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Photo: Eric England
In the parking lot of the Guitar Center at One Hundred Oaks, Nancy Douglas, a sergeant with the Vanderbilt University Police Department, is peering into a sewer grate.
“I told Lewis, I said, ‘Get ready for your close-up. We’re heading to Hollywood.’ ”
Lewis is a cat who lives in the shopping center parking lot, and for the past year, Vanderbilt police officers — tasked with patrolling the nearby Vanderbilt Health facility — have been feeding him. Douglas has formed a bond with the feline that seems like love. I lean over the grate, and the golden eyes of an orange tabby stare up at me.
“We don’t know where he came from,” says Douglas. “One day, there was Lewis. He just melted our hearts. You can’t help but love that boy. He relaxes you. It’s just a calmness in the world we’re in. When you see Lewis, you can’t help but smile.”
Photo: Eric EnglandAt first, the officers called in an animal rescue organization to see if Lewis could be trapped. But the rescue experts noted that Lewis’ left ear was clipped around a quarter-inch, which is customary when a free-roaming cat has been neutered and released.
We back away from the grate, hopeful Lewis will emerge.
“At nighttime,” says Douglas, “we call it a perimeter check. You’ll see Lewis walking down the back alley, head out toward the theater, walk around by Panera and Panda [Express], come back up through the parking lot and right back over here. This is his turf. This is his home.”
“Patrolling, like you guys,” I say.
“Exactly. Lewis is keeping us safe from mice and rats.”
Douglas’ patrol at One Hundred Oaks includes citizen assists, like jump-starting cars and helping Vanderbilt patients secure transportation if they’re stranded. “Everybody knows the police are out here,” she says. “We keep an eye on everybody. It’s our community, and we take pride in it.” Douglas also takes pride in Lewis — his cleanliness, the way he chases leaves and uses a tree as a scratching post, how he follows her to her patrol car at the end of the night.
“He’s chaperoning you,” I suggest.
Douglas laughs. We begin to say our goodbyes. Just then, the orange tabby creeps out of the sewer grate.
“Hello, baba!” calls Douglas. “Lewis! Look at the baby. Look at that child. That’s precious Lewis. He has attitude. Look at him! Attitude! Lewis!”
Lewis is indeed gorgeous. For three minutes, he sits on his haunches as our photographer snaps pictures. Lewis thrusts his white chest out with pride, almost glittering in the late-afternoon sun. Then he nonchalantly strolls to some nearby bushes and lies down.
Lewis is one of thousands of stray and feral cats who are at large in Davidson County, and Douglas is a dot in the vast network of Nashvillians who care for these often misunderstood members of our urban ecosystem.
Their advocates call them “community cats,” and some Nashvillians want to trap and fix them all.
“Going upstream of the problem is more appealing to me than putting a Band-Aid on it,” says Dianne Zahnle, an animal lover who volunteers trapping cat colonies and taking them to be spayed, neutered and vaccinated. We’re sitting in her backyard in Antioch, and Loulou — a brown-and-white tabby with a caramel-colored splotch on his nose — is lying across my lap.
Zahnle is tough. A Chicagoan who moved to Nashville in 2015 to work in event and concert production, she harbors few illusions about animal rescue.
“Life is kind of rough,” she says. “When you’re actually out doing animal rescue, there’s a lot of hard truths.” She knows that despite the best efforts of humans, animals will suffer. “That’s why cats have so many freaking kittens, so there’s a chance that some of them will live, because the majority of them won’t. That’s how the hawks eat and the vultures eat and the friggin’ mushrooms eat.”
Photo: Eric EnglandZahnle has five of her own indoor-dwelling cats, and she cares for 10 neighborhood cats who, as far as she knows, don’t have owners. All of them have been spayed and neutered, including the charming Loulou. Zahnle has recently started volunteering with East Nashville’s Pet Community Center, a veterinary clinic that offers low-cost spay/neuter surgeries to resident pet owners, as well as vaccinations and treatments for things like fleas and parasites. The clinic’s Community Cat Program caught Zahnle’s attention. After years spent bottle feeding foster kittens, she decided to get to the root of the issue and volunteer doing TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, return.” Cities across the country have adopted the practice to control free-roaming cat populations.
