Counting Cats in Santa Cruz County

Should we spay and/or neuter feral cats or should we euthanize them?


First, I would like to take a moment to correct last week's column.

My Sincere Apologies

I had heard something (from what I thought was a reliable source) that disturbed me. It worried me that the critters may never see the money donated for their benefit. Anyone who knows me knows my main concern is the critters and not the politics.

My source gave me incorrect information (and an education). It also showed me that there is a fiercely loyal, dedicated group of volunteers out there. 

I apologize and will try very hard not to let that happen again. If there is a problem, please educate me and post a polite note on Patch to share a valid information source.

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter (SCCAS) 

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is an “open door” shelter that will take in ANY animal, so shelter workers never know what situation they will find themselves in on any given day. Whether it is hundreds of cats or hundreds of reptiles, they will quickly house or find foster homes, provide medical care, feed and do whatever else is needed.

The shelter contracts out to Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Watsonville and the county, which pay for services. The entities pay according to their population, but SCCAS frequently has special needs (remember Robert Brunette’s 50+ dogs, or the pet store that abandoned dozens of birds?) that requires more money than the shelter has. 

You can donate to SCCAS, and the money goes into a special account, separate from the general fund.

The Watsonville shelter will soon get a new overhang roof and new laundry facility with commercial equipment, thanks to a large bequest from B. Jean Adams.

You can donate specifically to the shelter's new Pet Parenthood program, last-chance medical fund or any of its other programs. In the next week or two, I will introduce you to Melanie Sobel, the new shelter director, who is implementing a lot of new ideas.

Your donation is tax deductible. If you can’t afford a cash donation, the shelter has a wish list of items they need.


Separate, yet supporting SCCAS, is FOWAS (Friends of Watsonville Animal Services) and FOSCAA (Friends of Santa Cruz County Animals). You can donate/bequeath money to FOWAS or FOSCCA, which have programs for free spay/neuter, medical care, foster care and more. Both organizations have no paid positions and are volunteer-run 501c3 organizations, so your donation will also be tax-deductible.

Herding Cats

There are 70 million cats in California, and 38.5 million of them are feral, estimates a study by John Dunham & Associates. According to a formula used by Santa Cruz County, there are approximately 65,213 feral cats in the county. Though there is no way to accurately count them, it is thought that there are as many feral cats as there are house cats. More than 120,000 cats is a purr-fectly staggering number, isn’t it? 

Last year, SC County Animal Services sheltered 1,493 cats and 1,146 kittens. These were not all feral felines—they were pets, housecats that someone once loved. Of those, 806 cats and 266 kittens were euthanized. Feral cats are deemed unadoptable, and it is the county's policy to send them to a rescue group, like Project Purr, or to euthanize them. The county is overrun with cats and can't keep them all, so the ones that might be able to be adopted are kept.


House Cats = Your sweet little puddy tat that co-houses with you and is (hopefully) spayed/neutered with all its vaccinations.

Strays = A house cat who is lost or abandoned. It can be friendly and approachable. Strays live alone, do not have any survival skills and usually die early from the stress and lack of survival skills.

Feral Cats = A feral cat is the wild child of the feline world. These cats are everywhere, live in colonies and don’t really want anything to do with us humans beyond free food. There is lots of controversy and contradictory information.

Do feral cats upset the eco-system by eating the native birds? Some studies say yes; some say they do minimal damage compared with the damage caused by humans. Feral cats use your yard and playgrounds as a litter box. Also called “free roaming” or “community” cats, they live on garbage, insects, plants and scavenged material, and the lucky ones get cat food.

Feral Cat Diseases

Feral cats are said to spread toxoplasmosis (a dangerous parasite), giardiasis (also known as Montezuma’s revenge), and camplyobacter (another intestinal ailment) to other animals and to humans. There are contradictory reports about this. FIV (feline HIV) can be spread to your house cats.

A study by Stanford University found that there are no known cases of humans getting rabies from cats, and only three cats in all of California tested positive for rabies in 1998. The main way people get toxoplasmosis is from uncooked meat—not from cats.

Screaming Cat Sex

It’s hard to tell when a cat is “in heat.” There are no outward signs, except a change in personality. Talk about a slave to hormones! An average unspayed female cat can be “in heat” for 15-21 days, and that cycle can repeat every three-four weeks if she does not get pregnant. Most have two-four litters annually, giving birth to five-seven kittens per litter. That means 20-plus kittens per year per cat. Within a year, those kittens will be able to have their own offspring, and you can see how fast the numbers multiply and why spay/neuter is a good idea.

Some statistics say that feral cats have an average life span of two-three years; some say 10 years. Regardless, 75 percent of feral kittens die in the first couple of months. Tomcats live the shortest lives. Spay/neuter significantly lengthens any cat’s life, plus it reduces wandering, mating and fighting.

There is more controversy regarding what to do with feral cats. Killing them doesn’t work. If trapped and euthanized, they are quickly replaced in the colony by other feral cats from the endless supply. More and more, TNR seems to be the way to go: Trap them, spay/neuter, then release them back to the same colony. They live healthier lives without reproducing. Hmm. Sometimes I wish we could trap-neuter-release people—Michael Vick, for instance.

Another problem is that there is no ongoing medical care for feral cats. They may get one round of vaccinations, but if they get ill, it is unlikely they will get vet care.

