Cattrap will close in December, with no substitute in sight

Cattrap employee Lee Dubin stands in front of the CatTrap stables in West Tisbury. — Photo by Michelle Gross

Cattrap, a nonprofit organization that has trapped, neutered, and re-released feral cats on Martha’s Vineyard for almost 20 years, will close its doors in December. What will fill the void and how its disappearance will affect the Vineyard ecology remains unclear.

Cattrap, which now functions with the help of Lee Dubin, will close up shop once the organization’s lease is up on the West Tisbury property on which it operates off Christiantown Road.

Former Vineyard resident Laurie Huff founded Cattrap in 1994. “Once the barn closes down, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ms. Huff said in a conversation with the Times last week from her home in California.

Envisioned as a means to control wild cats on the Vineyard, Ms. Huff said the feral cat population will hang in the balance once Cattrap is disbanded.

“It’s been a very time-consuming activity, and there are those who believe one must only love cats to do it, and that’s just not the case,” Ms. Huff said. “It’s an environmental issue. You take any other environmental activity and while it may start out as an emotional undertaking, at the end of the day, it’s just work.”

Well-known Vineyard naturalist Gus Ben David of Oak Bluffs has been working with wild and domesticated animals on Martha’s Vineyard for more than 40 years. “A feral cat is an incredible predator and it creates great negative factors, and not only for the bird population,” Mr. Ben David said. “So we want to do everything we can to prevent feral cats from living in the wild in Martha’s Vineyard.”

Mr. Ben David says that while the feral cat problem has gotten better thanks to Cattrap, there’s no way of knowing whether it will stay that way once they’re gone.

“Pet owners have evolved through education and pet husbandry and so it’s not as big a problem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be again,” Mr. Ben David said. “It all comes down to being responsible for the animals that you own.”

Edgartown Animal Control Officer Barbara Prada said she agrees that the future of the feral cat population is uncertain. “It really comes down to the economy. Cattrap had a lot of cats that were just unadoptable,” she said. “You have to judge the quality of life too; there’s no happy medium here. You’ve just got to take it one day at a time. Maybe another group will come in, who knows?”

CatTrap History

Ms. Huff and her husband began leasing the former West Tisbury horse stable in 1996. Though she has since relocated to Sonoma, California, she keeps close tabs on the organization.

Many of the cats who now live at Cattrap were brought there because of their age. Many were deemed unsociable. Some have serious infections. Holiday, a tentative orange, black, and white calico, relies on a strict raw meat diet to treat his hyperthyroidism — a condition typical in older cats. “He was a walking dead cat when he was rescued,” Ms. Huff said.

Ms. Dubin, a West Tisbury resident, was working with a group called CLAWS — Cats Lost and Wanting Shelter — when she met Ms. Huff.

“I heard about the woman in West Tisbury with 57 cats,” Ms. Dubin said. “I was going to a cat conference and she was there. So I approached her and introduced myself.”

Ms. Dubin says she spends around 45 minutes each morning attending to the needs of the 20 feral and free-roaming cats that take refuge in the Cattrap stables, not including the three cats who wander over from the neighbors yard.

“It’s not glamorous,” Ms. Dubin said during a recent tour of the Cattrap facility. “I couldn’t tell you how much laundry I do in a given week. But it is rewarding in other ways.”

“Adult feral cats are nearly impossible to domesticate, while strays are sometimes able to be re-socialized,” Ms. Huff explained. Feral kittens on the other hand can be socialized at a young age, typically before they reach twelve-weeks-old.

For Ms. Dubin, trapping is one the perks of her job. “The adrenaline flows, when I’m doing a trapping job,” she said. “I just can’t sleep, can’t eat, I just have to keep going until it’s done. The relief when it’s done is incredible.”

In a June 26 letter to the Editor, “Cattrap needs your help,” Ms. Huff said, “If the people on Martha’s Vineyard do not prevent the problem, the population of unwanted and often suffering animals will balloon very quickly.”

Feral vs. Stray

As defined by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), feral cats are born and raised in the wild, or have been abandoned or lost and turned to the wild in order to survive. Considered a free-roaming animal, some feral cats will tolerate small doses of human affection, but for the most part, they live in groups, called colonies, taking refuge wherever they can find food.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are 50 million feral and stray cats in the U.S. today. Ms. Huff says she’s trapped close to 6,500 over her tenure.

Trap, Neuter, Release

Ms. Huff based Cattrap on the philosophy of Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR). The idea is to stabilize the population of feral cats. Over time, with the help of TNR, Ms. Huff explained, the population declines and the behaviors stop. The alternative, to euthanize cats, won’t solve the problem, she said. “You don’t have to kill these animals to control the population. Trap, neuter, and release is the best thing anyone can do when they see a feral,” Ms. Huff said.

The ASPCA endorses TNR as the only proven humane and effective method to manage feral cat colonies. “It is very important to have all feral cats spayed/neutered because it is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent unwanted kittens,” Aimee Christian, ASPCA Vice President of Spay/Neuter Operations posted on the ASPCA’s website. “Feral cats are prolific reproducers.”

The TNR procedure is fairly simple. Cats are trapped humanely with either a one or two-door cage and brought to a shelter to be spayed or neutered. They also receive a rabies vaccination and medical care, before being returned to wherever they were trapped.

Strategy questioned

The American Bird Conservancy ( pegs the number of small animals killed annually by cats in the U.S. between 500 million and a billion.

In a recent strongly worded report, “The Science of Feral Cats,” the ABC was highly critical of plans by the city of Pompano Beach, Florida, to consider adopting Trap, Neuter, Release as official municipal policy.

“The sanctioned abandonment of domestic cats through TNR is inhumane, reckless, and a liability for the City,” ABC said. “By not addressing the root causes of the feral cat population and failing to adequately adopt an effective management strategy, Pompano Beach will become overrun with feral cats and provide its citizens with no recourse for reprieve.”

Grant Sizemore, author of the report, said that while his report was written specifically for the Pompano Beach City Commissioners, it has wide application nationally.

“The bottom line on this issue is absolutely clear,” Mr. Sizemore concluded in his report. “Feral and outdoor cats are taking a horrific toll on wildlife. Equally clear is that the potential human health impacts are very real. Decision-makers should give serious pause to endangering their community’s health only to maintain domestic cats in an unnatural and feral state, no matter the human or wildlife costs.”

The report recommends that supporters of managed cat colonies redirect their efforts “toward the underlying problem of managing irresponsible pet owners.”

In a telephone conversation with The Times, Mr. Sizemore said the problem is the result of dumped and abandoned animals from irresponsible pet owners. “We need to change the culture, so these cats are no longer considered biological litter,” he said.

“We would like to see them re-homed, if at all possible, or to put them in a sanctuary or an enclosed environment,” Mr. Sizemore said when asked about short-term solutions. “Yes, euthanasia may have to be a part of the scenario, but that is not our first choice; we’re not looking to just euthanize. We recognize that there is an overpopulation, and euthanasia may have to be a part of the overall toolbox.”

What’s Next?

“I needed to stop,” Ms. Huff said about life without Cattrap. “I’m 65, I needed to attend to a marriage, and some other things. But I’m a daily advocate.”

Ms. Huff and Ms. Dubin are looking for new homes for some of the more sociable Cattrap cats. The rest they say, they will adopt. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m dreading flying them,” Ms. Huff said. “If we’re going to fly them, we have to do it by the first week in October.”

While both women say they are looking forward to pursuing other interests, the question of what the feral cat population will look like in Cattrap’s absence remains.

“A society in which you kill that which is inconvenient is a tragic society,” Ms. Huff said.