Orange County

Orange County seeks feral-cat ‘fix’ with barn-cat birth control

At first glance, Teer Farm is still and quiet. The only discernible activity comes from a herd of Holstein cows strolling along the pond.

But then the farm comes to life: two cats appear from behind a bush, and one approaches the house. Yet another dashes beneath the porch. Long-haired cats and short-haired cats.. Tabbies, gray and black cats.

These are the barn cats of Teer Farm.

Barn cats keep a farm’s rodent population in check. Because rats and mice can feed on crops and transmit disease, the cats are critical to a healthy farm.

When cats are left unsterilized and free to roam, however, they can multiply at an alarming rate. And a farmer’s rodent problem can quickly become a feline-overpopulation problem.

“[The cats] take over,” said Sarah Holt, owner of Teer Farm.

At one point, she had more than 60 cats on the farm between her house, the barn, and her parents’ house. Adding to the problem, she said, were people dropping off their unwanted cats, assuming they would be taken care of.

Sarah Holt, owner of Teer Farm in Orange County, feeds a large group of barn cats on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Holt and a family member worked with Orange County Animal Services to get rabies shots and sterilization for 60 cats. Julia Wall

Feral cats

Most offspring of barn cats get little exposure to humans. The lack of interaction can make kittens fearful or aggressive toward people.

“Feral cats are a big problem everywhere,” said Tenille Fox, Orange County Animal Services’ spokeswoman, especially since they are difficult to domesticate after a certain age.

In 2017, the Orange County Animal Shelter took in 1,459 cats. While most were adopted, 273 cats were euthanized, nearly half of them for feral-related reasons.

In an attempt to humanely decrease the number of unwanted cats in the community, Animal Services has launched the Working Barn Cats Program, offering free sterilization for Orange County barn cats.

According to program coordinator Cooper Hatch, the department has spayed or neutered 147 cats (over 60 of which came from Teer Farm) since October 2017.

The program, which works with North Carolina’s Spay Neuter Association Program (SNAP), was made possible by a $5,000 grant from the Triad Foundation based in Ithaca, New York.

In addition to the sterilization surgery, the Working Barn Cat Program provides vaccines for rabies and other infectious diseases. After the procedure, one of the cat’s ears is clipped to show that it has been sterilized.

Feral barn cats gather to eat food given to them by Sarah Holt, owner of Teer Farm in Orange County, on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Holt and a family member worked with Orange County Animal Services to get rabies shots and sterilization for 60 cats. Julia Wall

Outdoor cats

Although the program is beneficial in many ways, it may also encourage people to keep more outdoor cats.

“Cats are terrific pets as kept indoors, but free-roaming cats are a huge problem for the environment — a huge problem for birds,” said Walker Golder, director of Audubon North Carolina’s Wilmington Coastal Office. He advises that, when possible, feral cats be confined.

While acknowledging the issue, Animal Services says most cats brought in are already outdoor animals and sterilizing them prevents more feral cat births. The center also educates cat owners on subjects such as how to place a bird feeder on their property to reduce the harm their pet might cause.

It is beginning to grow dark, and the farm is still again. The cats are out of sight, leaving behind foggy paw prints on the car windshield.

Anyone interested in the Working Barn Cat Program or in acquiring a barn or stable cat should contact Cooper Hatch at (919) 932-4965 or Andi Morgan at (919) 932-4961.