Martha Sue Carraway was working at Duke University in 2006 when she discovered a cat living near campus. She was caring for the cat, providing it food and water, when it had a litter of kittens. The next summer, the cat had another litter of kittens.
Carraway caught as many of the kittens as she could so they could be put up for adoption, but the mother was too wild to catch. Then she met someone who also took care of homeless cats—but this person had them spayed or neutered and then returned them to where they had been found.
"That's when I realized that there was a solution that could stop the cycle for unadoptable cats," Carraway says.
Now, Carraway volunteers with Independent Animal Rescue to help cats like the one she found at Duke.
The trap-neuter-return method, or TNR, calls for humanely trapping the cat, spaying or neutering it and then releasing it back to the location where it was found. While the cat is sedated, it receives a rabies vaccination and its left ear is clipped as a marker that it has been through the TNR process. Ideally, a volunteer continues to feed and monitor the cat once it is released back into the community.
Animal rights advocates argue that the TNR method is the humane way to allow these cats to live out their lives while reducing the free-roaming cat population, since neutered/ spayed animals can't reproduce.
In June, the Wake County Board of Commissioners approved a new ordinance that allows the use of TNR to try to control the growing number of cats in the area.
Although the ordinance applies to any feral animal, Matt Roylance, Wake County's deputy director of environmental services, says cats are by far the most abundant feral population in the county.
According to information gathered by Roylance and Community Health Director Sue Lynn Ledford and presented to Wake County commissioners, the Wake County Animal Center received 7,766 cats between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011. The center estimated about one-third of those were feral. In that same period, 4,830 cats, or 62 percent of the cats taken in by the center, were euthanized.
(Comparatively, dog euthanasia rates in Wake County are between 30 percent and 35 percent.)
Lisa Kroll, associate executive director of the SPCA of Wake County, says the new ordinance is a way to reduce the number of cats taken in at the Wake County Animal Center.
Any time Wake County is called about a homeless animal, the animal is brought to the Animal Center and held for three days. During that period, the animal is sheltered, fed and provided water. But most feral cats aren't socialized, meaning they are too fearful of humans to be adoptable as pets, so most of them are euthanized.
"We get a lot of feral cats at the Animal Center, and if there's some other option that isn't euthanasia, [we're] open to trying that," Roylance says.
Prior to the new ordinance, however, it wasn't clear if the TNR method was even legal.
"The way our ordinance was written before we made the change, you could've determined it was illegal to do TNR," Roylance says. "[The ordinance] never considered the possibility that someone would want to do [the TNR method]."
After some push from local animal advocacy groups, the county's commissioners decided to adopt the TNR policy.
The SPCA of Wake County, which is a private, no-kill organization, worked "to develop the language that would be more cat-friendly and constitute our community becoming more humane toward these cats," Kroll says.
Durham County also has groups that have been working toward codifying the TNR method.
Durham County's code, like Wake County's old ordinance, says that anyone with knowledge of a homeless animal must report it to the county's animal control department.
Currently, Durham Animal Control can deal with a feral animal in two ways: by trapping and releasing it somewhere else, or by taking the animal in, holding it for three days and then euthanizing the animal if it is not adoptable.
According to Carraway, the wording of past and present county codes in Durham and Orange counties makes it technically illegal for residents and rescue groups to practice TNR. Current ordinances require a license to trap animals and define abandonment in such a way that even rereleasing a stray is illegal.
Local animal rescue groups formed a coalition with Durham Animal Control's previous director, Cindy Bailey. The coalition discussed working toward a TNR ordinance, but it was sidelined by other projects.
Carraway says most groups trying to find a solution to the feral cat problem have the same goal: to create a no-kill locality where animals are not euthanized in shelters.
"TNR has to be part of the solution if a county wants to be no-kill," she says.
When Wake County receives a call about a feral animal now, Animal Center staff can retrieve the animal if the complainant requests. Otherwise, residents can contact the private volunteer groups for help via a central Community Cat phone number (919-743-2287).
"Wake County is a beautiful example where you have [multiple] rescue groups and the Animal Center and now they're going to work together," Carraway says. "I guarantee you that more cats will be spayed and neutered, and there will be less free-roaming cats at the end of five years."
Carraway says she wouldn't be surprised if the Durham coalition regrouped to begin pushing for the ordinance again now that Wake County has implemented its new method. She says the Triangle's free-roaming cat problem isn't going away.
"Durham euthanized 1,700 cats in 2010," she says. "You can't kill your way out of the problem."
Orange County Animal Services does not specifically track feral cats during intake, but it does keep track of non-placeable animals. Non-placeable animals might be feral, or sick, or surrendered for euthanasia by their owner. The department's June report showed 54 non-placeable animals. It also showed that 10 feral cats had been euthanized.
Carraway says the appeal of the TNR method is that it decreases euthanasia rates and saves room in shelters for cats that can be adopted while managing the cats that cannot.
"The idea is not to kill the cats that are already out there," Kroll says. "The idea is to give those cats a better outcome, have them live out their lives in the community and produce fewer cats so that, in the long run, there are fewer cats impacting the shelter system."
Correction: A quote has been removed due to a misunderstanding of the terminology.