Calaveras County farmers are searching for the perfect little pair of four-legged exterminators for their barns and properties.
Feral barn cats are in high demand in Calaveras County due to to an increase in rodent populations caused by the wet winter months, said Calaveras Humane Society Executive Director Dee Dee Drake.
“We’ve had tons of requests lately, an explosion of requests from people wanting to adopt feral cats for their properties because of this rodent population explosion that we’re experiencing,” Drake said.
Rodent-hunting felines have become such a hot alternative that a small waiting list has developed for the first time since the Feral Feline Program began in 2014. The program works to humanely reduce the population of wild cats in the area through its trap, neuter and release policy.
As of January 2016, the humane society has captured and returned more than 1,000 cats since 2014. That number is slowly increasing.
As more rodents roam, the wild cat population thrives.
“There is a huge feral cat overpopulation issue in Calaveras County,” said Drake. “It’s different from some of the urban areas in California because people have so much land out here and the cats have more room to do their thing.”
The program uses a trap-neuter-return policy. The cats are caught in the wild, or on a person’s property using humanely designed traps, before they are neutered and returned to the area they were found.
A small incision is made on the cat’s ear to track the neutered population. Some of the cats are then made available for adoption as barn cats. The friendlier, more docile cats are sometimes made available as garden companions.
Returning the cats to the area they were trapped in is paramount.
Feral cats entrench themselves in an area and outright removal can be counterproductive for property owners. If the cats were simply trapped and removed, a new wave of feral cats would take their place and the cycle of wild reproduction would continue.
Drake said it wasn’t uncommon for property owners to trap the cats before phoning animal services to simply take the cats or kittens off of their hands.
“The most important part of the program is the return,” said Drake. “We return them to where they came from. We are not able to help people who ask for us to come out and trap and get rid of all of these cats. What we try to help them understand is that if we don’t return them, more will come.”
As reproduction rates decrease, the number of animals that shelters euthanize also decreases, Drake said.
Over 70,000 puppies and kittens are born in the United States every day and, due to overpopulation, more than 3.7 million are euthanized each year. By spaying and neutering just one male and one female cat, more than 2,000 unwanted births can be prevented in four years, and over 2 million in eight years.
“You can actually have fewer feral cats on your property by maintaining good ones that are cared for,” said Drake. “If you remove them all, you’re going to end with a bunch more.”
Drake wasn’t sure if there is a rule of thumb for how many feral cats a property could hold. She did say that each property is different, and the demographics of each parcel of land can determine how many cats it can sustain.
“I don’t know if there is a straight formula, but out here we see people with as few as two,” said Drake. “Statistically, feral cats live shorter lives than our pampered house pets. There is more that can happen to them.”
A property owner must have proper enclosures for the cats to sleep and although the cats’ new role will be keeping rodents clear from the property, the owners must also feed the cats daily. The humane society also prefers to adopt the cats in groups of two. The adoption costs just $15 per cat.
“We’re not here to make money,” said Drake. “We’re here for the community.”
Even if Calaveras County’s feral cat population wasn’t an issue, Drake recommends a strong, well-regulated feral cat initiative to help keep populations from getting to a level of concern.
“Whether there is an overpopulation problem of feral cats or not, if they are not tended to, they are not cared for,” said Drake. “An untended colony; there are fights, there is disease, there are unintended consequences for our pets. You definitely want well-maintained colonies.”