Angelilli came to RMACA two years ago, after starting the People Pet Partnership in Philadelphia. Her background is in marketing and public relations, and much of her animal-welfare work has involved breaking down barriers between organizations and getting them to work together toward common goals. As she sees it, the feral cat problem is intimately connected to irresponsible pet owners who refuse to get their own cats fixed, leading to unwanted litters, abandoned animals and feral offspring.

"Even people in the animal-welfare community think tame cats are one issue and feral cats are another, and they're not," she says. "Everything is connected. Tame is one end of the spectrum, feral is the other. But there's all sorts of shades of gray in between."

When colonies do get fixed, RMACA will work with Dumb Friends and other agencies to try to find homes for the kittens. Ferals that are five or six weeks old can usually be domesticated, Angelilli says, but it becomes increasingly difficult as they get older. And at three to four months, forget it; they may socialize with each other, but they will resist confinement and shun human contact.

The average lifespan of a feral cat is about three years, but advocates of the TNR approach say it can be longer if that feral is lucky enough to belong to a stable colony. Ferals are no more prone to disease than house cats, and once they're fixed, much of the behavior that neighbors find objectionable — spraying, fighting, roaming far and wide — is greatly decreased. If there are caretakers willing to "manage" the colony, leaving out food and providing makeshift shelters during cold spells, the colony can die out on its own over time.

"A good, managed colony can lead a decent life," Angelilli says. "To try to put ferals inside isn't going to work. And just to euthanize them — personally, I feel that's us playing God. People started this mess, and we're going to end lives to solve it?"

The effort to establish a grassroots TNR program in the city is enthusiastically endorsed by Doug Kelley, director of Denver's Municipal Animal Shelter. As an "open admission" operation, the shelter takes in every type of stray or homeless pet. Cats labeled as feral will be euthanized — but not before they've already taken up space and expense in feline housing that often operates near capacity. Last year the city shelter put down 1,141 cats; another 389 were adopted by the public, and 820 were transferred to rescue groups.

"We're pretty open with the fact that a feral cat's going to be euthanized if they bring it to us," Kelley says. "If a cat comes in with a notched ear, if it's actually a managed-colony cat, we'll get in touch with RMACA. But animals have to be held five days, and sometimes a healthy, adoptable cat has to be euthanized to make room for an unadoptable one."

Kelley would prefer to see ferals fixed and managed in colonies rather than being hauled to his shelter and certain death. "A managed colony is, to me, planned obsolescence," he says. "It's a way of resolving a neighborhood situation without having to euthanize a bunch of cats."

Yet Angelilli points out that Denver's current animal-control ordinances make the TNR approach tougher. "You have laws that say if you feed a cat, it's yours," she notes, "and there's a five-cat limit."

Many of the volunteers in the TNR movement are violating the city's five-pet limit by virtue of the number of cats and kittens they are in the process of rescuing, fostering or otherwise housing; putting out food for a colony can result in further violations. Consequently, many feral-cat people tend to operate furtively, setting up feeding stations in alleys and hiding their work from the neighbors and animal-control officers. "We need an exemption for ferals," says Angelilli, who's been meeting with city councilmembers over proposed changes in local ordinances.

Kelley would rather not see his office embroiled in neighborhood complaints about feral cats, but they keep coming. "If somebody really pushes, then we have to take some sort of action, and we'll contact Neighborhood Inspection Services," he says of the city agency that handles such matters. "It's a fine line between being a responsible person who helps take care of a colony and being a hoarder. We've certainly been on properties where well-meaning people have a hundred-plus cats. Then it becomes a health and safety issue."

Although he hopes to one day see TNR lead to a decline in shelter intake, saving tax dollars, Kelley doesn't expect the numbers to change much in the short term. In the meantime, the shelter is acquiring special feral cat boxes that are easier to clean while dealing with a hissing, biting captive. And his staff is receiving training from RMACA in order to better distinguish a true feral, slated for euthanasia, from a cat that might simply be ill-tempered yet salvageable.

"Sometimes it's hard to tell a feral cat from one that's very unsocialized or one that's just nasty," Kelley explains. "What we're calling feral cats aren't always feral cats."


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