TNR = Trap-Neuter-Release

It costs an estimated $250 per cat to trap and kill feral cats, and only $220 to TNR, according to a study by John Dunham & Associates. If California replaced its current “trap & kill” policy with TNR, it would save taxpayers $5.58 billion a year!

Interestingly, PETA is the only animal advocate program that does not support TNR. It favors euthanasia over TNR, because its members feel that feral cats have hard, horrible, miserable lives, and they don't want to subject them to any more misery.

Project Purr’s TNR Program

This program is usually only $25, but it's FREE twice a year for two months each time (including the month of September). It includes spay or neuter, rabies and feline distemper vaccination, parasite package and test to identify that the cat is fixed. SCCAS will loan residents a trap at no charge.

So far, Project Purr has spayed/neutered more than 700 cats this year, with 60-70 percent of them being female.

What You Can Do

• Write to Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, your City Council and the County Board of Supervisors to ask them to require TNR of feral cats. Urge them to stop euthanasia of feral cats.

• Trap and have spayed/neutered any feral cats in your area.

• Donate to Project Purr. 

Special thanks to Lynne Achterberg.


Project Purr FREE Spay/Neuter of Feral Cats

Month of September

Eighty percent of kittens born in the county are feral. You can help! Just trap feral cats (Animal Services has traps you can borrow for free), and Project Purr will pay for the spay/neuter.


World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theater

Oct. 13 · 7-10 p.m.

The Rio Theater

1205 Soquel Ave.

Santa Cruz


The World Famous Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre is coming to Santa Cruz, and best of all, it will help raise much needed funds for our only local, nonprofit no-kill animal shelter—the Santa Cruz SPCA.

This show is amazing, and all the animals are rescued from shelters. Check out a clip on YouTube!

A percentage of the profits from tickets sales made through the link below will be donated to the Santa Cruz SPCA. PPlease note that ONLY tickets purchased using this link will benefit the animals of the Santa Cruz SPCA.

Adults: $23
Children under 12: $16
Tickets will NOT be sold at the door so get them online while they last!


Party for Paws

Oct. 22 · 4-7 p.m.

The Marina Lounge, Fisherman’s Wharf


$30 per person (includes appetizers, live auction, raffle, live music,)

Benefits AFRP, FOCAS (Friends of Animal Services), Peace of Mind Dog Rescue and Salinas Animal Services.


Happy Howl-o-ween Harvest Fair

Oct. 8-9

9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Roaring Camp Railroads


$5 entry into costume contests and weenie bobbing. Raffle tickets are $1 each, or 30 for $20. Adoptable animals pageant. Benefits local animal rescue groups. Parking and train rides extra.

Whitney Wilde September 28, 2011 at 06:32 AM
Thank you for your thoughtful response. What I found researching for this piece, is that there are so many studies with differing results. I don't believe in killing and there are enough studies that show that TNR works. I will post all the links tomorrow.
Whitney Wilde September 29, 2011 at 06:32 PM
I felt I tried to fairly represent all sides of this controversy and then give my opinion. I honestly don't think there is a clear cut answer - there are negatives to all sides and conflicting research. I personally think we should spay/neuter feral cats, not euthanize - regardless of whether there is a caretaker for the ferals. I am not comfortable playing God to the point of killing, though I am okay with stopping their reproduction. Maybe that's hypocritical, but it is what I am comfortable with. You are free to disagree with me and I hope you will post YOUR opinion on patch.com. A few links: http://www.feralcatproject.org/aboutthecats_myths.aspx http://network.bestfriends.org/14699/news.aspx http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=9714 http://www.defenders.org/newsroom/defenders_magazine/spring_2003/plight_of_the_vanishing_songbirds.php
Melanie Sobel September 29, 2011 at 11:53 PM
As the General Manager of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, I have to comment on your plea for people to: “Write to Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, your city council and the County Board of Supervisors to ask them to require TNR of feral cats. Urge them to stop euthanasia of feral cats.” Cats are domestic animals that are nonnative to North America. Therefore, in the interest of the health and safety of cats living outdoors, TNR should require that there is a “caretaker” that will manage the feral cat colony, which is a commitment. A large percentage of the humane cat traps that we lend out to the public are for nuisance cats on people’s private property. You cannot “require” TNR if residents do not want stray cats on their property. Whenever someone comes in to rent a trap, we always verbally communicate to them the option of TNR and each trap has an attached permanent laminated information card with Project Purr’s information on TNR.
Melanie Sobel September 29, 2011 at 11:54 PM
As for your recommendation to your readers to “urge” us to stop euthanasia of feral cats, you are creating the message that we CHOOSE to euthanize over TNR. We cannot control the number of feral cats that come into our shelter. Most are brought in as nuisance animals by residents of Santa Cruz County and we accept any animal that comes to our doors. We adopt out or transfer out healthy, socialized cats to placement partner animal welfare agencies and also transfer out (and pay for spay/neuter and vaccinations) as many feral cats to Project Purr as they can take.
Harry June 20, 2012 at 06:41 AM
Sea Turtles 911 is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles. Our efforts are focused in China on the Hainan Island coastal regions, home to the critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle and the endangered Green Sea Turtle. http://www.seaturtles911.org/


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