Inside a Lynnwood strip mall, Julie White oversees one of the most ambitious programs in the United States to control the homeless cat population.
White directs The Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project, a non-profit that since its inception in 1997 has altered more than 45,000 cats.
In July, the organization, which has a $300,000 annual opertating budget, moved from its longtime Northgate location to a new, larger space at 4001 198th St. SW, Ste. 3.
Neutering is a general term that refers to the removal of an animal’s sex organs. Spaying is the removal of a female animal’s ovaries and uterus so it can’t reproduce. The spay/neuter project isn’t the only service that alters cats but it’s one of the few that aren’t mobile and that focus primarily on homeless or feral cats.
So successful has the clinic’s model been, with legions of volunteers chipping in to trap cats and spending time helping out, that spay and neuter experts from around the United States are studying its methods. For example, on Sept. 16, a group from Denver will spend time at the clinic.
“We do close to 10,000 surgeries a year,” White said. “It’s just great to be able to make an impact across the country.”
Feral cats (White says the organization prefers to refer to them as free-roaming) live in the woods and backyards throughout the Puget Sound. They are offspring of stray or abandoned domestic cats and often form colonies around food sources.
The process of spaying males, neutering females and releasing them back into the wild rather than killing them is known as Trap, spay/Neuter and Return, or TNR.
The approach isn’t without controversy.
Wildlife managers, such as the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, discourage the practice, arguing that feral cats pose a threat to native bird species and can spread disease. But White says those concerns are overblown and have been refuted through studies.
“What we always try to do is base information on facts and studies that have been documented,” she said. “Cats and birds have lived together for thousands of years.”
The key, she said, is to manage those homeless cat colonies so they don’t get larger.
“If you remove the cats, other cats will just come in,” she said. “By managing a colony, you’re controlling them.”
She estimates there are 750,000 free-roaming cats in the Puget Sound area and dozens of them are brought in to the project’s clinic weekly by volunteer trappers. The clinic conducted about 1,000 surgeries in July alone, she said.
The cats come from as far away as Eastern Washington and Kitsap County for surgeries that are performed four days a week by a staff veterinarian and veterinary volunteers such as Brian Rowse of Brier.
“It’s work that needs to be done and it’s something that I can do,” said Rowse, a veterinarian with Ballard Animal Hospital in Seattle. “There have been studies that show if you just trap these cats and (kill) them, the colony will reduce then expand again because there’s no pressure to keep them at the same number.”
Cat reproduction is a marvel of efficiency. Felines can produce two to three litters of from one to 10 kittens annually, White said. Many of those cats end up living in the wild, reproducing.
Kim Morgan is the clinic director for the project.
She said in addition to spaying and neutering cats, clinicians will often repair absesses, remove diseased eyes, do amputations (tails are common), repair hernias and remove extra toes. For a fee, non-feral cats also are treated at the clinic.
Inside the clinic, cats await surgery inside small crates that line the walls. Feral cats are also given rabies vaccines and an ear is clipped at the top to identify it as a spayed or netuered homeless cat.
White dispelled a common misperception about feral cats: that they’re disease-ridden.
“The majority are in very good health,” she said. “They’re eating a natural diet.”