Operation Catnip is building an army of people dedicated to improving the lives of feral cats. The Gainesville, Florida, operation has been providing free monthly spay-neuter clinics since 1998, when founder Dr. Julie Levy realized the need to manage community cats vastly surpassed the capacities of most rescue groups.
In a way, Operation Catnip was a long time coming. Community cats first entered Levy’s radar when she was a veterinary student at University of California, Davis, in the 1980s, before trap, neuter, return (TNR) programs were a well-known approach.
“That campus had a lot of homeless free-roaming cats who were eating out of the dumpsters and the residence halls and were fed by friendly staff and students, but it was plain to us as veterinary students that if their reproduction was left unchecked that they would be overpopulated,” Levy says. “Then the campus would feel compelled to do something drastic to control them. That was our first experience with neutering feral cats and putting them back into the area where they were living.”
Because TNR was a new idea being pioneered pre-Internet, there were no models for Levy to follow. She and her fellow students learned a lot through trial and error. At first they tried to catch the cats by hand — but thankfully, they soon discovered cat traps. As their efforts advanced, so did others across the country, with community cat advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies being formed in 1990.
“We were very much inventing it as we went — and simultaneously so were other people,” Levy says. “It developed organically from a really obvious need across the country.”
Today, Operation Catnip has grown into a monthly clinic that requires the efforts of nearly 100 volunteers, including caregivers, veterinary students, veterinarians, and cat lovers who come in to help out. At the last clinic, 159 cats were spayed and neutered. According to Levy, what makes Operation Catnip unique is not only the fact that they provide high-quality, high-volume spay-neuter surgeries and vaccinations for the cats, but that they’re training future veterinarians to do it as well.
“These vets are learning about the problem and learning the skills they’ll need to help be part of the solution,” Levy says. “Our efforts are magnified because we’re training this army of veterinarians who will carry this humane work across the country wherever they’ll go for their careers.”
In addition to their training efforts, Operation Catnip received an educational grant from PetsMart Charities that has allowed them to build a mentoring website that contains all of their operating procedures, including step-by-step instructions for managing medical procedures, sample forms, and how to get supplies. This helps other organizations get a head start on building similar organizations.
“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Levy says. “They can take our protocols and adapt them as needed to their situation. That’s one way we’re addressing our mission to spread humane cat management across the country.”
Within their community, Operation Catnip partners with the local spay-neuter clinic and pays them to increase the number of surgeries done on community cats, keeping the service free for already overtaxed caregivers, who “already spend money buying food and providing shelter for cats that don’t belong to them,” Levy says. They also work with the local animal control shelter to gradually eliminate the use of euthanasia as population control, contributing to the mission of the Million Cat Challenge, which aims to save a million cats in North American shelters over five years.
This might seem like a lofty goal, but Levy says the only way to effectively address the feral cat population is “to go big.” The feral cat population in any given city, she adds, can be estimated by taking the human population and dividing it by six. Nationwide, that’s a lot of cats, illustrating why community cats are a growing problem that can only be addressed with a bold solution.
“Don’t hesitate,” Levy says. “Don’t be timid. In designing programs that are going to be effective, we need to think about how we’re going to keep the programs nimble and efficient and not get too bogged down in processes that limit how many cats we can care for.”
By this she simply means TNR programs need to stay focused. Operation Catnip focuses on its singular mission and leaves other important rescue work to other organizations.
“We leave it to other organizations to raise orphan kittens or socialize feral kittens for adoptions,” Levy says. “It can be easy to get distracted by that important work as well. When your volunteers are raising kittens and they don’t have time to go trapping, it can start to undermine the productivity of the TNR program. We know TNR works to control populations, and that’s good for the welfare of the cats, reducing impact on wildlife and protecting public health, but it’s only effective when it can be scaled up to meet the large need of communities.”
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.