“The amount of time and resources I see one person using to get one cat into a home — and then there are 30 more down the street,” says Zahnle. “Thirty more people have to have that level of commitment. It seems impossible. Trapping in the beginning feels much more tangible. … You can take all the kittens you want out of the stream of homeless cats. But really the problem is cats like this guy” — she smiles at Loulou — “who would like some attention.” He replies with a sharp meow and nibbles gently on my hand.
“If he’s interacting with you this well, maybe I could adopt him out.” Zahnle reaches to pet Loulou. “I’d miss you! But I’d still love you from afar.”
Until the past couple of decades, government-run animal shelters had one solution to deal with community cats: euthanasia. An audit conducted by the National Animal Care & Control Association in 1997 found that Nashville’s government-run shelter was euthanizing 97 percent of the animals that entered its Bordeaux facility. Public outcry prompted Metro to close that facility and reopen a new one on Harding Place. Even so, the euthanasia rate remained high — around 80 percent in 2010.
There are multiple ways a cat can enter the shelter, says Lauren Bluestone, director of Metro Animal Care and Control since 2014. Some cats are confiscated by MACC if they are abused or neglected. Owners also surrender their pets for various reasons, such as financial hardship or cat behavioral issues like not using the litter box. MACC has developed a grant-funded safety-net program to decrease owner surrenders by helping pet owners access resources like food, veterinary care and education about behavioral training. Since that program’s institution, MACC has seen a gradual decrease in owner surrenders.
Then there are “strays at large” — cats without owners who are brought to the facility by well-meaning residents hoping to find them a home, and by those who want the cats off their property for good. As a government-owned shelter, MACC is required to take in any stray or surrendered animal brought to the facility and hold it for three days. If one of these cats is friendly and healthy, it might be a good candidate for adoption.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. The facility can hold up to 150 animals, but filling it to capacity presents potential dangers, like spreading contagious respiratory infections. Bluestone says an ideal number to keep at the facility is more like 100 to 120. And those cages fill up quickly. In January 2014 alone, MACC took in 564 animals. After their required holding time was up, 330 of those cats, dogs, livestock and wildlife were euthanized. And that’s not even during kitten season — June 2015 intakes numbered 770 animals.
Since then, MACC has developed a robust foster program, so adoptable stray cats — that is, free-roaming cats who once had owners and are friendly and can live indoors — can be moved out of the facility and into temporary homes. The organization also works with other rescue agencies who have fostering programs. But many cats are not adoptable. Feral cats have spent little if any time with humans, and are the offspring — sometimes several generations removed — of stray cats who were abandoned or lost by their owners. While still technically domesticated as a species, these felines can’t live indoors, no matter how much we might want to “rescue” them.
“One misconception is that all outdoor cats are suffering,” says Natalie Corwin, director of the Pet Community Center. “And we just find that’s really not true. … The vast majority of cats that are outside are living pretty good lives. Especially if they have a caretaker who’s feeding them and looking after them.”
Photo: Eric EnglandCorwin buzzes around the Pet Community Center with a bright smile. She got involved with animal rescue and advocacy after adopting a dog from the Nashville Humane Association in 2002. As she walked her dog around her neighborhood in Inglewood, Corwin was distressed by the dogs she saw chained up outside. Soon, she started learning about clinics in other cities that offered low-cost spay and neuter surgeries to pet owners. Some of these also worked to stem the tide of unmitigated cat and dog reproduction by trapping and fixing strays and ferals. Corwin helped open The Joy Clinic, which is in Lebanon. But she saw a need in Davidson County. Getting a cat or dog fixed at a traditional veterinary hospital can be prohibitively expensive — and pets who are intact are likely to figure out a way to mate and reproduce.
“I kept going to everybody saying, ‘Would you start a spay/neuter program?’ ” says Corwin. “I came to the realization that nobody else was going to do it.”
She opened the Pet Community Center in 2011 out of her garage. “We were all grassroots, and we just started using private vet clinics,” she says. “We cobbled together a network of clinics that would work with us and give us a discount.” After a few years, Cowin raised enough money for the nonprofit to open a clinic off East Trinity Lane.
