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Feral cats? Minneapolis to consider St. Paul’s approach to the problem

The city “is a very late comer to the conversation,” says the head of Animal Ark, which operates programs to trap, spay or neuter them.

Minneapolis residents are currently breaking the law if they become a caretaker for a feral cat or a colony of feral cats.
Creative Commons/JH Mikels

When it comes to feral cats, St. Paul is more than five years ahead of Minneapolis — if “ahead” is defined as a spay-neuter program, rather than euthanasia.

“Minneapolis is a very late comer to the conversation,” said Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark, which operates programs to trap, spay or neuter feral cats and return them to the wild in communities across the state.  It also operates a shelter in Hastings.

It was fall of 2007 when Animal Ark started a pilot project for St. Paul offering a solution to the growing feral cat population that does not involve killing the cats.

The process starts when a resident applies to borrow a cat trap. But before the trap is set out, leaflets are distributed to the neighbors explaining what day the trapping will occur, so pet cats can be kept inside.

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The trapped cat is taken to a spay/neuter organization for surgery, a general health examination and inoculations. The cat also is marked by removing a tiny triangle of skin from its ear to identify it as a sterilized feral cat.

There is no overnight hospital stay. The cat caretaker is asked to keep the animal inside for a day before releasing the animal into the wild.

Gordon wants ordinance changes

“There are definitely feral cats that are picked up by Animal Control and euthanized,” said Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon, who is starting work to change city ordinances to clear the way for a trap, spay/neuter and release program.

“The problem is not just the cats,” said Gordon. “The problem is the way some people are taking care of them attracts raccoons and other vermin that people don’t want in the area.”

Minneapolis residents are currently breaking the law if they become a caretaker for a feral cat or a colony of feral cats.

Leaving food outside on the ground for animals is currently against the law in Minneapolis. And it can be argued that a caretaker for a colony of feral cats would need a special permit for multiple animals, such as the one required for a household with more than three pets.

“We have to tweak some of our ordinances,” said Gordon. “We’ve actually had complaints about people who think they’re doing a service by taking care of wild cats or feeding them.”

Gordon thinks a trap, spay/neuter and release program that uses a nonprofit surgery service would not be a major expense for the city.

Not quite three years ago, the Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program got its start, offering low-cost services from a clinic on wheels and in shelters and rescue centers. It performs spay and neuter surgery at the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control facility at the edge of downtown.

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27,000 spay/neuter surgeries

During those three years, the veterinarians from MSNAP have performed 27,000 spay/neuter surgeries. Some of those are on feral cats in Minneapolis, even though the people bringing them in have probably broken the law.

“Caretakers are afraid to bring in the cats,” said Dana Andresen, executive director of the organization. Last year, MSNAP did 2,659 spay or neuter surgeries on feral cats with a “significant number of those from Minneapolis,” she said.

Andresen would like to see the Minneapolis ordinances changed to make it legal to feed feral cats — the key to trapping the animals — and make it easier, in turn, for her organization to expand their outreach for feral cats and their caretakers.

In St. Paul, the number of cats impounded dropped after the trap, spay/neuter and release program was started in 2007. The year before that, 1,148 cats were impounded, typical for the 16 proceeding years. In 2007, that number dropped to 874, the lowest number since 1987.

“Our impounds have remained pretty consistent,” said Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections.  The veterinarians from MSNAP work out of the St. Paul Animal Control building and use the adjacent parking lot.

Minneapolis envisions a similar arrangement.

The idea of returning feral cats to the wild has drawn criticism from groups concerned about the damage the cats do to small mammals and birds. Advocates of the return to the wild contend that replacing fertile cats with sterilized animals in the feral colony actually reduces the number of cats in the long run.

“The theory is that once the cats are released back into their colony, they will take up the space in that colony and prevent other cats from joining and moving in,” said Gordon. “As more and more cats are sterilized, there won’t be cats reproducing as frequently and the colony size decreases over time.”

‘Bloodthirsty killer’ claim disputed

The journal Nature Communications published a  Jan. 29  article that called cats “bloodthirsty killers of wildlife.” In that article, a team of researchers estimated that 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds are killed by cats every year in the United States. They also claim that 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion small mammals, mostly rats and mice, are also killed by cats. Of those kills, they estimate that 70 percent are done by feral cats.

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“These are inflated numbers,” says the Animal Ark’s Fry of the Nature Communications article.  He points out that the researchers compiled their data by studying the work of other researchers, rather than conducting their own studies. “They are cherry-picking their data,” he said.

He urges people to look at the larger picture.  If you take away the cats, you could develop a rodent problem. Or worse.

“We no longer allow natural predators of birds, like fox, to live here,” said Fry. “What cats have done primarily is provide a service for people who don’t want a skunk under their porch.”

State Audubon group opposed

The Audubon Society of Minnesota has taken a stand against the trap, spay/neuter and release approach, saying that colonies of feral cats serve as dumping grounds for unwanted pets. The group reports that there are 90 million pet cats in the nation with 60 million of them allowed to travel outside. Add to that its estimate of 65 million feral cats and you have 125 million cats outside and hunting.

The Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter, with 1,300 members, has not yet taken a stand on the issue.

“I’m a cat lover, and I’m also a bird lover,” said Matthew Schaut, president of the chapter. His cat loved being outside and visiting neighbors, but she is no longer allowed out of the house.  “She’ll live longer,” he said, adding that she did kill chickadees and mice.

“I will not let any cat I own wander freely anymore,” he said, but he points out that cats are not the only threat faced by birds and small mammals.

Birds die when they fly into buildings or windows, are hit by cars and are killed by the power generators that look like windmills.  Birds also kill other birds, and raptors kill other birds.  Skunks and other small mammals will steal eggs from a nest.

“The science will say that the trap, spay/neuter and release program won’t help the predation on birds,” said Schaut. “The science will say the only way to stop that is to euthanize the cats.”

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“Neutering the cats doesn’t get rid of the problem,” said Steve Weston, vice president of the chapter. “That cat is still living in the area for many years afterwards.”

He has watched the demise of the western meadowlark, once a common sight in western Minnesota but now rarely seen in some areas where it once flourished. The meadowlark builds its nests on the ground.

“One of the culprits is cats,” said Weston, calling them “very accomplished” hunters. In his opinion, it’s fine for cats to go after mice and voles but not birds.

“I know it’s wildly unpopular to say we should be ridding the streets of maraudering cats, but I’m not in favor of cats surviving on birds,” he said. “I’m not real keen on the idea of them being euthanized, but I think it’s less humane to be left on the streets and suffer an ugly, early death.”

Gordon said he expects a public hearing on the trap, spay/neuter and release program sometime in April or May.


A statistic from the Audubon Society of Minnesota was erroneously stated as applying to Minnesota. It’s actually a national figure. The corrected sentence states: “The group reports that there are 90 million pet cats in the nation with 60 million of them allowed to travel outside.”