MINNEAPOLIS — Maia Rumpho wants to wipe out a colony of about 25 cats — in the gentlest way possible.
“In the past, they would round up these cats and kill them,” said Rumpho, watching the raggedy felines slink around a Minneapolis backyard. Rumpho’s nonviolent approach is to sterilize the cats and remove the kittens, so the colony slowly dies off.
She said it’s the humane way to deal with a surprising result of the pandemic — a population explosion of tame-turned-wild cats.
Fewer animal-control efforts with the pandemic
The pandemic reduced animal-control efforts, exactly when COVID-stressed pet owners began to dump unwanted cats on street corners. The cats bred quickly, moving into backyards and looking for food.
That is why spring is somewhat more quiet this year, said cat-protector Christine Gruber — feral cats eat songbirds. She monitors six colonies in the Dayton’s Bluff area of St. Paul, but said she can’t keep up with rising tide of unadoptable cats.
“It’s becoming harder,” Gruber sighed, “for me to even make a dent.”
When the pandemic forced a statewide lockdown in March 2020, the animal welfare system was a casualty. Minnesota’s network of veterinarians, spay/neuter clinics and 66 cat-rescue groups were forced to shut down.
The Animal Humane Society, the largest in the state, permanently closed its shelter in St. Paul and suspended importing pets from other states.
Pet adoptions grew
Meanwhile, Minnesotans wanted more pets. Demand for adoptions and veterinary services grew. At one point, the group had 8,000 adoption requests, and 1,200 animals waiting to be sterilized.
The worried pet owners turned to the smaller groups, clamoring for medical care, spay/neuter services and animals to adopt.
“I was getting 93 calls a day,” said Laura Johnson, founder of the cat-rescue group SCRAM. The backlogs in Minnesota were so bad that Johnson drove cats to a clinic in Cumberland, Wis., to be sterilized.
The cats multiplied quickly in low-income communities. COVID-19 forced nonprofits to suspend their mobile spay/neuter vans, which serve those areas.
Pet owners balked at the $350 fees for spaying a cat. They had their own problems — evictions, job losses and illness.
So many dumped their cats.
Johnson said the colonies are growing statewide, including “thousands” of cats near Pine City, about 60 miles north of the metro area.
“Allowing these animals to reproduce over and over again creates a recipe for disaster,” she said.
The official response in the past has been simple — euthanize the cats.
But that is surprisingly expensive, said Rumpho, founder and director of Pet Project Rescue. It means trapping the cats, housing them and providing them with veterinary care.
She said killing the cats is inhumane, and can backfire.
Removing part of a colony triggers a biological response called the “vacuum effect,” in which the remaining cats produce more kittens to fill the void.
With the ability to have two litters a year, a pair of cats can multiply to hundreds of thousands in seven years, according to a Humane Society website.
Instead, Rumpho traps a few cats at a time, sterilizes them and puts them back. The kittens are removed and adopted. That way, the colony is reduced in a period of several years.
It’s economical, she said. Her group of 15 volunteers manages cat colonies with an annual budget of $80,000.
Rumpho said it’s time for cities to fund trap-neuter-release programs as part of their regular animal-control budgets. Cities such as Chicago, San Diego and Austin, Texas, have already done it, she said.
The dwindling colony in Minneapolis proves that the method works, said Rumpho.
It had 50 cats six years ago — but it’s now been cut down to 20. Over the same period, she removed about 100 kittens, which can be adopted.
Presently, the group is working on 12 colonies, with three to 15 cats apiece.
COVID triggered a drop in funding and volunteer support. It also made people feel trapped in their homes, becoming more suspicious of strangers who want to catch cats on their property.
Gruber faces a dilemma. She loves cats but loves birds, too — and cats eat birds.
A feral cat kills about 129 birds a year, according to the science-journal website Sciencedirect.com. The estimated 70 million feral cats in the U.S. are responsible for reducing the bird population by 30 percent since 1970, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
Gruber said she once saw her pet cat leap five feet in the air to kill a bird in mid-flight.
“No one likes cats killing songbirds,” said Gruber. That’s one reason why volunteers work to reduce cat populations.
‘A heart for cats’
At the Pet Project Rescue site in Minneapolis, homeowner Debbie asked that her last name not be used out of fear of neighbors’ reactions.
“I have a heart for cats. I feel so sorry for them,” she said, as a ratty-looking Siamese darted into a cat house in her backyard.
The cats are innocent victims, Debbie said, and should be treated humanely. That’s why she spends three hours a day feeding, housing and caring for them.
And that’s why she supports the work of Rumpho and other cat-savers.
“We are going to do this work,” said Rumpho, “whether there is pandemic or not.”