But spaying and neutering is one piece of the puzzle — another is harder to tackle. A cat can get pregnant at as early as 4 months old. The gestation cycle lasts roughly two months, and queens — unspayed female cats — can get pregnant again while they’re still nursing. This means cats have the potential to produce a dizzying number of kittens, who at 4 months old, also can start producing offspring of their own.
Corwin got to work. In 2014, the PCC piloted the Community Cat Program in two ZIP codes — 37138 (Old Hickory) and 37216 (Inglewood) — spaying and neutering more than 500 stray and feral cats and releasing them back to their territory. The efficacy of TNR can be hard to measure. If you’ve ever tried counting the cats that make up a feral colony — that is, where many cats have congregated because they have a consistent food source, be it a dumpster or human caretaker — you’ll find yourself losing track of the felines pretty quickly. But the data from MACC was encouraging. In 2013, before the pilot, MACC took in 124 cats from Old Hickory and 87 from Inglewood. After a year of the PCC’s Community Cat Program, intake numbers were down 81 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
Photo: Eric EnglandLisa Robison was one of the PCC’s first volunteers. She collaborated with neighbors to trap and transport hundreds of cats in the pilot — and she’s still at it in other parts of town. She says a big part of her work is also bringing peace to the neighborhood. In her experience, many of the people feeding community cats are elderly, and their younger neighbors don’t exactly appreciate cats lounging around. As a result, the cats’ caretakers are less likely to ask for help. Robison acts as a mediator, educating all parties about managing a cat population through TNR and establishing a feeding routine that is less likely to attract other wildlife, like opossums and raccoons.
In 2016, MACC and the PCC officially joined forces to tackle the cat overpopulation problem. MACC established a desk in the facility for a PCC staffer, who assesses cats brought to the shelter to determine if they are eligible for TNR. Cats must be free-roaming and lack identification, and be a healthy weight and injury free. Kittens younger than 8 weeks old do not qualify for the program, and kittens 8 to 12 weeks old may qualify if a caregiver is identified. While cats with treatable illnesses and minor injuries can be treated, those with more serious issues will be humanely euthanized at the shelter. Today, Corwin’s team sees 40 to 50 community cats per week. As of mid-March, the PCC had sterilized 18,266 community cats.
The Community Cat Program receives requests for help every day. The program has two prongs. There are the cats brought to MACC, and there are the cats who come in via community members. If a resident alerts the PCC to a community cat via an online form on the website (petcommunitycenter.org), the PCC offers to lend a trap and train them on how to go about using it. If the resident is not willing or able to trap on their own, the PCC has a small pool of trained volunteers who trap around the county. But there’s often a months-long wait. Corwin would love to grow the volunteer program to be more robust. It’s a five-day commitment, because if you don’t trap the whole colony in one go, it’s difficult to trap the cats you want later on.
Dianne Zahnle is up to the task. On a Sunday afternoon in March, she pulls her RAV4 into a driveway in an Antioch neighborhood. It’s dinner time, and the cats are hungry. This backyard gives cats plenty of places to hide — a deck, two sheds, an unused chicken coop and more. We see eight young cats right away.
She mixes three cans of sardines and two cans of tuna in a tall plastic container and sets four traps in front of the shed, dribbling the bait inside. A cat will have to step on the plate to get to it. She sets up two more near the deck, under which I can see four sets of eyes.
The homeowner and colony caretaker, Joe — who declines to give his last name — shuffles out of the house. “How you think you’re gonna catch those cats?”
“Easily,” Zahnle says. She laughs.
In January, Joe’s daughter contacted the PCC for help with the colony, but program manager Beth DeMonbreun had a backlog of cases to get through, and a colony this size — as many as 20 cats — requires a dedicated volunteer to work all week. “Listen,” Joe says. “I’m 80 years old, and I can’t take care of these cats. The one I call Nosey, she done had kittens. And she’s mean. She fights all the other cats. She’s the boss.”
“We’ll take care of everybody,” Zahnle says. “What happens is I’ll set the traps. I’m gonna hang out in your driveway for a couple hours, scoop ’em out as we go. As soon as it gets dark, I’m gonna close the traps and leave ’em out so they get used to the smell of them. Then in the morning, when they’re active again, I’m gonna come back out and re-bait them, open them back up. And we kind of rinse and repeat that till we get everybody. I’m gonna find those kittens, too.”
