Solving a problem with method, kindnessDec 21, 2020 10:57AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Natalie Smith
In 1998, Felicia Cross and her family were living in Ireland after her husband’s job transfer when she was asked to help catch a mama cat and kittens.
“They were living in a parking garage that was going to be torn down,” Cross, now of Centreville, recalled. “I helped to catch them and that kind of opened my eyes; why would they be living in the parking garage? I started doing research and realized the plight of roaming or feral cats.”
Cross knows the felines’ difficulties better than most. She’s the founder and executive director of the non-profit Forgotten Cats, the leading regional organization that utilizes the trap, neuter, vaccinate and release (TNVR) method of reducing populations of homeless cats. Since its formation in 2003, Forgotten Cats has trapped, neutered, vaccinated and released an astonishing 140,000 animals. “Already, since January, we’ve sterilized over 13,000 cats,” Cross said.
She honed her skills while still abroad after finding an English-based organization - Cat Action Trust. “They educated me on trapping, neuter, release. So I started TNR [in Ireland]. I was only there for three years, but you know by the time I left I think I had sterilized somewhere close to 1,000 cats, and that was just me helping people.”
What exactly is TNVR? From the Forgotten Cats website, forgottencats.org:
TNVR (Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, Release) involves humanely trapping homeless cats and transporting them to a veterinary clinic where they are neutered. They may also receive a health check, vaccinations, and can be treated for routine medical conditions. After surgery, the cat recuperates for a day or two and is then returned back to his colony habitat where caring individuals provide food, water and shelter.
Eighty to 85 percent of these cats are feral, or those that aren’t socialized to people. Olivia Westley, development director for Forgotten Cats, said there’s no mistaking a feral cat. “You can compare these cats to raccoons, foxes,” she said. “They don’t want to be inside. You can’t touch these cats. You can’t hold these cats. If you held them, it would be unfair to them. They would be miserable.
“But what we find is there are a lot of people in the community that care for these cats. They get up every morning, go out back and feed these feral cats. They have names for them. Even though they can't touch them, they still love these cats.
“Releasing them back to their location when they have somebody that's feeding them and somebody that is making little winter houses for them ... It's really the best-case scenario for a feral cat.”
Babies, kittens up to 3 months old and friendly cats are also treated, evaluated and put up for adoption. The friendly cats are usually strays, former pets that under some circumstance lost their homes. Currently, there are nearly 200 cats featured on the group’s website waiting for homes.
“Feral cats fall in this black hole,” Cross said. “They're not wildlife and they're not pets; they don't want to be pets. There’s this black hole category where they don't really fit in. That's why we keep the ‘friendlies’ and stop the reproduction of the ‘unfriendlies’, and eventually the population will go down.”
Forgotten Cats is often contacted not to trap a single cat, but many that live in larger groups.
“People think it's about helping animals, and it is. But it's actually helping people,” Cross said. She explained how the cycle starts by giving the example of a condominium complex. “Let’s say someone leaves. What happens many times is people go into nursing homes, or they move or they pass away. Sometimes they'll just put the cat outside because they don't know what else to do with it, especially when the shelters are full. Or cats get out of the house and they can't find their way back home, for whatever reason.
“Many times, they sit on the doorstep and wait for someone to feed them and when they don't, they start scavenging. Now there might be a neighbor five doors down that sees the cat, looks in the windows and sees the owner is gone. They start putting food out. Before you know it, the cat has kittens, the kittens have kittens and there are 12 cats, 15 cats, in a year or two.
“And people are calling for help. ‘Help me. I can't catch these cats. I don't know what to do, but I don't want them killed. I just want them to stop reproducing.’
We're actually responding to people's request for help: ‘Please help us to get this situation under control’. So, we go out and catch all the cats.”
And Cross means all. She explained why Forgotten Cats is so successful.
