Friends2Ferals

Nancy Schneiter bringing cats to safety

Mission statement: To aid in the long-term solution to feline over- population in our community through a consistent Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program and low or no cost spay neuter program.

What are a cat lover’s options when the stray, starving cat they fed all summer marches three adorable gray kittens to the food bowl and then departs? What if, on a wet, cold Saturday night, a bedraggled cat strolls in, snuggles into a blanket, and devours every smidgeon of tuna set before him? What if keeping the kittens and cat is impossible because rescues Buddy, Tooley, Tabatha, Figaro, and Munchkin are already in residence?
Hoping for a better option than the county animal shelter, I called the Blue Ridge Humane Society which referred me to Nancy Schneiter, founder of Friends2Ferals. I expected her to make an appointment for a few days later or the next week. Instead, she arrived that afternoon to teach me about humanely trapping cats.

First, stop feeding them. Next, tie the cage door open, set the food at the edge, and then push the bowl farther into the cage each day. When they willingly enter the cage, release the door and set the trap before their next feeding. Finally, after they are caught cover the trap with a towel or sheet to induce a sense of security and to protect your hands while carrying the trap.
Being the wily little creatures that kittens tend to be, not all went as planned. Over the next few days, I caught a huge opossum, the neighbor’s cat, a raccoon, and the other neighbor’s cat. But with Nancy’s encouragement, I succeeded and off they went to a hopeful future.

In November 2007, Nancy was officially asked to lead the Humane Society of Buncombe County—not affiliated with the Asheville Humane Society—a small group dedicated to rehoming cats and kittens. Since the ever-expanding abundance of feral cats—defined as “not socialized to humans”—initially presented their biggest problem, Nancy founded Friends2Ferals with the goal of eliminating Buncombe County’s feral cat population.

Nancy Holding Rescued Kitten

To learn trap-neuter-return methods, she attended an Alley Cat Allies’ convention in Washington, D.C. Nancy also completed a mentoring program with Bryan Kortis, director of New York City’s Neighborhood Cats. Their trap-neuter-return program has been so successful that numerous colonies now exist peacefully in the city. While visiting Asheville on other business, Kortis heard of Friends2Ferals and asked Nancy about completing Neighborhood Cats’ first mentoring program. Besides demonstrating the practical aspects of establishing a trap-neuter-return project, Kortis wrote grants, one of which resulted in funds for traps (1).

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs are scorned because few people understand that “return” is the operative word. TNR’s objective is responsibly caring for the fixed cats and renewing their rabies shots yearly, not dumping them into circumstances where survival is haphazard at best. Every cat trapped by Friends2Ferals is living in a responsible-care situation and has a rabies certificate designating the person responsible for keeping the shots current.

In June 2016, Nancy received funding for Henderson and Madison Counties, so Friends2Ferals now provides the basic services of spaying or neutering and rabies shots free of charge for all three counties. (More about funding later, but Friends2Ferals provides these basic services gratis because of a private donor’s generosity.)

Before long, Friends2Ferals recognized another problem. Nancy says, “We realized that there wasn’t just a feral population in need, but also a sizeable population of abandoned, but friendly cats that we refer to as ‘community cats.’” (The ASPCA refers to all cats served as “community cats,” but designating “feral” and “community” clarifies day-to-day operations.)

The final category is altered cats, about 5% of those trapped, which are checked for a microchip. Such was the case with our Saturday night visitor. TC, short for Talking Cat, is 14 years old and the beloved pet of neighbors living a few blocks away. They responded immediately to Nancy’s call and retrieved TC within the hour.

Buncombe County cats with a chip are put on a 3-day stray hold at the Asheville Humane Society, and the owners are notified. If the owner will not respond, the cat goes into an adoption program. Over the years, Friends2Ferals has reunited many a desperate owner with a beloved pet, two years later in one case.

All trapped cats and kittens are taken to the Humane Alliance Spay/Neuter Clinic: A Program of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies, given FVRCT vaccine (feline distemper, pan-leukopenia, etc.), treated for parasites and obvious problems such as tooth decay or a wound. (Cats testing positive for feline leukemia may be euthanized.) Nancy delivers the cats by 11:00 a.m. and retrieves them at 11:00 the next morning if their post-surgical examination reveals no problems.

Founded in 1994 with four employees, Humane Alliance opened as a low-cost, spay-neuter facility for cats and dogs for private clients and shelters, mostly shelters (2). Currently, 15 veterinarians, 24 veterinary technicians, and 11 administrative assistants operate “. . . the nation’s leading training and education organization focusing on high-quality, high volume spay/neuter–one of the most effective tools the animal welfare community has to combat homelessness and the needless euthanasia of dogs and cats.” (3) The Humane Alliance spays and neuters four days weekly, averaging 120 cats and dogs each day.

A cat’s destination after leaving Humane Alliance depends on the source. If privately owned, back to the owner with a rabies certificate. If community cats or kittens are socialized or show potential, local animal welfare organizations integrate them into adoption programs. In the case of feral cats, Nancy has two options.

The three gray kittens went home with her to be socialized, usually successful up to age 12 weeks. After a few days of living in a small space, kittens realize that the person is friendly and welcome food and attention. One gray kitten socialized and went into the foster program; the other two were accepted by a caring farmer with lots of barn space.

When a feral cat will not socialize, Nancy asks someone in the area if they are willing to feed the cat. Rarely has she been refused after offering to supply food and assistance as needed.

Like the TNR program, cat colonies receive bad press because few people understand the difference between a feral colony, a controlled colony, and a semi-feral colony.

