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Dreampower Animal Rescue 

Nipping wild cat overpopulation at its source

click to enlarge Aubrey Eastman estimates there are hundreds of - thousands of feral cats living in Colorado Springs. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Aubrey Eastman estimates there are hundreds of thousands of feral cats living in Colorado Springs.
Aubrey Eastman is a dedicated employee of Dreampower Animal Rescue, an area nonprofit that finds new owners for homeless pets. Like others associated with the group, Eastman is proud of the work she does, and when she talks about finding that perfect person for a pet in need, her voice swells with emotion.

So what is she doing, working with cats that can never be adopted?

Eastman is accustomed to that question as the Dreampower employee who heads up Project CATS, a trap/neuter /release program that became part of Dreampower's mission a year ago.

Project CATS stands for Capture, Alter, Track Statistics. Like other programs around the country, Dreampow er's was implemented as a way to control the region's feral, or wild, cat population.

"As a rescue organization, we are inundated with kittens," Eastman says. "Because we have such a transient community, there's a huge population of cats that have been dumped or abandoned, and they get busy right away having kittens."

The challenge

Americans love their cats, and they currently share their homes with about 90 million of them, according t o the Humane Society of the United States. But around the country, another 60 million more roam alleyways and barns, lounge in abandoned buildings, lurk outside restaurants and grocery stores. Some were domestic cats that were abandoned or lost; others are the offspring of feral cats, wild things that have lived their entire lives on their own.

They live off the land (or out of the Dumpster). Some neighborhoods welcome them, since they keep the rodent population down. But not everyone is a fan.

Shelters and programs such as Dreampower are overwhelmed by the results of unchecked reproduction. Some people worry about the cats' impact on wild bird populations; others believe the myth that the wild felines pose risks to humans.

"Mostly, people object to ferals because they consider them a nuisance," Eastman says. "They soil yards or make footprints on people's windshields."

No one knows how many feral cats roam the streets and alleys of Colorado Springs, Eastman says.

"But we know the number is incredible. It could be close to a million."

Dreampower Animal Rescue started in 1990. Today, it has a paid staff of four and the help of 100 volunteer s who work at animal adoption fairs, answer phones at the group's headquarters, and act as foster owners for animals until they are placed.

Dreampower volunteers have found communities of cats, called colonies, throughout the region. One of the largest known colonies includes 60 cats that live together on a street off East Platte Avenue, not far from the Citadel mall. Others live in abandoned buildings or garages.

They live and hunt as a group, breeding and creating new feral kittens. Unless neighbors in the area put out food, people might not even know the colony is nearby, Eastman says.

"They are wild animals, and they act just like other wild animals. You probably won't see them unless you go out early in the morning or at dusk."

When a wild cat colony is located, trained Dreampower volunteers head out with a cat cage and some tantalizing bait [97] tuna, maybe, or fresh catnip [97] and wait for a feral cat to enter.

The trapping process is simple, but not always successful, Eastman says.

"It can be easy sometimes, and other times, the cats are so cautious, so smart, that it's really hard to trap them."

Once caught, a cat is taken to a local veterinarian, checked for major health problems and spayed or neutered. After recovery time of a day or two, the volunteer returns the cat to its original location and releases it.

"People are always surprised that we take the cats back," Eastman says. "But that's their habitat. That's where they survived before. If we take feral cats to an unfamiliar location, they'll spend all their time trying to find their way home, and that can mean crossing dangerous streets and highways."

When she's questioned about returning these cats to their original "home," Eastman says, "I remind people that Dreampower's original mission is giving animals a new chance at life.

"Project CATS does that, but it also takes into account the overpopulation problem."

The future

It doesn't take much to create a cat baby boom. The Humane Society of the United States says a fertile female cat can produce, on average, three litters of 4 to 6 kittens per year. One pair of breeding cats and their kittens can be responsible for thousands of offspring over a span of seven years.

"We think that spaying and neutering feral cats is really the only humane solution," Eastman says. "If you just go into a colony and remove and euthanize all the cats, it creates a vacuum. That colony developed in that location for a reason, and before long, you'll have feral cats there again."

But spaying and neutering the feral cats and returning them to their colony allows the population to decline on its own as the cats age and die naturally.

Dreampower works with area veterinarians on Project CATS. Volunteers who trap a cat take a Dreampower voucher to a participating vet who performs the work then releases the animal back to the volunteer.

It's a costly program for this small organization of volunteers. Eastman says. The 25 veterinarians in the program don't donate their services, but they do offer a reduced rate for spaying, neutering and exams.

"Cat issues, with both feral and non-feral cats, are a huge problem throughout the country," says Dr. Melanie Marsden, a participating veterinarian at Pikes Peak Veterinary Clinic. "For some reason, most people understand they should spay or neuter their dogs, but cats are often overlooked, and they breed like crazy. "

The group started with a $10,000 grant, but Eastman says, "We've gone through that in eight months."

With the grant money dwindling, Dreampower is looking for new grant sources and relying on private donations.

Since Dreampower began Project CATS, volunteers have trapped and spayed or neutered about 240 cats.

"It's a slow process, and we can always use more volunteers," Eastman says.

click to enlarge Volunteer Amy Clipner, 13, holds Leila. D - reampower - offers domestic cat adoption, but returns feral cats to - the wild. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Volunteer Amy Clipner, 13, holds Leila. D reampower offers domestic cat adoption, but returns feral cats to the wild.
Volunteers are trained to recognize domestic cats that might have been separated from their human families , and they also bring in feral kittens that are young enough to be socialized and adopted, and cats that are pregnant.

"Babies are pretty easy to socialize," Eastman says. "But some people take in adult feral cats, thinking that they will "get used to' their house. They rarely do. These aren't domestic cats. They have reverted to their wild ways, and they rarely come back.

"With Project CATS, we are trying to reduce the number of kittens we get," Eastman says. "So if we can stop feral cats from reproducing, we will eventually see a smaller number of kittens."

acord@csindy.com

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