“When smaller organizations drop a trap, they trap maybe two cats here, two cats there. If they're going to trap a colony of 50 cats, they may trap two or five a week. And then put them back, then go back and try to get two or five more. It doesn't work because by the time you get 15 done, you've had 15 kittens born. You never really catch up. Plus, the people who are feeding them don't want to starve cats that have already been neutered. They don't want to withhold food for no reason, but it's very difficult to catch cats that aren't hungry because they go in the traps for food.”
Cross said in February, Forgotten Cats handled a colony of about 70 cats in Claymont off of Naamans Road. “They were being fed by a host of people up and down the railroad tracks. You have to bring the number of traps that are needed. So we brought 50 or 60 traps on the first day and we trapped maybe 20 or 30 and we brought them back to our facility.
“We continue trapping every day. We don't stop until we’ve caught them all and we continue to hold them until we’ve caught them all. Generally, that takes anywhere from five to maybe 10 days at the very most, depending on how far they're spread out and how many people are feeding them. But it's important that you’ve trapped the entire colony in order to get the colony size to diminish.
“That was a colony that was being done two cats a week for six months and within 10 days we had the whole thing stabilized. And what is kind of neat is they saw no kittens the entire year so far. Normally cats have three litters by [November].
“That shows you that it works. This is our mission. We do a lot of other things, but we make sure that when we walk away, there aren’t going to be any more kittens.”
Forgotten Cats – Around the region
As its reputation has grown over the years, Forgotten Cats has become the go-to organization for TNVR. Cross said they worked with the city of Harrington a few years ago and ended up removing more than 130 cats; Coatesville, Pa. also tapped them for their services. Cross has also noticed their effect a little closer to home.
“I have seen a huge improvement in New Castle County. How do I know? We can tell by the number of calls we get and also colony sizes. We would get many, many more calls and the colony sizes would be 20, 30 cats. Now, we're getting calls and there might be one, two or five cats.”
Their influence has moved beyond the county. Westley, the development director, said their group affected Delaware’s decision in 2019 to become the first no-kill animal shelter state.
“I really feel that Forgotten Cats played a crucial role in that because by controlling the homeless cat population, you’re having [fewer] kittens being taken to shelters. Because when shelters are overloaded with kittens, then they have no space, and then they start euthanizing. Our work has been [vital].
The organization’s reach has expanded considerably. It serves Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. “We’re going to be beginning a big project down in Maryland. It will be almost 2,000 cats,” Westley said.
After it started, it was clear that Forgotten Cats needed to become a self-sufficient organization because of the sheer volume of cats. It has its own spay and neuter clinics, one in Trainer, Pa. (just north of Claymont) and one in Willow Grove, Pa., that serves Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey. A third, in Sussex County, is temporarily closed as a veterinarian is being sought for that location.
“We are in 10 different locations for adopting cats out, PetSmarts and Petcos,” Cross said. “We have a mobile adoption van that we’re using during COVID-19 precautions. Kind of useful because people can see the cats from the outside and don’t have to worry about safe distancing.”
Westley said the grants, donations, fundraisers and bequests are crucial to keep the non-profit Forgotten Cats going. “PetSmart Charities has been particularly good to us,” she said.
And Forgotten Cats couldn’t have done nearly the good work that it has if it weren’t for its volunteers, 700 strong. “We’ve grown this amazing organization with primarily all volunteers,” an appreciative Cross said. “The people we have, and the dedication and compassion they show … it’s just incredible.
“If anyone would like to volunteer, this is one of the most rewarding things you can do. You see these cats come in, and they're scared. They might be injured. They might be emaciated, covered with parasites. And by the time we're finished with them, they're going home to forever homes.
“Even with the ferals, they come in and we sterilize them, vaccinate them, treat them for fleas. We treat them for worms. And then, you can watch them go back out. And you know they're going to live a full life without having to be plagued with kittens and they're going back to good homes. It's a very rewarding process.”
More information about cat or kitten adoption or volunteering can be found on the Forgotten Cats website, forgottencats.org.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at [email protected].