Group, Byram at odds over cats

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    BYRAM-A month-long program underwy in Byram aimed at reducing the number of cat colonies in the township has come under criticism from a local animal rights group. The Byram Animal Rescue Kindness Squad (B.A.R.K.S.) said the township is using taxpayer funds in a counterproductive way without working with the volunteer organization to alleviate the problem. Since November, Byram has contracted an animal control officer to trap feral cats wandering in the area. So far, at least 10 cats have been caught and transported to Golub Animal Hospital in Ledgewood, where they are housed for the required seven days, a township official said. If the cats are determined to be feral, they are then euthanized, a hospital official said. The remaining cats are then placed up for adoption. Vicki Johnson, director of Golub Animal Hospital/Animal Inn Pet Hotel, said her staff goes beyond what is expected to find placement for these cats. She said it is unfortunate that the hospital members are classifieds as "villains" for their efforts because, often times, the facility will house animals at its expense once the township is no longer responsible. "We do not adopt out feral cats," said Johnson. "If B.A.R.K.S. has such difficulty with this, then they are mowelcome to come down and take every one of them off my hands, after they sign a release accepting all responsibility if one of them bites someone. My staff exposes themselves to being attacked every time they go in to feed and clean these feral cats. It is by no means an easy job to care for them. My staff is exposed to possible health risks -- rabies being my major concern -- as well as personal injury from cat and dog bites and scratches. More than a few (staff members) have needed medical attention. With all the risks involved, we are still here providing a service to the townships as well as to all the animals they bring to us." Some township residents have telephoned B.A.R.K.S. recently, looking for their missing cats, said an organization member. "They are afraid that their own township is going to kill their pets," said Liz Gargano, who recently retrieved four cats from Golub Animal Hospital on their seventh day of stay. "I believe it's only a matter of time before someone's precious animal falls through the cracks and is not identified before it is killed." The Byram Township Council and Board of Health took action to control the increasing cat population after residents came forward complaining of wild cats, urinating, howling and fighting in their yards. Greg Poff, township manager, said flyers were distributed and signs posted to encourage residents to keep their pets indoors when trappings were scheduled to take place. "The township's intention is not to euthanize any pets," he said. "I know this program is not embraced by everyone in the township, but we have a problem with these feral colonies." Stray cats are companion animals that have been abandoned or lost, explained Rebecca Hess, a feral cats coordinator with the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance. On the other hand, she said, feral cats have had minimal human contact during their lives and are extremely wary of humans. "They're very fearful of humans," said Hess. "You rarely see feral cats, but we don't want them around because of the problems they cause in the public eye." Unaltered feral cats, Hess said, will spray, fight, yowl and birth many litters of unwanted kittens. She said most of these issues disappear once a cat has been spayed or neutered. Programs that involve spaying or neutering feral cats, vaccinating them against rabies, and then returning the cats to their habitat have proven to be effective, humane ways of controlling populations, said Hess. The feral cats that cannot be successfully socialized are returned to their original colonies, where they are managed by caregivers who provide food, water and long-term medical care, she said. "That program works," said Gargano. "I have followed the process from trapping to adoption. Most of the cats just need time and love to be socialized. The few cats we have returned to their original colonies are being taken care of by responsible property owners." Hess said trap, neuter and return programs have been successful internationally and are quickly proving their effectiveness in the United States through natural attrition, which stabilizes and decreases the number of cats over time. "We all have the same goals in mind," said Hess, who added that the cost to spay, neuter and vaccinate is around $40 per cat. "We all want to reduce the number of feral cats." Poff said he plans to meet with B.A.R.K.S. officials soon and encourages input from all residents concerned. "BARKS has worked with the township in the past," said Sheryl Thole, BARKS president. "There is no reason why the problem shouldn't be a joint effort between the township and the organization."