Half an hour with Stacy LeBaron of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society
NEWBURYPORT, Massachusetts––North American awareness of human impact on natural habitat is sometimes traced back to Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which preceded his much better known essay Civil Disobedience by a matter of months, and preceded by five years his opus Walden.
The Merrimack River estuary and waterfront has another and much more recent claim to enduring ecological importance, however, as home of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society, the MRFRS for short.
From Zorro to zero
Beginning in 1992, the MRFRS used neuter/return to reduce the then teeming feral cat population along the lower Merrimack River to zero by mid-2009, when the last resident feral cat died, an old tom named Zorro.
The MRFRS then turned to helping other neuter/return projects in Massachusetts, Maine, and southern New Hampshire.
Few if any other pioneering neuter/return projects took on as challenging a habitat, home to as many cats, accomplished as well-documented and dramatic a success, or stayed on the job longer despite the ceaseless need to raise funds, motivate volunteers, catch and sterilize even the most wary cats, and rehome those cats who for whatever reason could not be safely returned to wherever they were trapped.
100,000 cats in 25 years
Says the MRFRS web site, “Since our inception, the MRFRS has assisted over 100,000 cats — placing over 19,000 cats and kittens into homes, spaying or neutering over 12,500 feral cats at our TNR clinics, and over 44,000 cats on our Catmobiles.”
Having visited the MRFRS and inspected their cat colony locations when the organization was less than one year old, and having followed their work ever since, I was recently honored to become guest #67 on longtime executive director Stacy LeBaron’s Community Cats podcast radio program, following many of the other people who have gradually established neuter/return as the most effective and humane way to control the feral cat population.
Introduced as an expert genius
This is how Stacy introduced me:
“We want feral cats to be safely in their nocturnal environment, or pet cats safely at home, not wandering into a busy road.” – Episode 67
Tune into today’s Community Cats Podcast with Merritt Clifton, veteran journalist and founder of the ANIMALS 24-7 news website. It would be challenging to find someone with more experience in the animal welfare field than award-winning writer Merritt Clifton. He was an early proponent of spay/neuter in the 70s when, he notes, “Cats were basically a friendly outdoor animal or ‘easily tamed wildlife.” He documented the rise of high-volume spay/neuter programs, which had their start in South Africa and England, and spoke at the first No Kill Conference in 1995. He makes a fascinating case why he’s not 100% pleased with the term ‘community cat.’ Click below to listen to the podcast and don’t forget to subscribe to the show on itunes and write a review!”
Early cat experience
Some of what we discussed included how at age five I wanted to start a “kitty farm,” essentially a no-kill sanctuary, to try to “save them all”; how my first cat came from an animal shelter in 1961, at age eight, and how I learned through experience that energetic rehoming efforts could not “save them all” either; and how as an eight-and-nine-year-old I meticulously surveyed and counted feral cats (and street dogs) in nine European nations while traveling with my family, living in a Volkswagen microbus.
Back in the U.S. I had sporadic experience at rescuing & rehoming cats over the next dozen years; began informally promoting spay/neuter to friends and neighbors in San Jose in 1976; and began experimenting with neuter/return of barn cats in Quebec in 1977.
Ferals, free-roamers, & pets
As Stacy mentioned, from decades of observing feral cats, pet cats, and quasi-pet cats left to roam at large, I am “not 100% pleased with the term ‘community cat,’ a term invented and popularized by Best Friends as a misguided promotional device in 2009.
There are feral cats, who fill an ecological role and want nothing to do with humans; free-roaming pets and quasi-pets, whose activity is sometimes ecologically damaging and/or irritating to neighbors, and tends to get a lot of cats killed; and pet cats whose normal and preferred habitat is indoors.
(See What to call cats, & why it matters: evolving terms; “Vagrant” or “feral” cats: part 2 of What to Call Cats & why it matters; Feral cats & street dogs: part 3 of What to call cats & why It matters; and “Community cats” vs. community health: Part 4 of What to call cats & why it matters.)
Feeding feral cats
Mislabeling cats with the catch-all term “community cats,” I explained, helps to enable cat feeders to masquerade as neuter/return practitioners, whether they actually sterilize any cats, let alone enough to help reduce the populations they feed to zero through natural attrition.
This coincided with some of Stacy’s own observations.
Just as killing feral cats is a completely stupid, self-defeating approach to whatever issues might be associated with them, feeding truly feral cats is also stupid & self-defeating, I emphasized. Bona fide feral cats don’t need feeding. They don’t need to be habituated to humans. They do need population control in most of the world as it exists today.
Other than that, they don’t want or need human intervention in their lives, any more than a raccoon, deer, skunk, or squirrel does. These are also species who at times may need help with population control, to protect them from cruelty at human hands, but hardly anyone imagines they need feeding.
Fueling opposition to neuter/return
Most opposition to neuter/return, and there is quite a lot of it lately, results from people using it as a pretext for keeping and feeding quasi-outdoor pet cats, for whom they don’t take (and usually can’t take) full responsibility.
Feeding any sort of wildlife causes the animals to congregate in problematic ways, with resultant harmful consequences for the animals. A fed bear is a dead bear, a fed duck is a dead duck, and a fed cat who roams is likely to soon become a dead cat, whether hit by a car, picked off by a birder’s BB gun, or grabbed by free-roaming dogs.
TNR, I fulminated to Stacy, properly used, is a very valuable tool for protecting both cats and wildlife, controlling disease, keeping cats out of shelters, etc. Using any tool incorrectly, though, can have negative consequences, including that the public and public policy makers come to mistrust and reject it. Misusing TNR in the long run hurts cats most of all.
Of course Stacy knew all that already.
Cat hatred: from Forbush to Marra
We turned to discussing how the birder/conservationist hatred of cats prevalent in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is not common in most of the rest of the world, and why this is.
Historically, the anti-cat attitude exhibited most prominently recently by Cat Wars author Peter Marra traces back to the influence of Edward Howe Forbush, the first Massachusetts state ornithologist. Indeed Marra quotes Forbush extensively.
Yet Forbush, despite his prominence in his own time, circa 100 years ago, was at best a sloppy scientist, poor observer, and militant propagandist in disregard of the meaning of many of his own findings.
Among his other conspicuous errors, Forbush conflated cat predation with that of gulls, wrongly blaming cats for the decline of roseate terns on Muskeget Island; conflated the Quebecois slang term for raccoons, chat sauvage, and descriptions of raccoon behavior, with second hand anecdotal accounts of cat behavior; and conflated bobcats with domestic cats.
A brief but Thoreau discussion
My podcast visit with Stacy LeBaron was brief, just half an hour long, but pleasant, with Beth at my side, our cat Monkey in my lap, and, I imagined, Henry David Thoreau somewhere listening in.
Please tune in at: http://www.communitycatspodcast.com/episode-67-merritt-clifton