LAKELAND – The growing population of feral and stray cats is a problem that won’t go away without a joint effort by residents, municipalities and animal not-for-profits, says Silke Skinner, the program manager for the Lakeland Rural Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic.
“We have a cat problem,” Skinner told Lakeland Today. “It's not only a MD of Bonnyville problem... There is need on every corner.”
Skinner started the Lakeland Rural Spay and Neuter Clinic in 2018 to address the overpopulation of feral, stray and barn cats within the municipality.
In 2018, Skinner approached the MD of Bonnyville, seeking funds to run a spay and neuter clinic.
“The MD had funded $6,800 for a pilot clinic and the clinical was free. It was one cat per household. We had asked people for donations that made use of clinical that day, and altogether we fixed 61 cats that year,” she explained.
The one-day clinic was meant only for rural property owners in the municipality. Residents from the Town of Bonnyville, Village of Glendon and other hamlets were not meant to participate in the clinic.
Then in 2019, council made the decision to provide funding to another animal organization. Skinner then had to reinvent how the clinic offered its services to the public.
Without guaranteed annual funding, the Lakeland Rural Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic had to create a sustainable way to operate, while still providing enough of an incentive for rural residents to catch and fix wild cats with the goal of curbing the region’s unwanted feral cat colonies.
The new approach offered reduced rates to residents who brought in wild cats to be spayed and neutered. The ability to provide discounted prices was only possible because of partnerships the clinic formed with local veterinarians.
The program that Skinner runs and operates has grown to help and service people from the Town of Bonnyville, County of St. Paul, and even as far as Onion Lake, Sask.
A growing impact
Re-establishing the spay and neuter clinic without municipal funding took time to sort out, but eventually the program got up and running with a change to its operational model.
“It was a slow start in 2019. We had fixed only 13 cats,” recalls Skinner. But, in 2020 the clinic doubled the number of wild cats being fixed to 26.
By 2021, word had gotten out that residents dealing with feral cat colonies or exploding barn cat populations could trap them and use the clinic’s reduced rate to spay and neuter them. That year, 109 cats were fixed through the Lakeland Rural Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic.
In October, the clinic marked 300 wild cats being fixed in five years.
Skinner returned to the MD of Bonnyville’s administrative building to present to the current council on Sept. 28, seeking renewed support for the program.
Breaking down the statistics, she told council that of the 176 female cats that have been spayed, in just one reproductive cycle, the spay and neuter clinic has potentially prevented the birth of 1,760 unwanted and feral cats.
“We're looking at about $38,500 for all of these cats that have been fixed, excluding the $6,800 of funding provided by the MD, being carried by the residents. And most of the time, these cats are not theirs,” she explained.
Speaking to council, Skinner noted that the need for the program remains on an ongoing basis.
“There's not only the need on one day, at one clinic a year,” she said. “It's a big challenge to do something and it's all stopped by the money. And I feel bad for the residents of the MD who battle this problem, and that the costs are alone onto them.”
The issues around feral cat colonies have been persistent and never-ending for many rural property owners.
“I had contact from a lady that said she bought a new property within the MD, and with that property she inherited 14 cats. So now it's up to her to fix them all or have the 14 make a whole lot more,” recounted Skinner.
In order to tackle larger colonies and prevent population explosions from taking place, the Lakeland Rural Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic offers a ‘Three Plus One Promotion.’
“If you bring in three females, you get the fourth one paid. If you bring in three males, you get the fourth one paid. If they bring in a mixed group, a male cat is paid for,” she explained
“The funding that I have is hard to come by and that funding is strictly so that the clinic can offer this promotion because we hope to target bigger populations... Someone that has 10 cats, that population is in real danger of exploding. So, we hope with the three plus one, it draws in the people that have larger populations in their yards.”
For Skinner and others in the Lakeland, tackling the issue of overpopulation of wild cats in a humane way seems to have fallen off the radar for municipal leaders even though local animal shelters are overwhelmed and the need for support continues to grow.
During Skinner’s presentation, Coun. Josh Crick asked what the reduced price offered through the spay and neuter clinic was. She responded that $165 is charged for spaying a female cat while neutering a male cat is $80, plus GST and any extra costs for other treatments.
Councillors also inquired what the regular cost is for fixing a cat. Skinner was unable to provide an answer as each veterinary clinic sets their own prices and those prices can change based on the weight and gender of the animal.
Skinner told council members that she often has people inquiring about the program, but when it comes to the pricing they say, “Oh, this is not free. Then what am I supposed to do with the cats? All the SPCAs are full. What am I supposed to do with the kittens I found?... I can’t keep them, and I can't afford to fix all these cats that were dropped off at my farm.”
To qualify for the program, cats must be either a stray, feral or barn cat. All cats fixed through the clinic have an ear “tipped” to indicate that the animal has been spayed or neutered, which is especially important for female cats.
“We had one cat that was opened up on our table and she was fixed,” recalled Skinner. She added the error was a waste of resources, a waste of the appointment slot and resulted in complications for the cat after the surgery.
“We could have avoided that if she would have her ear tipped in the first place.” For that reason, Skinner said ear tipping is a part of the program and is non-negotiable.
“Tattoos fade and you have to be close to read it. A microchip, you have to have the cat in hand to scan it and a scanner. We need a marking that you can more or less see with the binoculars and that you don't have to touch the cat,” she explained.
Skinner believes investing in spay and neuter programs is the most humane way of dealing with the overpopulation of wild cats. She hopes that municipal leaders within the Lakeland start investing in programs such as hers as a way to curb feral cat colonies.
“A successful TNR, trap, neuter and return program, is one that you return at least some of the cats because it's their territory, and they will keep that. If you remove them all, let's say you would go out and do it a harsh way and kill them all, then new ones just come in and fill the spot.”