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DoD Advocates Humane Cat Control

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2000 – Too many stray cats on base. What's a commander to do? Shoot them? Poison them? Bag them and dump them downtown?

Hold on. Don't do anything hasty. There are other options.

The Armed Forces Pest Management Board advocates treating stray and feral cats humanely, according to Peter J. Egan, environmental biologist with the board, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. That means no poison -- ever -- no leg traps and no shooting, except in dire situations.

Most military installations have stray and feral cat populations, he said. Strays are lost or abandoned pets. Feral cats are those born in the wild and never domesticated.

"Usually, we have feral cat problems when they're around a playground or other public area where a lot of people come into contact," Egan said. Or, in some cases, cats prey on protected wildlife on base.

Cats living at remote industrial sites on an installation aren't necessarily recognized as a problem, he said. "You don't even know they're there until you come out late at night with a couple of cans of cat food. All of a sudden they come out of the woodwork."

The cats ultimately become the base commander's responsibility, Egan said. "Failure to prevent or control a feral cat population amounts to inhumane treatment of animals," according to the management board's 1996 guidelines on dealing with the problem.

DoD has no formal policy on how to deal with stray and feral cats, only guidelines, Egan said. "We offer options, depending upon the situation."

Base veterinarians and installation commanders have policies on pets, he said. That's within their purview. Pests, on the other hand, are dealt with through the Armed Forces Pest Management Board.

Technical Information Memorandum No. 37, produced by the board, provides a number of ways to deal with stray and feral cats. It also points out issues base officials need to consider in deciding a course of action.

The board is revising its guidelines to include a Web site, ways to promote responsible pet ownership and ways to contact local animal welfare organizations willing to help with feral cats. Egan said he hopes to see the new guidelines published this fall.

"Our approach has always been to use the best practices possible to control them," Egan said. "The guidance we try to give people is that it's got to be legal and it's got to be humane."

DoD's guidelines suggest trapping the cats and turning them over to local animal shelters for adoption, or if necessary, euthanasia. DoD guidelines also mention the "trap, neuter, return" approach advocated by such groups as Alley Cat Allies in Washington, D.C., Operation Catnip in Raleigh, N.C., and the Feral Cat Coalition in San Diego. However, they stress that this option should only be used at industrial facilities and shipyards where potential conflicts with people and wildlife are minimal.

This approach is at the heart of a grass-roots campaign to rescue strays and humanely reduce the feral population. The animals are trapped, and kittens and domestic cats are culled out and put up for adoption. The feral cats are neutered and returned to their environment to live out their lives in "managed care colonies" that should shrink as members die off, provided new strays and ferals don't join the group.

A network of animal welfare organizations has set up a toll-free number, 888-738-7911, and a Web site, www.1888PETS911.org to reunite owners with lost pets and help people find homes for animals or locate local animal welfare organizations.

People sometimes suggest poisoning, drowning or gassing cats, Egan said. First, there's no EPA-registered poison for cat control. Beyond that, however, all three are considered inhumane practices -- and that makes them illegal.

"Others suggest shooting the cats," he continued. "That's not a very good solution because people don't like to see anyone shooting cats. Oftentimes the cats are in and around housing areas, so shooting them would not be very safe.

The guidelines say shooting may be an option when other means are not available or have been ineffective, or in emergencies such as a rabies outbreak when human health is at great risk. "Strict command approval must be obtained in advance, and proper public affairs coordination must be effected," the guidelines state.

Nobody loves a cockroach -- except maybe an entomologist -- and no one feels bad when we kill one, Egan said. But killing cats -- even feral ones -- is another matter entirely. Destroying cats oftentimes becomes a public relations nightmare. The Armed Forces Pest Management Board highly recommends that local pest control officials coordinate cat control plans with the base commander and public affairs officials.

The base should have a good reason if they intend to destroy feral cats, Egan stressed.

"In some parts of the country, we have problems with rabies, other parts we have problems with plague. Those would probably be the two biggest reasons we would deal with cats as a true problem," he said. "In some areas, we find cats are preying on endangered species. By law, DoD is required to protect endangered and threatened species. That would be another reason to get them out. Otherwise, they're just a nuisance, too many cats in one place."

Recently, Egan said, the board received complaints from people "who felt it hurt their sensibilities" to call a cat a pest. "I can appreciate their position. Most dogs and cats are viewed as pets. But it's also true that when you have a lawn, a rosebush growing where you don't want it is sometimes called a 'weed' because it's in your way."

A wild cat preying on endangered species or that has fleas or may be carrying rabies no longer falls in the pet category, he said. "We're not saying that all cats are pests. We're saying that under certain circumstances anything we like can be a pest."

Editor's Note: This is one article in a comprehensive special report at http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/cats/.

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