As the owner of the only veterinary clinic in Graham and Greenlee Counties, Dr. Debbie Chapman is so busy her life is mostly confined to her business and her home in Thatcher. However, during the short distance between those two points, lately she’s noticed more feral cats then she’s ever seen before.
“There’s just so many of them,” the Desert Cross Veterinary Hospital vet said, not only of the ones scurrying across streets or scrounging for food, but the ones who have been run over in the street.
When domesticated cats haven’t been spayed or neutered and are discarded by their owners, escape or allowed to roam outside, they mate with other cats that also aren’t spayed or neutered and their children become feral cats.
According to animal welfare advocates, the problem is many-fold. Pet owners abandon their pets and many animals aren’t spayed and neutered.
Also at issue is local municipalities don’t have trap-neuter-return programs, nor do Graham and Greenlee counties.
Allen Sams, the animal control supervisor for Greenlee County said Greenlee County does not have a feral cat problem, but declined to comment further.
Graham County does rent out traps if an individual wants to catch a cat, however.
The county animal control will pick up trapped cats and try to determine if it’s a cat that belongs to someone, a stray sociable enough to be put up for adoption, or aggressive and feral. If it’s the latter, they have no choice but to euthanize it, Wendell Norton, the animal control supervisor for Graham County said.
With no organized government sponsored trap-neuter-return programs, community members and organizations have stepped up to try and mitigate the problem. They’re also trying to rally the community to get involved in solving the problem.
Cheryl Christensen, director of Desert Cat Rescue and Sanctuary of Arizona, called the county’s feral cat population a “ginormous problem” local community members have an obligation to solve.
The way a community responds to feral cats is a marker of the community’s moral character, Christensen said.
“I think it’s a moral obligation to do well by these animals and to do it right,” Christensen said. “It’s pretty much on the community’s plate. This is your community. If you want a better community, step up.”
When people see feral cats around their home or businesses, they’ll call Desert Cat to set a trap with a can of cat food and then call back when it’s worked.
Doris Kempton has been working four to five hours a day as a volunteer for Desert Cat for the last two years. She drives around the county, from Pima to Sanchez, setting the traps in the evenings and returning in the morning.
Some of the traps Kempton uses are rented from the county, some she bought on her own, she said.
Trapping cats with cat food is relatively easy because so many cats are strays from local households that are familiar with canned cat food, Kempton said.
She then takes the cat to Desert Cross Veterinary Hospital where it’s spayed or neutered, free of charge. She then takes the cat back to where she captured it and releases it, an essential part of the TNR process.
“Feral cats have a purpose and they’re doing a purpose in your backyard,” Christensen said about the ‘return’ part of the TNR process.
Feral cats act as important rodent, bug and snake control in communities, Christensen said. By spaying/neutering feral cats and returning them to the communities they live in, they can continue to do that job, without being able to reproduce. Eventually, Christensen said, the feral cat population will decline as those cats grow old and die.
This year alone, Kempton said she’s personally trapped 36 feral cats and taken them to get spayed or neutered.
“Every cat that you can get fixed is a good thing. Baby steps,” Kempton said. “You do what you can do. Overtime I assume it makes a difference. But we do it for the love of the animals.”
She’s not alone though. Kempton said at least four five other community members are also trapping feral cats and taking them to get spayed or neutered, which is keeping Chapman busy.
Chapman said her veterinary hospital does at least two to six spay or neuter operations every day, all of which are free when they involve feral cats.
It’s not just locals who are bringing cats in, but people in Duncan, Bowie and Willcox come to Desert Cross to get cats spayed and neutered, Chapman said.
Although Chapman said she can do the procedure in four minutes, anaesthetic agents are expensive and they do not get grant funding for their services. Instead, Chapman said she does it because nobody else does it.
“Somebody has to (do it). It has to be done,” Chapman said. “If people went down and saw how many euthanized animals there are (at the county Animal Control Facility), I think they would realize.”
While feral cats can get spayed and neutered for free, Desert Cross does charge $75 for domesticated cats to get spayed and $55 for a neutering operation. The hospital also offers 10 free spay and neutering operations coupons for pet owners at the beginning of each year and Desert Cat rescue offers vouchers for people to get their cats operated on for as low as $25. Still, it’s difficult to get people to bring their cats in for the operation, Chapman said.
“We’re all in our own selfish bubble,” Chapman said. “If people say they love animals, they should get them spayed and neutered.”
Once people start getting their cats spayed and neutered, then maybe the county can solve its feral cat problem in 20 to 50 years, Chapman said.
“But if nobody gets it started, then that will never happen,” she said.