will happen when it ends.

“As soon as the money dries up, people tend to revert back to their old habits,” she said.

But Carr said plans are in place to change practices to keep the shelter at a 90 percent save rate.

“We’re doing every clever thing we can think of to find animals homes,” she said.

Tutzauer acknowledged that statistics are improving but said more can be done to rehabilitate animals that are considered to have behavioral or health problems.

Laws in the suburbs

Western New York’s suburbs have been grappling with an explosion in the feral cat population, too, as well as similar nuisance issues involving pet cats that are allowed to roam freely.

Local lawmakers are trying to figure out what to legislate and – the really tricky part – how to enforce it.

Some communities already have put ordinances on their books, others are thinking about it, and some think it is pointless to even try to mitigate the problem.

The Town of Tonawanda has tried to tackle the issue directly. Two years ago, the Town Board implemented a new local law regulating ownership and harboring of cats, imposing fines of $75 for first-time offenders and up to $150 for repeat offenders within three years. But the ordinance does not regulate the number of cats a homeowner may have, nor do cats have to be registered, like dogs must be licensed.

Nonetheless, Tonawanda’s ordinance was directed at the problem of too many cats. One provision, for instance, makes it illegal for the owner of a female cat to let the pet run free during a reproductive cycle.

“The law gave us ‘teeth’ if people were hoarding too many cats,” said Thomas Pilat, the Town of Tonawanda animal control officer who also handles Kenmore’s animal complaints, who helped craft it with the police chief. “We wanted some bite.”

But without hard-core proof of whose cat is doing what in someone else’s gardens, good luck.

Plus, it can be hard to decipher whether it’s a stray or feral cat or one owned by a neighbor.

“The bottom line is you must be able to prove it ... That it’s the same gray cat doing it,” Pilat said.

In West Seneca, the town last year weighed whether to place restrictions limiting the number of cats allowed in each household to four. The supervisor, at a work session last fall, said her office had been inundated by callers pointing to several property owners in town for providing food and refuge for large numbers of cats. Neighbors there have complained of cats repeatedly walking into yards and sunbathing on neighbors’ awnings and also defecating on neighboring properties. One resident complained that he couldn’t even take his dog out for a walk at night because so many cats are all over the place.

In Lancaster, lawmakers have been getting an earful about felines. A Lake Avenue resident is so fed up with a neighbor’s cat that the resident contacted Supervisor Dino J. Fudoli, pleading for help. The resident even sent him pictures of the offending kitty going to the bathroom on the resident’s property, Fudoli said.

The plea struck a chord with Fudoli, but other board members are not so convinced that it’s a widespread problem that Lancaster needs to worry about.

“If it was my house, I wouldn’t want it to happen once. I cannot imagine any reasonable person would want someone else’s animal coming into their yard and making a mess and having to clean it up. I wouldn’t want it,” Fudoli said.

Fudoli thinks the town needs to consider drafting some type of nuisance law and hold a public hearing to glean input.

The town could then send warning letters for violations, hoping that would motivate some type of resolution to the problem, before fines would be the next step.

Lancaster Town Attorney John Dudziak is reluctant. “We have an ordinance for dogs barking, loud stereos ... What’s next? Rabbits? Squirrels?” he said. “Then, are we going to have a cat warden? There’s a whole lot of issues.”

Dudziak noted that the state’s Agriculture & Markets Law does not cover cats, only deer. “Are we going to craft something specific for cats?” he said.

Lancaster Dog Control Officer David Horn said he receives many calls on cats visiting neighbors’ yards to use them as litter pans. “There should be something on the book for cats, where people whose cats are doing damage, are responsible,” Horn said. “If there’s a law for dogs, why not for cats?”

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