Maureen McCann said she's tired of being the "Grim Reaper."
Elk Grove's animal control supervisor said the city's shelter put 782 outdoor cats to sleep in 2011, and the number of cats coming through shelter doors – and being euthanized – keeps rising.
"We saw the busiest kitten season ever last spring, and we're not seeing the numbers decrease," McCann said. "What we have right now is a 'trap-and-kill' program. We pick up stray cats and determine they're feral and unadoptable. They get shoved in a cage, they're scared to death, they don't eat, they get sick and we finally have to put them to sleep. It's a sad existence."
That was before Elk Grove became the most recent city in the region to adopt a non-lethal philosophy for caring for feral cats, which are sometimes called "free-roaming" or "community" cats.
The city recently received a two-year grant to launch its version of of a cat management policy – known as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) or Feral Freedom – that is sweeping the nation.
Under the program, cats that live in outdoor colonies are not killed. They are trapped, brought to a local clinic, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and then returned to the same colony within a few days.
The cats are also ear-tipped, meaning the tip of an ear is snipped so animal control officers can see from a distance which cats have been altered.
A grant of $64,000 from PetSmart Charities allows Elk Grove to perform the service on healthy cats that are determined to be from the city and at least four months old.
Cats eligible for the program can be feral or the more friendly "community" cats that are fed by humans but aren't owned by anyone, McCann said.
TNR is seen as a way to lower free-roaming cat populations and reduce shelter euthanasia rates, which hover nationally at 70 percent to 80 percent for cats.
Cats living outdoors have a 90 percent survival rate year to year, animal welfare advocates say, as long as they have food, shelter and are sterilized and vaccinated.
Returning sterile cats to their colony discourages unaltered cats from moving in and starting the reproductive cycle over again.
A network of volunteers and animal rescue groups have been feeding and caring for community cats in the Sacramento region for decades, said Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
Many of them trap cats and bring them to clinics for medical care and sterilization. Sacramento County SPCA sterilizes as many as 100 cats a week for release back to the outdoors.
Now, cities and counties are getting on board with community cat management, Fearing said.
"What we've learned is that trapping and killing isn't working," Fearing said. "It doesn't reduce the population. People are rethinking their position on this. More cities and counties are moving in this direction. It's a revolution, and I definitely think it's catching on."
San Jose's city shelter gets 8,000 to 9,000 cats a year and was euthanizing up to 80 percent of those, said Jon Cicirelli, director of animal care services.
"Our shelter was functioning as more of an extermination service or as pest control," he said. "For dogs, shelters do a better job of caring for them and returning them to their owners. But for cats, we were basically just picking them up and putting them down."
San Jose was the first city in the state to adopt a TNR program in March 2010, and since then, 7,000 cats have been sterilized, vaccinated and released, Cicirelli said.
The shelter has seen a 25 percent drop in the number of cats coming to the shelter and an additional 25 percent decline in the number of kittens. Animal care officers also are picking up 17 percent fewer dead cats on the road, another indicator of fewer cats living outdoors.
"This is not a small change," Cicirelli said. "Our 'save' rate for adult cats was 83 percent in 2012. Before the program, it was around 30 percent."
The Placer County SPCA has had a TNR program since July 2011, said chief executive officer Leilani Fratis, and the shelter has similarly reversed its euthanasia rates for cats.
The average rate of survival for cats coming to the shelter was 80 percent in 2012.
McCann is hoping for those kinds of outcomes for cat colonies in Elk Grove. She estimates about 1,400 cats live in the city's neighborhoods, either as feral cats or tame strays.
McCann received some criticism from residents about a city policy allowing cats to roam free in Elk Grove. Some were worried that cats would suffer or prey on the area's birds and other wildlife.
"We're trying to be compassionate and strike a balance between both sides," she said. "It doesn't make sense for these cats to go to shelters, where they have a slim chance of survival."
Besides, McCann said, her department could never kill enough cats to eradicate outdoor colonies.
She also noted that cats are "excellent mousers," making them an "amazing green resource for rodent control."
McCann is trying to reach out to community cat caregivers, who typically hide cat colonies from city workers for fear they will put the cats to sleep.
"Because of how animal control departments have been doing business, they have always been in conflict with colony caregivers," she said. "We don't want to be bad guys anymore. We have resources and support now, and we want to work with the caregivers."
In fact, the City Council may change an ordinance to recognize and allow the work of cat colony caregivers at its Jan. 23 meeting, McCann said.
TNR could save the city money, too. Trapping, housing and euthanizing cats costs about $250 per animal, while TNR costs about $100, McCann said.
For more information on Elk Grove's TNR program, contact the animal control unit at (916) 687-3023 or go to www.elkgrovecity.org/animals/trap-neuter-return.asp