GRAND JUNCTION (AP) – Lisa Warburton realized she was outnumbered.
The cat population in her neighborhood had skyrocketed. There were so many kitties coming and going behind her home that they had worn a distinguishable path in the dirt, a sort of cat superhighway.
The neighborhood at Texas Avenue and 28½ Road, which has a large number of rental properties, had gathered cats over the years. Cats abandoned by tenants who were evicted or moved, cats likely dumped there by other people, cats born to the first generation of cats and quickly became cats that made more cats.
They didn’t really belong to anyone, but they belonged to the neighborhood. They weren’t socialized, but they depended on humans to some extent for food.
After nearly five years of watching this happen, Warburton wasn’t sure what to do, but she was tired of them using her place for a litter box. She was also sick of the fighting and yowling in the middle of the night, in the neighborhood between Columbine Park and Nisley Elementary School.
“I was right in the thick of it,” she said.
So when she heard of a new program to organize and make a concerted effort to limit the cat population in Mesa County, and found out her situation qualified for help, she called the Grand Valley Cat Coalition.
Six animal-welfare groups had joined forces to form the coalition and target the 81501 ZIP code as the low-hanging fruit in their first efforts to trap, neuter and release cats to try to stem the population. An initial grant from the Animal Assistance Foundation paid for project director Cree Roberts’ salary, and other funding from Grand Rivers Humane Society, Denver Metro Cats Around Town and Best Friends Animal Society as well as donations to the six participating organizations helped pay for the campaign.
Since the coalition formed last year and Roberts started educating, enlisting and engaging those willing to help, more than 1,700 cats have been sterilized by the coalition and its partners. In turn, more than 10,000 kittens have been prevented from becoming conceived, according to a formula assuming that each female cat would have had 10 kittens. This doesn’t tally the number of kittens born to that second generation, which would result in exponential population growth over a short amount of time because cats can have more than one litter of kittens in a year.
Warburton became one of the coalition’s most eager volunteers, helping Roberts tackle problem houses and rescue litters of kittens and trap adult feral cats that weren’t people-friendly. Together, she estimates they trapped more than 80 cats, maybe half of that number at one house. Getting the job done sometimes required them to enter unsanitary places full of feline feces, climbing rafters in garages and finding hidden litters of kittens.
Over time, the neighborhoods where they first spotted the cat colonies became ones where they could see cats missing the tip of their left ears, a simple procedure done at the time cats are sterilized to provide an easy visual cue that the cat can’t reproduce.
Warburton doesn’t see many pointy-eared cats anymore around her place – almost all the cats have “crooked ears,” as she calls them. And that’s fine by her, as it’s a sign her work and the coalition’s help has paid off.
“If new ones show up, I’ll get out the trap,” she said. “My neighbors were happy I was trapping them, so I’ll keep doing it.”
This empowerment of people who live in neighborhoods to take on feline welfare is something Roberts is proud of helping to establish in the first year of the coalition’s existence. Initially, she encountered attitudes from people who abandoned fertile pet cats, thinking it was no big deal because they were going to “let it go back to nature.” Other times, people didn’t spay or neuter their cats because they were going to let them have kittens because they’re fun, and then abandoned the momma cat or didn’t bother to follow through. Yet, every spring, the local cat shelters are bursting at the seams with kittens for adoption.
“This is not a cat problem, it’s a human problem,” Roberts said. “I can go out there and trap all the cats in the world, but if people keep dumping them, it won’t make much of a difference.”
Mesa County Animal Services stopped accepting cats at their shelter in 2014 for budgetary reasons, prompting other welfare organizations to start taking on the bulk of the cat-related issues, unless the cats are sick or unable to fend for themselves. But there’s still some confusion about cats in the community, and Roberts said she hopes the efforts of the coalition and its partners has helped develop reliable, easy-to-access information for the community to use when dealing with cats.
Making connections, finding common ground and educating people about cats dominated her efforts until late summer, when the trapping efforts started paying off.
The coalition itself trapped and sterilized 275 cats in 2018, with most of those taking place in July and August. Altogether, the coalition and its partner organizations trapped and sterilized at least 1,759 cats last year, according to information from Roberts. Some of those animals were operated on during a volunteer weekend in January with celebrity veterinarian Dr. Jeff Young from Animal Planet, which also included cats brought in by their owners.
Warburton said the cat overpopulation issue in the Grand Valley is a community problem that will need to continue to be addressed after Roberts leaves for her new opportunities. She has left the job with the coalition and is moving to the Pacific Northwest.
Warburton doesn’t know what’s next for the coalition, but she hopes that whatever happens, the education and the outreach continues to help residents tackle the ongoing issues with feral cats when they arrive in neighborhoods.
“I guess it’s your problem whether you want it to be or not,” she said.