While the lyrics from “Stray Cat Strut,” a popular 1980s pop song may bring a smile to one’s face or induce a moment of temporary Karaoke, the often harsh reality of stray and feral cats overproducing is a serious issue that affects virtually every community.
According to one recent study, it is estimated Chicago has between 385,000 to 415,000 stray or feral cats roaming the city.
For Forest Park resident Sue Bohenstengel, the stray cats issue hits even closer to home; literally, right up her alley.
“My block is full of pet owners, and about a year ago, I saw a cat in our alley,” Bohenstengel said. “The cat had been hanging around a neighbor’s house and I was told that there was a litter of kittens in the alley. Eventually, I saw that there were two adult cats and five kittens. I thought, I have to do something about these cats.”
An admitted cat lover who owns two of her own, Candy (named after deceased actor John Candy) and Paris, Bohenstengel discovered a program online called Trap-Neuter-Return.
Trap-Neuter-Return is essentially a full management plan in which stray and feral cats living outdoors in cities, towns or rural areas are humanely trapped, then evaluated, vaccinated and spayed or neutered by veterinarians. Introduced by Alley Cat Allies, a national organization, TNR has become an invaluable resource to help control the growing population of feral cats everywhere. After the TNR process is completed, some cats living outdoors can be adopted or adapt to living indoors. Others are released back into the outdoors with the aid of “caretakers” who feed and care for them.
“I found out about TNR online and then I went to the Animal Care League (in Oak Park) to pick up two cat traps,” Bohenstengel said. “I trapped all the cats except the mother. Using TNR is really the most humane way of dealing with feral or stray cats rather than catching and killing them in some cases. The focus is to have the cats vaccinated and spayed/neutered so they can be healthy.”
While stray cats tend to have been socialized by contact with humans, feral cats are non-socialized and best suited for living outdoors.
After trapping the feral cats, Bohenstengel took them to the Chicago-based Pets Are Worth Saving, or PAWS, for their altering. Cats can be neutered or spayed for $17, or receive the same service plus vaccinations for $32.
Coupled with Bohenstengel’s care for the cats, which included giving them food and attention, she successfully socialized two of the five kittens, Gemini and Peru, who are now up for adoption at the Animal Care League. Two of the other cats, who were unable to be fully socialized, have been re-released to the outdoors as healthier cats.
Bohenstengel is still working with the fifth kitten.
The benefit to a community in having caretakers like Bohenstengel who are genuinely concerned about the animals is a safer, cleaner neighborhood.
“Cats are not large animals relative to some others, but they can still be wild animals,” Bohenstengel said. “By having these cats altered, you’re reducing the amount of potential cat bites, cat fights, danger of disease, not to mention controlling the cats’ mating, reducing unpleasant odors, and cats looking for food while knocking over garbage cans.”
According to Alley Cat Allies, an estimated 12 percent of households in the U.S. feed an average of 3.6 feral or stray cats.
Meg Maritino, president of Chicagoland Strays, which is part of the Chicagoland Stray Cats Coalition, said an overarching goal is to promote the ethical treatment of animals. Maritino’s organization works collaboratively with like-minded groups in the area.
“Along with breaking the cycle of reproduction of feral cats, we need to take care of the kittens,” Martino said. “It’s estimated that 50 percent of kittens die within three months and 60 percent within six months due to factors like disease and malnutrition.”
PAWS, which offers a monthly “spay day,” recently spayed 98 cats during one of its sessions.
While the common denominator in all these groups is caretakers concerned about the welfare of the cats, the problems call for continual attention.
“Some communities have a large feral cat problem where people have fed these cats and they just keep reproducing,” said Chatka Ruggiero, who is the president of the Animal Care League board of directors. “Females can have multiple litters a year. I am currently working with a family that has five generations of cats and kittens that developed in just two years. If a feral cat colony is not controlled, neighbors complain and in many cases try to harm the cats to get rid of them. Often, the cats wander off and get hit by cars.”
Though sad stories exist regarding the welfare of feral and stray cats, happy endings for cats nurtured by the love and support of caretakers like Bohenstengel provide plenty of cause for optimism.
“There were good and bad days, but it made me feel good to help these animals. I still go back and visit (Gemini and Peru) every other day at the Animal Care League and they are really growing and in good spirits,” Bohenstengel said. “When I visit them, I like to think they recognize me.”