A New Life Down On The Farm
Terry Brimeyer is an active businessman. In addition to his managerial duties at a local discount chain store, he is also a partner in Crottin Montchevre Goat Farms of Platteville, Wisconsin, which produces goat cheese for local retailers. He is also an active member of a feral cat colony - all of his farm cats are part of the Tri-State Feral Association's efforts to rid the streets of feral cats.
The problems of feral cats have been around for centuries. In the Middle Ages, during the spread of The Plague, cats were thought to carry the disease and were killed outright as a preventative act. In reality, we know now that it was rats that carried the disease, and that the cats were active in killing the rats. Once the cats were gone, the rats had few animals that would predate on it and they began to reproduce exponentially, which lead to the further spread of the disease. Europe was nearly wiped out at this time in history, and it took years for humans to return to the level of education, culture and population that was in existence before the spread of The Plague.
In many ways, this is the reason that Mr. Brimeyer wants cats on his farmland. Mice, rats and other vermin would be likely to infest his land if he did not have the cats to hunt them down. However, it has been his experience that once you get a few cats on a farm that you will eventually have many cats on your farm, because they will reproduce as often as they can.
The solution to his problem came to him when he came to collect rent from me and noticed that we had several cats in pet carriers. He asked, with some trepidation, if we were planning to keep the cats, and I explained to him the basics of the Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) program for ferals and asked if he wanted some cats for his farm. He took four that first night, and came back a week later and asked for a dozen more.
"Farm cats have always been a necessary evil in the agricultural industry," explained Brimeyer. "You want the protection they provide to your feed and your livestock from the mice, rats and voles, but often times when you get a pair of cats you end up with thirty or more because they won't stop breeding. After a short time on the farm, it is nearly impossible to handle them, so you can't get them altered, and soon you are overrun and looking for someone to take the excess cats." Since Brimeyer and his partners are getting the cats - cats that are already altered and have their shots - for free, they have set up a trough to feed the cats and to provide water for them in one of the farm's outbuildings.
And has the experiment been a success? In the year since we provided Brimeyer with his sixteen cats, he has been back to collect a total of eighty-seven more for not only his farm but for the farms of several of his neighbors. The cats, he says, are healthy and happy. "It's funny how they know when we are coming out to feed them. They gather around and rub up against your legs. Several of the cats have even come into the house with the kids, and it is amazing to see how calm they are compared to when they first arrived on the farm."
Brimeyer's neighbor Dwayne Manneman agrees with that assessment. "When we see the cats, they are cleaned up, but the trip to Platteville in the pet carrier has pretty well stirred them up. But after a few days of wandering around, and getting fed regularly, they start to mellow out. They love chasing the mice and giving them as presents for us. And they all seem to get along - there's enough room for them all and they seem to know it."
It's a long process to get a cat from the streets to the farm. It starts with someone - usually a member of the Tri-State Feral Association - setting up a safe trap baited with food to capture a feral cat in his or her yard or near the garbage can. Not all animals that are captured are cats, however. Often there are false alarms when a squirrel, raccoon, opossum or even birds have been captured in our safe traps. Once an unlucky member of the group even caught a skunk. These animals are released to return back to their habitats and hopefully have learned not to make the same mistake again. Currently, we own four safe traps ourselves and are able to borrow traps from the city's Animal Control officer as needed.
Once the cat is captured, the person is to take the cat to our primary veterinarian, Dr. Leonard Kutsch, who tranquilizes the animal, gives it a basic physical, decides if the cat need to be shaved before bathing, operates to alter the animal and "tip" or remove the upper part of the left ear. (This is the accepted method of identifying feral cats that have been part of a TNR program and is approved by Alley Cat Allies, the feral cat organization found at www.alleycat.org on the web.) Finally, the animal is returned to its cage and the process of placement begins.
Sometimes, placement is simply the process of picking up the phone and calling someone who has been waiting for a feral cat for their farm or outbuilding. In addition to the six farms where we have placed cats, there have also been placements in a lumberyard, a wooded area (formerly a railroad track, now converted to a bicycle trail), and in the undeveloped land of a developer who had allowed us to but up feral shelters and to tap into his well water through an electric pump. We prefer to put the cats somewhere populated by humans, such as a farm, but we are not always that fortunate.
Other times, it is necessary to return the animal to the point of capture. We have done this several times, and have had mixed results. On at least one occasion, the animal was hit by a car and killed instantly. In another case, we have a permanent visitor in our backyard that will not allow us to approach him. We provide food and water for all the animals in our backyard with a simple trough feeder and water holder, but are seeking a better solution since we live in an area where temperatures fall below freezing several months out of the year.
The ultimate goal of the Tri-State Feral Association is a lofty one, but attainable if we are patient enough to plan it out properly. There are several deserted industrial complexes in the area, and are in the process of being sold for their tax assessment. What we would like to do is purchase on of these buildings, and transfer it into an indoor feral colony, complete with a facsimile of the outdoor conditions that these cats might have faced, including grass, trees, plants and multi-level play areas. One building we are looking at is approximately three floors high and covers an entire city block. If we are able to reach our five-year fund raising goals, and if we obtain a grant from the Gambling Commission here in Dubuque, we will be able to use the basement as our intake and operating area, the first floor for administrative offices and domestic adoptions of dogs and cats, and the top two floors for the ferals.
It seems like a dream now, but it is a worthwhile one and we will pursue it until the dream is a reality.
Brian Baker is a writer and animal rights proponent. He has been published locally and nationally, most notably in Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover's Soul. Currently, Baker spends his time working with a local organization (www.safehavenforpets.org) that not only operates a shelter for animals but also does extensive work with feral cats. To exchange correspondence with the author, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com