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Dealing with New London’s feral cats: Volunteers capture, sterilize, feed and inoculate town’s feline colonies

Cathy Plucker, left, and Jane Nygaard demonstrate how they set live traps to catch feral cats in New London. Once the cats are trapped, Nygaard, a semi-retired veterinarian, spays, neuters and releases the animals. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

NEW LONDON –– They usually slink around the dumpsters and alleys of New London at night.

Sometimes working in pairs and sometimes alone, they set live traps laced with cans of pungent food in tall grass or alongside the back-street buildings at the prime time of dusk.

After the sun has long set they’ll return to see if they’ve been successful or not.

Their goal is to catch feral cats, which usually slink around the dumpsters and alleys of New London at night.

Cat colonies usually have common gathering places and a regular pattern of activities to find food, so in order to catch a feral cat a trapper must think like one.

That’s what’s happening in New London, where a pilot project is underway to catch feral cats, neuter or spay them, give them rabies shots, clip the tip of their left ear and then return them to their territory.

It’s hoped the practice will at least stabilize –– and hopefully reduce –– the number of feral cats in town.

“It’s a great thing,” said New London City Administrator Trudie Guptill. If the cat colonies are kept small they “won’t be having 82 babies every year,” she said, with a touch of over-statement.

Since it started in April, there have been 16 cats caught, fixed and released.

Jane Nygaard, a semi-retired veterinarian who is providing all the medical services and medications for free, said she’d hoped to have done 30 by now.

“You have to do that many to make a dent,” said Nygaard.

Spaying or neutering 70 percent of a community’s feral cats will stabilize the population, she said.

“For the population to decline you need 100 percent spay or neuter. That’s what we want.”

Nygaard offered to start the program earlier this after seeking approval from the New London City Council.

It’s styled after a national “Trap-Neuter-Return” program that’s being done in large cities across the country as a humane way of improving the health of feral cats and reducing their numbers over time.

Nygaard said she’d like to see other communities take on the project by recruiting volunteers and catching cats so it can become a county-wide program.

But for now, she’s focusing on New London.

Volunteers have already dealt with the New London colonies they were aware of, including by the American Legion and bowling alley where there are several large dumpsters.

“I’m looking for more New London cats,” said Nygaard, who encouraged people to call the New London city hall with information about where to find additional colonies.

“People just need to call in and say, ‘there are three or four cats over here’ and let us know exactly where they’re at,” said Cathy Plucker, a volunteer who has helped set the traps.

Rather than doing a “random” trapping of a cat here and there, Nygaard said it’s better to target a colony and set traps on one night where a “clan” of cats live and “get them all in one fell swoop.”

Once the traps are set on a given night, a volunteer –– and Nygaard said more volunteers are needed –– checks the traps at night and early in the morning.

If there cats in the trap then Nygaard goes to work.

The trickiest part of the process –– getting a wild cat out of the trap –– is done cleverly by tipping the trap on its end and gently pushing towels in so the cat is confined and Nygaard can inject it with an anesthesia.

The limp animal is removed and surgery performed and Nygaard gives them a rabies shot, a painkiller that lasts three days and snips the tip of its left year, which she said is the international sign of a neutered/spayed feral cat.

They’re kept overnight in the traps, given some food and then returned where they were caught.

The cats are quite happy to be released from the cage.

“Nothing happens for like three seconds,” said Nygaard. “Then all of a sudden, voom. It’s like a bullet.”

An avowed animal lover, Plucker said she hopes people understand the purpose of the program and respond positively.

“People can easily complain about it but they don’t want to do anything about it,” said Plucker.

“So here we are. We’re trying to do something about it,” said Nygaard, who acknowledges she’s received more than a few “eye rolls” from people who think the cats should be caught and killed.

“Just be compassionate. That’s all we’re saying,” said Nygaard. “We don’t catch and euthanize.”

Although she’s semi-retired, Nygaard said providing this service for free is way to contribute to the community. “This is a little thing that I can do,” she said. “It feels good.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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