In a feral colony, unsocialized and unfixed cats survive as best they can. Feral colonies often begin when callous owners who, rather than rehoming the cat or consulting a local animal welfare organization, dump the animal wherever. Accustomed to being cared for, these cats have few survival skills, especially if declawed. Though cats do not normally socialize with each other, abandoned cats often band together in an empty building or outdoors. Before long, the community cats have spawned a feral colony. When notified of a feral colony, Nancy explains the Friends2Ferals’ program to the property owner and asks for permission to trap the cats. She has never been refused.

Friends2Ferals’ occasionally assists controlled colonies that are supervised by dedicated volunteers. They feed the cats twice daily, maintain the shelters, trap invading cats, and monitor for disease or injury. After the initial trial of settling into a colony’s pecking order, the newcomer hunkers down to a stable food source and relative safety.

In a semi-feral colony, cats are socialized just enough to live in relatively close quarters with humans. They survive on the rodent population and food often provided by people. Such colonies can be established to benefit the human and feline residents.

A local mobile home park manager, besieged by his tenants, called Nancy for assistance with the feral cats overwhelming the property. Four years earlier, he trapped 40 cats and had them euthanized, his only option. Within a year, the exploding rodent population attracted feral perimeter cats.

That, Nancy explained, is the “vacuum effect.” Remove all of the cats, the rodent population rapidly expands, and the perimeter cats move in. And, because of the abundant food supply, the cats are healthier and have larger litters more frequently.

He agreed to Nancy’s suggestion of creating a controlled colony within the park. She trapped almost 100 cats that were fixed and treated at Humane Alliance and returned to the park. Residents who like the cats gladly feed and monitor them. When they notice a health problem or other cats moving in, they call Nancy. Residents who didn’t like the cats still don’t, but they are content with a stable cat population and the rodents’ demise. And the park manager is relieved not to be assailed every time he leaves his home or answers the phone.

Nancy’s cardinal rule when trapping feral cats is catching “every” cat. Though an onerous task, the offspring of a single female can rapidly reestablish a colony.

Has Friends2Ferals made a difference in the three counties? Since Henderson and Madison Counties connected less than a year ago, statistics are incomplete. The combined 2016 statistics of the Buncombe County/Asheville Humane Society, ASPCA, and Friends2Ferals revealed a 25 percent decrease in cats arriving at the Buncombe County Shelter and has shown an annual nine percent reduction in kittens for the last three years. Again this spring, normally prime kitten season, many Buncombe County animal welfare associations reported a shortage.

In the nine years since founding Friends2Ferals, Nancy has trapped-neutered-returned approximately 11,000 cats and often averages 40 cats weekly. So, yes, Friends2Ferals has made an enormous difference in the feral and community cat populations.

Nancy anticipated flack from local veterinarians for diminishing their business, but received very little. (A few, in fact, offer Friends2Ferals lower rates.) Cat owners who can afford the services prefer to establish their cat’s medical treatment and history with a single practice for continuity of care. The occasional owner assisted by Friends2Ferals cannot afford the fees and will lose their outdoor cat without assistance.

As stated above, Friends2Ferals, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, provides spaying or neutering and rabies shots gratis thanks to a private donor’s generosity. Friends2Ferals depends on donations from the general public to cover all other expenses, including administration costs and medical bills.

Grants from PetSmart Charities, the Petco Foundation, and other corporations specify the services their funds will cover within a given cycle, but specifications are rarely permanent. Funds covering van maintenance, for example, may be eliminated but money for medical costs allocated. Locally, county grants can be written after determining in which zip code area the most cats are trapped.
As grant funding dwindles, Friends2Ferals increasingly depends on public donations to survive. (Also, please see the sidebar listing in-kind donations.)

Since covering Buncombe, Henderson, and Madison Counties is more than full time work, Friends2Ferals always needs volunteers. Lest prospective trapping volunteers be disillusioned, Nancy explains upfront that TNR work is more than cuddling cute, fuzzy kittens. Trapping cats, whether feral or community, requires time, patience, and diligence. At the mobile home park, the pro-cat residents gladly helped set and check the traps and assumed responsibility for rabies shots. Trapping feral cats requires extra diligence because the setting is often rural, and the traps must be checked daily. Volunteers to cover an area as the need arises would be a tremendous help.

Besides trapping volunteers, Friends2Ferals also needs social media expertise, grant writing assistance, and drivers to transport cats to and from Humane Alliance.

As cat lovers and detractors in Buncombe, Henderson, and Madison Counties are discovering, a feasible solution to the problem of feral and community cats already exists. Considering Friends2Ferals’ progress since being founded nine years ago, the goal of eliminating feral cat colonies and rehoming community cats is a viable possibility.

However, with each passing year Friends2Ferals’ survival grows more tenuous as financial sources dissipate. Every donation, whether in-kind, monetary, or volunteer, helps guarantee that humane options will continue to exist for feral and community cats in Buncombe, Henderson, and Transylvania Counties.

Without Friends2Ferals, the future for our three gray kittens and TC would have been bleak or, more likely, non-existent.

CONTACT INFORMATION:
Humane Alliance: 828-252-2079
Friends2Ferals: 828-505-6737 and Facebook

NOTES
1.For a video of Bryan Kortis talking about the cat colonies in New York City and introducing the residents,” please go to www.neighborhoodcats.org
2.For information or an appointment, call the number listed above or make an appointment at online at humanealliance.org. Transportation assistance is available.
3.Humane Alliance. http://humanealliance.org/fix-your-pet/community-cats

Written by Mary Ickes