First published in The Record, April 6, 2017
On the prowl to save, and control, feral cats
For a person who spends most of her free time stalking cats, Bonnie Nilsen is not particularly sneaky. Nilsen walked into a cat colony in Kearny one recent Sunday morning lugging a trap the size of a large suitcase, her construction boots crunching loudly against the gravel of an abandoned train line.
She dropped the trap and baited it by shoveling in cans of salmon, half a baked chicken, and chicken livers from a plastic tub. When she was done, she grabbed her cup of coffee, her Marlboro Menthol cigarettes and a spool of twine, walked across the tracks, and stepped behind a white Freightliner semi to hide.
Two minutes later, a skittery cat with matted gray fur slunk into the trap to eat. When its bushy tail was fully inside, Nilsen yanked the twine and dropped the trap door. The cat, terrified, spun tight circles inside the mesh walls. To calm it down, Nilsen trundled over and draped the trap in an orange blanket.
“This is my very expensive hobby,” said Nilsen, 59. “It’s OK, kitty kitty.”
Nilsen does all this as part of a feline population-control movement called “trap-neuter-return,” known to participants and advocates as TNR. It is one of few hobbies that manage to combine outdoor labor, cats, subterfuge and grass-roots political activism. Nilsen talks openly about it, but only when she’s in towns like Kearny, where feeding feral cats and returning spayed and neutered cats to the wild have been legalized in recent years.
“Why do it? Because somebody needs to do it,” said Nilsen, 59, who estimates that she spends $10,000 to feed and trap 500 to 700 feral cats every year. “There’s too many cats. I hate to see them suffer.”
In most New Jersey municipalities, however, Nilsen’s work remains illegal. So she declines to discuss it in detail, omitting the names of certain towns, subdivisions and apartment complexes where trapping and feeding feral cats is illegal ― places where she does it anyway.
“I’m not into the whole law thing; I just do what I need to do,” said Nilsen, who lives in Paramus, one of the many towns where her activities are against the law. “And if you have a problem with it, arrest me. Yeah. Go ahead and arrest the old fat lady who rescues cats.”
The “T” and the “N” of trap-neuter-return are self-explanatory: Volunteers trap feral cats and take them to local vets and animal shelters to be spayed, neutered and vaccinated. Kittens and friendly cats are offered up for adoption. Cats deemed too wild for human adoption are returned to their former colonies.
This is the “R” of TNR, and it’s where things get tricky. Advocates argue that by feeding colonies of neutered cats and removing any new cats that might show up, volunteers can provide a comfortable life for feral cats as the population naturally declines, reducing the threat to other wildlife and calming human complaints about feral cats.
“You need three elements for colony: food, shelter and mating. Once you get rid of mating, you’ve got that control over the colony, and it dwindles,” said Len Twist, a Kearny resident who traps cats and maintains colonies across North Jersey. “And the cats that are living there don’t let new cats in.”
The problem is that most municipalities have laws that ban people from feeding wild animals, including cats. Opponents say trap-neuter-return exposes cats to rabies, raccoons and car accidents. And it exposes humans to annoying feline behaviors, including their tendency to roam, defecate in gardens and sandboxes, and scream like banshees in the middle of the night.
“It may sound warm and cozy. But if you have 30 cats you’re feeding, you probably aren’t giving them the attention and the vaccines they need,” said Carol Tyler, owner of Tyco Animal Control, which contracts with 25 municipalities in North Jersey. “In these dense towns in Bergen County, cats don’t just stay in your yard. They roam. What about the neighbors?”
But the old methods of animal control don’t seem to be working, said Deborah Yankow, director of the Bergen County Animal Shelter in Teterboro. The problem is basic arithmetic: The number of people willing to trap and kill cats may always be overmatched by the number of people who feed cats, even if it means sneaking food outside in the middle of the night to skirt municipal feeding bans.
The animal shelter contracts with municipalities in North Jersey to perform traditional animal control, which involves trapping nuisance animals and either offering them for adoption or killing them. But Yankow has embraced trap-neuter-release, and is pushing more towns to legalize it, because she believes it is more humane for cats and the humans who love them.
Yankow remembers one case in which elderly residents who had fed a cat colony near their apartment building reacted to an animal control worker trapping the cats by chasing after the worker’s van with tears in their eyes.
“Because they knew their cats were being killed,” Yankow said. “When I saw that, I said, ‘We’re not doing this anymore here.’ This is not how we’re doing business. We’re not killing peoples’ cats and making them cry. There’s a better way.”
Kearny was the first municipality in North Jersey to change course. After a four-month campaign led by Twist, Kearny’s Town Council decided in 2014 to rescind its feeding ban and allow trained caregivers to manage feral cat colonies.
The result was a 60 percent drop in the number of cats arriving from Kearny at the Bergen County Animal Shelter, Yankow said, from 650 every year to about 250. Other municipalities followed Kearny’s example. Now at least 13 towns in New Jersey have repealed their feeding bans in favor of trap-neuter-return, Yankow said. Many ― including Lyndhurst, Secaucus and Moonachie ― border the Meadowlands, which has been a dumping ground for unwanted cats for decades, Twist said.
Elected officials in four additional towns ― Carlstadt, Hasbrouck Heights, Elmwood Park and North Arlington ― are considering similar changes, Yankow said.
“The new towns are looking to do TNR because it is the humane, current vision of how you do this,” Yankow said.
Still, that leaves 73 municipalities in Bergen and Passaic counties where trap-neuter-return remains illegal. Nilsen said she’s been threatened with arrest four times. Even in towns where it’s legal to feed and maintain colonies of cats, Twist said, he’s received threats from nearby business owners and workers who don’t want cats around.
Nilsen understands the sentiment. She is allergic to cats.
“Yeah, I really don’t like cats,” Nilsen said. “They’re annoying. They rub your face. They sleep on your head.”