The practice of trap-neuter-return has helped reduce community cat populations in the U.S. since the late 1960s. Possibly the most famous group to practice it is the Stanford Cat Network, founded by Nathan Winograd in 1989 to deal with the estimated 1,500 cats who lived in the campus area of Stanford University in California.
Over the course of 15 years, this organization successfully cared for and maintained a slowly shrinking colony of cats, whose numbers dwindled to just 85 by 2004. Though probably the first formal TNR program to be established on a college campus, it was not the last — nor the only successful one.
This year, Utah State University, a college that boasts Utah’s largest residential campus, celebrates the 10th anniversary of its TNR program, Aggie Cats. We reached out to Whitney Milligan, director of residence life at USU and one of the founders of Aggie Cats, to learn more about its road to TNR success.
I asked Whitney about how the program began and why Aggie Cats has enjoyed such longevity.
“Aggie Cats was started in an effort to reduce the number of feral cats living on campus around the residence halls and in our family housing areas,” explained Whitney. “Prior to its implementation, the method used was trap and kill, which not only was ineffective and costly. Many felt it was inhumane to kill cats just because they’re unowned.”
As for its longevity? Aggie Cats successfully reduced the number of feral cats, managing the remaining population in a humane and non-intrusive way — and they discovered people far preferred that to a system that was harsh and inhumane.
I asked Whitney if perceptions of feral cats and TNR evolved any during the program’s life.
“It has evolved significantly over the past 10 years,” she told me. “In the beginning we received complaints about the number of cats and heard about the negative impact people felt by seeing so many around. Cats used the sandboxes in the playgrounds as litter boxes and often sheltered on the porches of our family housing residents, who stored items there, creating perfect cat hiding places. They were viewed as a nuisance by many and as poor creatures in need of care.”
I asked Whitney what kind of support Aggie Cats received from the school and campus community — did it come immediately or did Aggie Cats have to work to change hearts and minds?
She explained that it took a while, which has do to with the mechanics of setting up a strong, sustainable TNR program.
“Part of the TNR process includes establishing feeding stations in areas where cats have chosen to live,” she explained. “The feeding stations are crucial for habituating the cats to show up when we want them to in order to trap them and continue to monitor them. They are also key to helping us identify any new cats that the colony may have allowed in. This is rare, because the colonies are very territorial, but when it does happen, we are able to see the new cat at the feeding station and make plans to trap the cat.”
“Over time, the number of cats decreased, as some left, some died, and those that remained were not reproducing.”
As people saw this, they became very supportive.
“Now it’s assumed by our transitory student population that this is what we’ve always done,” Whitney said.
“In addition to providing food to the cats daily, we’ve added shelters over the years so the cats no longer seek out porches for shelter. We’ve also worked with the grounds crew to change the soft dirt in the flower beds and tree rings to large, chunky bark, to keep the cats from using those areas as their little boxes,” she said.
“Overall, perceptions of Aggie Cats is very positive today, and I’ve actually been contacted by representatives from other universities asking for help in starting TNR on their campuses.”
Some of the Aggie Cats have achieved their own notoriety. One of the most famous was O’Malley, a handsome and friendly black-and-white boy known for his patented “take pity on the starving kitty” look. Many USU faculty and students found themselves conned into sharing their yogurt, turkey sandwiches, and Aggie ice cream with him. His fans even created two Facebook pages for him.
However, his friendliness got him taken to animal control enough times that Aggie Cats was eventually informed his luck had run out. The group had to find him a permanent home or risk having him euthanized as a nuisance animal.
“I’m happy to report O’Malley now has a forever home, living with another house cat,” Whitney told me. “He is as fat and happy as can be.”
Obviously, most feral cats are not as approachable and adoptable as O’Malley.
“Even those who become familiar with the caretakers who feed them each day generally avoid people and keep their feral behaviors. That’s okay, though. They’re happy living outdoors with access to food and shelter as community cats,” said Whitney.
Congratulations to Aggie Cats on 10 years of TNR success!
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About Lisa Richman: Writer, director, pilot, foodie, cat person. When she’s not on set, this director of film and video can usually be found taking photos of cats (and food) with her trusty Nikon, or cruising aloft at 3,000 feet. She’s cat mom to an opinionated Tonkinese, a hearing-impaired Siamese, and a feline fashionista. She’s also the owner of a recently launched humor blog, and the Cat Writer’s 2014 Entertainment Blog, A Tonk’s Tail.