Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (the northeast region of the state, also called NEK) is a land that’s hard to pin down. A beautiful area of lakes, mountains, farms, and small Vermont towns, wealth sits next to poverty and rural culture meets intense tourism. New England traditions are overlaid with the stunning essence of Vermont. It’s not an easy place to live in many ways — residents are working hard to make it financially, and may not have the means or the ability to help the region’s free-roaming or loosely owned cats. And the region’s feral cat and loosely owned cat population (many living in barns or farms or out in the elements) needs help.
Felines and Friends Foundation started with the grassroots effort of a Vermont children’s author, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, who cared about cats and carried out her own trap-neuter-return efforts, coordinating with area animal welfare organizations. Bonnie Geisler, another Vermonter and current president of the organization, also had a passion for cat rescue and heard about Natalie’s efforts. A small group met at Bonnie’s dining room table to form Felines and Friends and officially launched the organization in April 2013. Recognizing that competent and effective organizations in the region were already addressing adoption, fostering, and cruelty issues, they created the Felines and Friends Foundation with an intentional focus and emphasis on bringing TNR initiatives to the rural communities in the Northeast Kingdom and beyond.
Until August 2013, Felines and Friends existed solely on private donations and the work of tireless volunteers. But the game changed for everyone — cats, communities, and Felines and Friends — when Vermont Companion Animal Neutering, FFF’s primary spay/neuter clinic in Middlesex, Vermont, was awarded a PetSmart Charities Targeted grant for spaying and neutering 1,000 cats in the Northeast Kingdom over a 12-month period. This was a provisional two-year grant: To earn the second year, Felines and Friends needed to demonstrate that it could get the job done — and it did.
Felines and Friends currently has more than 25 active volunteers, and a small (unpaid) management team of three. Felines and Friends has been able to meet its goal of bringing 30-plus cats every other week to its collaborating Vermont veterinary clinic, Vermont Companion Animal Neutering. In the summer, it’s kitten season, and the focus is on working as quickly as possible to prevent more unwanted litters in towns and surrounding areas. In the winter, the organization focuses on cats in barns. Once spayed/neutered and vaccinated, these barn cats are staged overnight post-surgery — the staging has proven to aid recovery from the surgery in cold temps, and the barns are warm enough to facilitate recovery.
The organization’s mission is to greatly reduce the number of free roaming cats in the Northeast Kingdom and beyond through TNR with the goals of improving the welfare of cats, minimizing the negative impact on people and wildlife, and reducing the number of cats and kittens entering local shelters. To this end, Felines and Friends’ endeavors (completely outlined here at its website) include TNR-ing as many cats as resources allow and re-homing as many adoptable cats as possible while working with shelters in the area and beyond.
Felines and Friends, as of July 2014, has already TNR-ed 1,013 cats and estimates that it is making significant progress in reducing the free-roaming cat numbers in the NEK. The group surpassed its yearly goal of trapping, neutering, and returning 1,000 cats. Of the 1,013 cats that have been treated so far in this grant period, approximately two-thirds were returned to their landowners or barns and about one-third found space in a shelter or were adopted directly by Felines and Friends.
Felines and Friends recognizes that not everyone loves cats, and that not everyone has the means or the desire to help free-roaming cats. But it has taken a very community-friendly approach, which is also well-planned. “Planning is the most important element in ensuring effective TNR,” says Bonnie. TNR in these rural communities starts with approaching the town officials, the animal control officer (if there is one), and the landowners. A reliable feeder is crucial to the success of the plan. This person feeds the cats on schedule for a minimum of several weeks, so that the cats get used to a consistent routine and the feeder is able to get an accurate count of cats to be live-trapped. Cats are counted daily. In this way, Felines and Friends is able to very accurately predict how many cats it’ll be able to TNR when that date arrives. A few days before the anticipated live-trapping event, informational door hangers are placed on houses throughout town.
Reception in the Northeast Kingdom has been very positive, likely facilitated by Felines and Friends’ outreach, but also by its skilled approach. The organization intentionally fosters a culture of respect, and volunteers know and understand that everyone in these towns, no matter their circumstances, knowledge about cats, or attitudes about cats, is just trying to do their best to live their lives and survive.
As a new resident of Vermont and of the Northeast Kingdom, I was astounded to attend a recent Felines and Friends fundraiser and observe what must have been at least 100 enthusiastic supporters. At this country auction, there were beautiful items of all kinds (cat related and not) that people bid upon for the good of the Northeast Kingdom’s free-roaming cats. The auction is just one of several fundraising endeavors that take place during the year. It’s obvious that this fairly young organization is loved and supported in the region. Felines and Friends has achieved amazing results in its young life, but Bonnie predicts that the organization could double its TNR efforts and numbers with more resources. You don’t have to live in Vermont to help — if you’re interested in donating, go to the Felines and Friends donation page.
For those of us wanting to carry out TNR in our own communities, Bonnie says good guidelines have been written. Initiatives and processes designed and put into place by Neighborhood Cats and Alley Cat Allies form much of the foundation of Felines and Friends. Bonnie considers the Neighborhood Cats TNR manual a strong set of guidelines.
Bonnie advises that people who undertake TNR remember that many “feral” cats probably really are feral and will not be happy living close to humans. Also, it’s easy for a TNR organization to lose its focus and veer into fostering, for example. Animal welfare organizations need to be clear about their mission, whether it’s TNR, fostering, adoption, education, rescue, or some combination of these. It can be easy for an organization to lose its way, as there’s so much work to do.
Read more about helping feral cats:
About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of The Great Purr (cat fantasy novel out June 1), the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of two short story collections. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.