UTAH STATE PRISON — It began when an inmate walked up to Julie Cox, cradling a tiny, 4-week-old kitten in his large hands. “He said, ‘They’re killing the cats. Can you help out?”‘ she recalled.That was her first introduction to a hidden community living behind bars, alongside the inmates — a growing colony of feral cats. It was also the beginning of a program that has successfully reduced the feral cat population here, and seemingly restored some of the most hardened criminals’ sense of humanity.
The cats often show up here in the fields surrounding the prison’s razor wire fences, dumped and abandoned by people. In the 1990s, many of the feral cats found on prison grounds were rounded up and then euthanized. That seemed to only make things worse.”Those few cats left start breeding like crazy and over-breed in a vacuum effect,” said Holly Sizemore, the executive director of No More Homeless Pets in Utah.
Cox, who works as a substance abuse counselor at the prison’s Promontory facility, said she couldn’t believe it was happening.
“My initial thought was, ‘Why are they killing these animals? They’re the innocent ones in the prison,”‘ she said.
On her own time and her own dime, Cox started doing some research and contacted No More Homeless Pets in Utah, an animal welfare group that has been trying to end the feral cat problem in cities all over the state.
They recommended something called “trap, neuter, return.”
“We met with the Department of Corrections and they thought it was a viable option,” Sizemore said. “My argument was, you keep removing the cats and they’re euthanized. The following year, you have just as many cats if not more cats.”
Corrections officials signed off on the idea.
Trap, neuter, return
“Trap, Neuter, Return” is a long-term population control program where feral cats are trapped, sterilized and vaccinated and then returned to their habitat.
The cats wouldn’t be here if people didn’t abandon them, Sizemore said.
“Unfortunately, people think that grassy areas and any type of open space — there’s birds, there’s mice, they’ll do fine,” she said. “Without human assistance these cats don’t stand much of a chance. It starts because people aren’t spaying or neutering their pet cats.”
The program, advocates say, helps control the feral cat colonies by reducing the population over time, allowing the cats to die out on their own, whereas euthanasia has the potential to create over-breeding.
“With the prison, we were able to remove some of the kittens and the tame cats and find them homes. That reduced the population there,” said Sizemore. “By sterilizing the others and keeping a watchful eye out for others who show up to the food bowl — and when they show up, get them fixed — it stops the cycle because it stops the breeding.”
Feral cat colonies are in every city and have been found in prisons all over the United States, including Rikers Island in New York.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began a Trap, Neuter, Return program there, which has successfully reduced the feral cats by half.
“By halving the population of feral cats on Rikers Island, we’ve not only prevented the exponential increase of more unwanted animals, but we have also established a sustainable model for TNR that provides humane care while gradually reducing the colony’s numbers,” ASPCA President Ed Sayres said in a statement.
Other prisons have involved the inmates in caring for their feral cat colonies.
“It gives them a sense of responsibility and compassion,” said Sizemore. “Some of these big guys are like, ‘You’d better not mess with the cats.’ They really love them. A lot of us understand how pets give us unconditional love, and it’s not something you find in a prison.”
At the Utah State Prison, Cox said she encountered hundreds of cats before they began the program. Now, she said there are only dozens left.
In between the Uinta and Olympus facilities, “Abby” and “Walkie Talkie” sun themselves on a chunk of sidewalk.
The cats scurry away the second anyone walks near them. In the yard, there are shelters set up for them. Some were built by inmates working in a building-trade class. The inmates have kept an eye out for the cats’ welfare.
“They don’t like to see the cats struggling and starving. If they see a cat that’s injured, they let us know. We also have officers that let us know,” Cox said.
She and others budget money out of their own pockets to buy food. It’s just enough food to keep the cats alive, but not enough to bring more to the food dishes. No More Homeless Pets in Utah has provided veterinary services to fix the animals.
While they are technically not allowed to care for them, Cox said she has seen effects the cats have on the inmates.
“It’s good for them,” she said. “They start caring for something else besides themselves.”
This article, by Ben Winslow, is reprinted from the Deseret Morning News.
According to Alley Cat Allies, “Trap-Neuter-Return is a full management plan in which stray and feral cats already living outdoors in cities, towns, and rural areas are humanely trapped, then evaluated, vaccinated, and sterilized by veterinarians. Kittens and tame cats are adopted into good homes. Healthy adult cats unsocialized to humans are returned to their familiar habitat under the lifelong care of volunteers.” For more information on feral cat control, visit Alley Cat Allies.