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As a member of a cat rescue organization, I frequently receive calls from people who see one or more apparently homeless cats near restaurant dumpsters or other places where cats may find scraps to eat. While cat rescue volunteers prefer to help homeless cats directly, we cannot help help all the homeless cats in the community. Thus, we must ask the person who has called us about a "cat colony" to become a friend to the cats he or she has discovered.

What to do?

First, it is necessary to find out if an individual or organization is already caring for the cats. Cat feeding dishes in the area may indicate that cats are being helped, although feeding the cats is not enough to help them. Female cats can have three litters per year of up to six kittens in each litter. Although most of the kittens born outside will die young as a result of disease, traffic, predators or human cruelty, a few female cats allowed to breed freely can cause a population explosion of doomed kittens. The cats must be spayed or neutered.

Also, the temperament of the cats must be evaluated. Frequently lost or abandoned cats join colonies of homeless cats. A friendly cat that looks well fed may be someone's missing pet. When possible, the friendly cat should be removed from the colony, checked for a microchip, which any veterinarian will do for free, and local shelters that maintain lists of lost cats should be called. In addition, young kittens that are not nursing should be removed from the colony because they can be easily socialized and placed in homes.

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While there are exceptions, in my experience, kittens more than 12 weeks old that have never been handled by humans will most likely be too fearful of humans to become desirable pets. So, what should be done about the older kittens that fear humans and what should be done about feral adult cats in the colony?

In the past, those felines would either be trapped by animal control officers and taken to the public shelter to be euthanized, or individuals would trap the cats themselves and take them to the shelter to be put down because "feral" cats are not adoptable. Fortunately, the practice of killing homeless cats to stop their breeding is no longer considered best practice. The Upstate now advocates and practices TNR. What is TNR? In Greenville, for example, an individual concerned about homeless cats can acquire a humane trap from Greenville County Animal Care ( GCAC) by putting a deposit on the trap. Someone at GCAC can explain how to set the trap and the importance of covering it immediately when a cat is trapped.

The trapped cat can then be taken to GCAC without appointment Monday through Thursday between 9 and 12 in the morning where it will be spayed or neutered and vaccinated for free. The tip of one of the cat's ears will be cut off to identify the cat as having been altered. Then, after the cat has been picked up, allowed enough time to recover from the anesthesia and observed to be sure that there are no complications from the surgery, the cat is returned to where it had been living outdoors.

However, Trap/ Neuter/ Return does not mean trap, neuter and abandon. The cats returned to their colonies after spay or neuter must be provided with food and water daily. TNR is now the preferred method of managing homeless cats throughout the nation and in many foreign countries.

Experts on TNR, such as Alley Cat Allies, report that TNR is less expensive than traditional trap and kill to manage homeless cats. More than that, allowing homeless cats to live without breeding rather than killing them simply feels right. Volunteers and employees of organizations involved in cat rescue are always glad to coach inexperienced people who want do help a colony of homeless cats with TNR.

About the columnist

Ralph Carbone is the president of Feline Lifeline, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless cats and kittens in the Upstate by feeding, vaccinating and spaying/neutering feral and homeless cats. Learn more at https://www.felinelifelinesc.com.

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