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Project aims to control feral cat population in Pittsburgh area

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 8:45 p.m.
Steffi Bruninghaus of Squirrel Hill, a volunteer with the Animal Rescue League, releases a feral cat that previously was trapped and spayed, on Mt. Washington on Tuesday, May 26, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Steffi Bruninghaus of Squirrel Hill, a volunteer with the Animal Rescue League, releases a feral cat that previously was trapped and spayed, on Mt. Washington on Tuesday, May 26, 2015.

Key findings of a project to map colonies of feral cats in Allegheny County remain top secret, with organizers declining to reveal their locations out of concern that people might harm the colonies or make the areas dumping grounds for unwanted cats.

“With cats, usually people either love them or they hate them. Not very many people are indifferent,” said Janice Barnard, program director at Larimer's Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center, one of the partners in Project Nala.

In a joint effort between the shelter and Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Project Nala organizers began mapping the locations of cat colonies in Pittsburgh about a year and a half ago.

They're now looking to expand into the suburbs, said volunteer Steffi Bruninghaus of Squirrel Hill. She urged people caring for or aware of colonies to contact the Animal Rescue League.

The program is one of the more interesting approaches being taken in a larger, longstanding effort by volunteers and shelters across the country — including the Animal Rescue League, the North Side-based Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and Animal Friends in Ohio Township — to control the feral cat population.

The most traditional approach has consisted of trapping the animals, spaying or neutering and vaccinating them, and then returning them to their stomping grounds.

Many feral cats are unable to be placed for adoption by shelters, and would otherwise need to be euthanized, animal welfare officials say.

In addition to doing the work on their own or with help from volunteers, Carol Whaley, director of clinic services at Animal Friends, said the shelter works directly with communities such as Sharpsburg and Leetsdale to perform so-called “trap-neuter-return” efforts on their behalf.

She said Animal Friends has trapped 150 cats in Sharpsburg over the past several years.

Removing or culling cats from an area is usually unsuccessful because, if there's a stable food source in that area, new cats will find their way there, officials said.

“You fix as many cats as you can so you have a manageable number. One or two litters is manageable, but if you have 15 cats and they're all having babies, that's not,” Barnard said, noting the average litter has about five kittens. A female cat can have two litters in a year.

The work is especially important this time of year, which officials refer to as the start of “kitten season.”

Barnard said her shelter currently has about 400 cats in its care, but that number figures to balloon by more than 100 a month through September, when the shelter might have 900 cats. “We usually have a mountain of kittens in August,” Barnard said.

It's unknown how many feral cats live outside in Allegheny County's communities, officials said. There are countless more pet cats that spend at least some of their time outdoors, or are strays.

“Trying to look at birth control and prevention of unwanted litters is a huge piece, but there has to be a place where they are safe once they can't reproduce anymore,” Barnard said in explaining the value of efforts such as colony mapping.

Shelters also are increasingly tackling the problem in other ways, including working to resolve disputes between neighbors who set out food for the wild cats and those who consider the animals a nuisance.

Whaley said it's important for neighbors to talk “before things reach a boiling point.”

“You can't just set out food and be done with it. When you set out food, you have to think about trapping (cats so they can be spayed or neutered and vaccinated), about not becoming a nuisance for your neighbors, and about setting up a deterrent to keep cats from going onto neighbors' properties and causing problems,” Whaley said.

Bruninghaus said deterrents include motion sensors attached to sonic devices or sprinklers that can shoo away unwanted cats.

But the biggest preventive measure is getting a cat spayed or neutered.

Yowling, fighting and other nuisance acts usually are related to hormones, said Kristina Hout, assistant programs manager at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

“After they are spayed or neutered and you get hormones out of the equation, many of those behaviors tend to stop,” she said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or

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