Feral cats have cost one man thousands of dollars in personal property damage. He called on the Marion Town Council to take action to control the population of these untamed cats as well as the hoarding of animals.

Robert Copeland said he has talked to the police for three or four years about the situation, but law enforcement’s hands are tied because no local ordinances exist regarding the issues.

Copeland said feral or undomesticated animals have cost him thousands of dollars by scratching his vehicle’s hood and repeatedly tearing out insulation at his home. “It’s $3,000 out of my pocket every time I have to replace the insulation,” he told the council Monday evening.

For people who hoard 20 to 30 animals, Copeland said, restrictions should be in place. He suggested kennel fees or laws requiring a certain acreage for the animals. He said one woman had adopted five colonies of feral cats. He contended that she should be required to keep them on her property.

Joe Naff asked the council to also look at people feeding the feral cats around town. He noted that one person visits the post office multiple times each day to feed the cats there.

Mayor David Helms told Copeland that the council examined the issue some years ago and attempted to adopt an ordinance limiting the number of pets per home. However, he said, public outcry halted that move. In his 29 years on the council, he said, the crowd that gathered in opposition to the regulation was one of the largest he’d ever seen in the council chambers.

Councilman Larry Carter added his voice to the concern saying, “It’s a growing problem. We need to put it on the fast track.”

Feral cats aren’t just a problem in Marion.

Recent national headlines have proclaimed major cities’ struggle with the issue, including “Cat fight: How to manage Philadelphia's exploding feral cat population” and “An army of volunteers is trying to control Chicago's feral cat population.”

The Humane Society of the United States, citing a number of studies, says that estimates vary greatly on the number of feral, or community, cats in the United States. Those estimates range from 10 to 90 million. While acknowledging that there’s limited evidence available, the national Humane Society says the actual number may be in the 30 to 40 million range.

Though the numbers are staggering, the society says, “The real problem is that only about 2 percent of them are spayed or neutered… and continue to reproduce generations of outdoor cats.”

Bill Turman, Smyth County Animal Control officer, noted that each female cat can produce three to four litters of kittens every year. That’s typically about 12 kittens a year. Cats can begin reproducing at six months old.

Turman said what the headlines suggest: The stray cat population issue “is not just a town or county problem, it’s a national problem.”

The county’s animal shelter, Turman said, is ill equipped to deal with feral cats. He noted it only has 18 cages for cats, which can be filled in a matter of days.

Feral cats are different from strays, which were once pets and are either lost or abandoned. Feral cats are born outdoors and live with little human interaction.

Turman is glad the issue is on the table for discussion, saying people need to talk to each other about it. “It’s a community problem… It’s not going to be solved by local government, but will take the whole community. Everyone must get involved.”

Turman did note Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (TNVR), which is the approach many communities around the country and internationally are turning to.

In a Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return program, community cats are humanely trapped, taken to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, eartipped (a recognized sign that a feral cat has been neutered and vaccinated), and then returned to its outdoor home. Oftentimes, a volunteer will take responsibility for a colony of community cats, ensuring that they undergo TNVR and are fed on a regular basis.

The approach takes time, but the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and similar organizations cite multiple studies that show it does stabilize feral populations.

Turman noted that over the last 20 to 30 years, Smyth County has experienced a significant drop in dogs euthanized at the shelter. He attributed that to ongoing and widespread efforts encouraging people to spay and neuter dogs.

However, he also noted that cats, as a species, are better able to survive outside a home than dogs. He noted that they don’t eat as much and are more adaptable to their surroundings.

In regard to hoarding animals, Turman said, his department hasn’t dealt with a case recently. While some people can effectively care for large numbers of animals, Turman said, it becomes hoarding when the owners can’t provide basic humane care and treatment for their animals.

Hoarding, Turman said, is a sad situation that always involves mental illness.

The council sent the matter to its Ordinance Committee for its consideration.

Town Manager Bill Rush advised the council that if the town wants to undertake trapping animals and undertaking such controls it may need to consider hiring a full-time animal control officer.

For many years, the town did employ a full-time animal control officer. Rush explained that the town implemented a leash law before the county did and only town officers can enforce town laws.

However, after Lee Farmer, the town’s longtime animal control officer, retired, the council eliminated the position. Rush noted that the county had long provided animal control to Saltville and Chilhowie and it seemed only fair that the same service be provided to Marion citizens as all town residents also pay county taxes.

Pet owners are required to get tags (or licenses) for their pets with proof of a rabies vaccination. Costs vary depending whether the animal has been spayed or neutered. A kennel license is available.

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