A few months ago, as we were leaving a Dunkin Donuts in Elgin, my friend and I were approached by a presumably homeless alcoholic (judging by looks and smell) asking for cash.
"I need it to get home," he said. "They kicked me off of the bus and I lost my wallet."
He continued speaking as he reached down his collar and inside his sweatshirt, "I was coming back from the veterinarian but when they found out I have cats they threw me off the bus."
We were shocked when he pulled out two kittens, one gray and one black. The man said he found them abandoned in a cardboard box on the side of I-90 and they were lucky not to have been run over. My friend and I held the two meowing kittens and exchanged dumbstruck looks. We had no idea what to do.
The kittens had a sweet temperament, but their fur and ears were not very clean. I asked the man if he was sure he was able to take care of them and told him I know of a place that will find them good homes. But he said that they had just gotten their first shots and he was keeping them.
"They eat better than I do," he said.
Although doubtful, we gave the man some money and that was the end of that conversation - but I continued thinking about it for days. Did we do the right thing? Or did we fall prey to a clever and desperate scam artist who uses kittens to solicit donations for his booze fund? Are those kittens going to be OK? What would have been the right thing to do?
I don't know what happened to that man or those kittens; I never saw any of them again.
But in recent weeks The Courier News has been covering the story of an abandoned gray cat that reminded me of those kittens. The cat had been left on a family's doorstep, then released into a snowstorm by a police officer outside the Elgin Law Enforcement Facility where the family went seeking help (read the first article, second article, third article).
As the story has unfolded, a number of issues have become clear:
- Elgin doesn't have a contract with Kane County Animal Control.
- The Elgin Police Department does not handle abandoned cats, only dogs.
- Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin is overbooked.
In this economy, there have been more instances of pet abandonment (due to a combination of people who release a pet into the wild because they are unable to afford to keep it and people who allow their pet to reproduce because they cannot afford to spay or neuter it) and this is definitely an issue in Elgin, a city that has no plan for coping with the problem. The police officer who turned the gray cat loose showed no compassion for the life of a house-animal that would have been unlikely to survive in the elements for long (it was later found) as well as no forethought to an action that would have contributed to the problem of feral cat overpopulation, of which Elgin has its share. But maybe, like me, the police officer simply didn't know what the right course of action would have been. Elgin does not have a protocol for cat abandonment or for managing the feral cat population.
There are a number of cats roaming my neighborhood that I recognize by sight, including the fat tabby I usually spot darting across my driveway as I'm sipping my morning coffee and the brownish cat that strolls down the sidewalk across the street, oblivious to the barking of the neighbor's dog through the window. They may have been house pets at some point, or they are the descendants of house pets, but now they are definitely wild animals.
Stray and feral cats do not live particularly good lives. They face weather extremes, starvation, infection, fights and attacks by other animals; they have an average lifespan of only two years. However, during those two year they can reproduce at exponential levels and become a nuisance to neighborhoods.
There are humane ways of dealing with the rising problem of cat abandonment and the feral cat population, and it's time that Elgin came up with a plan of action. Julia Doyle, of The Courier News, put it succinctly in a recent "Elgin Talk" column:
As we reported Dec. 14, the city and Kane County have no policies for dealing with the burgeoning cat population, except to let them run loose. So basically, the easiest way to address this problem is to act like it doesn't exist in the first place? Here's a thought. Perhaps the city of Elgin should spend a little less time, energy and resources worrying about whether or not we should have a law that would ban pit bulls, which, last time I checked, weren't roaming loose in our city, reproducing and wreaking havoc in neighborhoods....It's time for the city to focus on something that's really an issue and come up with a real plan for addressing feral cat overpopulation that doesn't involve looking the other way.
A good place to start would be implementing larger scale versions of the Trap Neuter Release programs already ongoing thanks to volunteer organizations like the Feral Fixers. TNR is an inexpensive and realistic way to stop the cycle of reproduction that perpetrates the problem of homeless cats in our community. TNR, however, is not effective if abandonment of unaltered cats continues. Instead of continuing to debate the proposed expensive and questionable pit bull ban, the city should focus on something it is clearly lacking, a humane standard for dealing with abandoned cats.