On occasion, students may come across a furry feline on campus. Most likely, this cat is well-fed and sheltered, thanks to Aggie Cat Services.
Feral cats have long been an issue around Logan, including on the Utah State University campus. According to Aggie Cat Services, a feral cat is “a lost or abandoned cat or its offspring that is used to living outdoors or in places with little human contact.”
The Utah chapter of The Best Friends Animal Society, an animal advocate organization, states that feral cats are the most at-risk animals for being killed in an animal shelter. According to the organization, 70 percent of animals killed in shelters each year are cats. Feral cats are at especially high risk of euthanization in shelters because they are used to living outdoors with little human interaction and, as a result, are harder to raise as pets.
Aggie Cat Services aims to “manage and reduce the feral cat population on campus.” This service is affiliated with the university, but is not funded by the university. It runs solely on volunteers and donations. Whit Milligan is the coordinator and co-founder of this volunteer committee.
Milligan is the director of residence life at USU. Though not an official part of her job, Milligan became involved with Aggie Cat Services out of personal interest. She had the idea when she first started working for housing eleven years ago. Residents would frequently call her office to complain about feral cats roaming the area. When Milligan realized that there was no formal system to take care of the cats, she decided to create the program.
The feral cat problem, Milligan believes, stems from pet owners’ failure to spay and neuter their animals. She says that since cats tend to roam around, they can easily reproduce if un-neutered. Cats can reproduce at an earlier age than many people realize. At only four months, a female cat goes into heat.
On-campus housing residents are largely to blame for feral cat issues. Feral cat colonies can be found in both Aggie Village and The Junction, which is by Mountain View and Valley View towers.
Milligan said that students often house pets while attending school, but abandon them once they leave the university. This is one of the main factors contributing to the problem.
“It’s a completely human-created problem. It’s people being irresponsible, is what it comes down to,” Milligan said.
Although campus housing has much feral cat activity, Milligan says that any place where humans congregate is a place where feral cats will congregate. Scraps from food attract mice, which in turn, attract feral cats.
Aggie Cat Services operates on the “trap-neuter-return” method. First, the service determines where feral cats are. According to Milligan, these cats live wherever there is food and shelter. For this reason, feral cats favor The Junction area — food is plentiful and the bushes give shelter.
After the service identifies a feral cat hotspot, they establish a feeding station where volunteers put out food once a day. Volunteers leave the food out for an hour. If the food is left out all day, Milligan says, cats will only come out when humans are absent, whereas limiting their feeding time will allow volunteers to observe and take an accurate count of the cat population. To attract and protect the cats, the organization also provides shelters.
Volunteers conduct mass trappings by setting out live traps. Odorous cans of food are set out to attract the feral cats. In order to prevent the cats from injuring themselves and stop humans and other animals from harming the cats while in the traps, volunteers always supervise the cats and collect them immediately after they are trapped.
After trapping, the cats are taken to the Cache Valley Meadow Veterinary Clinic to be neutered and vaccinated. Aggie Cat Services has worked with Cache Meadow Veterinary Clinic since the program’s founding. The clinic supports the service and gives a discount for neutering and vaccination. The veterinarians also clip a small tip from one of each of the cat’s ears. This provides the program with a visual of which cats have already been neutered and vaccinated.
Finally, the cats are returned back to the colony where they originated. Milligan says that since cats are so territorial, it is fruitless to try to relocate a cat. Milligan says that cats have been known to return from miles, or even cities away, back to their original homes. Previously, the service attempted to relocate the cats, but they returned within a week. Because of this, Aggie Cat Services provides their services in the cat’s’ familiar location.
Students may be unaware that there are several feral cat colonies on campus which are cared for by Aggie Cat Services. The service tries to keep the colonies inconspicuous in order to avoid interference from humans and other animals.
Milligan says that the program has been “absolutely successful.” She says that The Junction colony is a prime example of the program’s success.
“It used to be a running joke because there were so many cats running around. People would say, ‘Oh, they’re serving cat for lunch again?’” said Milligan about the Junction area.
According to Milligan, a decade ago, there was an uncontrollable cat problem near The Junction, but now there are only four cats living in this colony.
The territorial nature of these cats also causes them to reject cats who try to join an existing colony. Consequently, the population of the colony remains stable.
The program’s most notable accomplishment has been reducing the feral cat birth rate.
Over eleven years, Aggie Cat Services has trapped and neutered roughly eighty feral cats. According to the model that the Humane Society of the United States uses to calculate cat birth rates, Milligan estimates that the Aggie Cat Services has prevented the birth of over 9,000 kittens.
Aggie Cat Services does not believe that mass euthanization of feral cats is effective in controlling the feral cat population. Mass euthanization would be a continuous, costly task as feral cats reproduce at a fast pace. Neutering the cats, however reduces the population over time, and is a one-time cost. After neutering, virtually the only cost is feeding the cats.
Mass euthanization, Milligan says, frees up colonies previously occupied by the euthanized cats, thus causing new feral cats to move in, which ultimately starts the cycle over.
Since the feral cat problem is largely a human-caused issue, Milligan believes that it is a human responsibility to reduce the population in a humane way.
Surprisingly, Milligan says that some of the largest donors to the program are those who dislike cats. She believes that when “cat haters” come to understand the program’s effectiveness, they are more willing to donate in order to reduce the feral cat population.
In celebration of Aggie Cat Services’ tenth anniversary, Catster, a cat magazine, honored the program for its trap-neuter-return system, naming it a “Catster hero.”
Catster pointed out that Logan residents “far preferred [the system] to a system that was harsh and inhumane.”
Each feral cat under Aggie Cat Services is given a name. Some of these cats have achieved celebrity status around campus. One of these famous cats was O’Malley, otherwise known as O’Malley the Aggie Cat, as he was lovingly nicknamed. O’Malley was known for approaching students and faculty with large, longing eyes, which often led to people feeding him. Over time, the friendly cat grew plump, and Aggie Cat Services circulated flyers stating that O’Malley was well-taken care of and had shelter. Because of the program, a few cats, including O’Malley, recovered so well and became so used to humans that they were eventually allowed to be adopted into permanent homes.
Photo by Abby Shemkunas