Several small cats congregate around the traps, sniffing. A black cat pokes her head into a trap and licks the bait near the trap door, then backs out. Another does the same. It’s like they’re daring each other to be the first to go in. A long gray cat moseys up, her sagging belly swaying beneath her — she’s pregnant.
“They go all over the neighborhood,” Joe says, “but I’m the main feeder. They’re not my cats, but I feed ’em ’cause I can’t stand seeing ’em go hungry.” He says he buys one 32-pound sack of cat food each week.
He goes inside to fix supper, and we hear our first trap snap shut. It’s a small white cat with black marks on her forehead. She’s still a kitten, but old enough to get pregnant. Zahnle drapes a sheet over the trap to let the cat settle for a few minutes before carrying it to the car. “What should we name her?” Zahnle asks. I suggest Lilly.
After that, the cats trip trap after trap. A tortie is dubbed Truffles. I name a distinguished-looking gray gentleman Thelonious, and his look-alike I name Monk. Zahnle goes with a Knights of the Round Table theme. There’s Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere and Percy. As she loads them into her car, she writes down the trap number, the name and a description.
A neighbor from across the street shambles over in pajama pants and slippers. “What are you gonna do with ’em?” he calls. “You’re not gonna bring ’em back, are you?”
Zahnle breaks the news that the cats will be back in a few days. The man shakes his head. “I thought you were gonna get rid of ’em for good.”
“It’d be like trying to get rid of birds or squirrels,” says Zahnle. “More would just move in.” He turns, and Zahnle whispers, “I don’t do it for him. I do it for the kitty cats.”
As the sun goes down, Zahnle counts her cats. She has 14 loaded up in the RAV4, and there’s room for a couple more. Joe’s been entertaining her with stories about his life growing up on a farm, and when I peek into the yard to check the traps, two gray cats are on the garbage can, sniffing at Zahnle’s can of bait.
“They’re educated cats, honey!” Joe says, grinning.
Zahnle will bring these 14 to the PCC, where she has access to the temperature-controlled feral house. Then she’ll be back tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. to trap more — maybe Nosey, maybe Nosey’s kittens, maybe the gray girl with the big pregnant belly.
Bluestone says that, five years in, the program has drastically impacted the number of cats MACC must euthanize. When she came on as director, the overall euthanasia rate was 86 percent. In 2020, the rate remained at or below 10 percent. According to Corwin and other advocates of TNR, the practice is more effective than euthanizing all community cats brought to the facility.
Says Corwin: “A misconception that people have is, ‘Well, if I pick up this cat and take it to the shelter, then I won’t have to deal with cats anymore. I’ll be done with cats.’ … If you remove an animal from an environment that supports that animal — whether there’s shelter, food or safety — you create a vacuum. It just allows for more animals of that species to move in. With cats in particular, if they’re not spayed and neutered, they will just reproduce and fill up that space again with the number of cats that can be supported by that environment.”
TNR practitioners have found that returning sterile cats to their territory actually stabilizes the population. And sterile cats are healthier and safer. Neutered males settle down — they fight less, yowl less and spray less, which also decreases conflict among neighbors. Females, no longer finding themselves responsible for birthing and raising kittens, are also less susceptible to various reproductive diseases. Free from the compulsion to mate, vaccinated community cats tend to live longer, healthier lives.
Photo: Eric England
For some, TNR is a calling. Kayli Craig says she is “totally the person that will throw their car in park, turn on their hazards, and start running after a dog on the side of the road.” As a foster parent with Nashville Cat Rescue, Craig takes in kitties of all stripes — often those who need special medical attention, as well as kittens who need to be bottle-fed. About a year ago, a member of Craig’s foster network told her that a resident at a nearby Donelson apartment complex had found kittens and needed help.
“And boy,” she says. “I thought it was going to be like, ‘Oh, there are two little kittens here. Let me just scoop them up and go on my way.’ … I kept seeing a cat, then another cat, then another. The more time I spent there, the more I became aware of, ‘Hmm, this is an issue.’ ”
She eventually managed to trap the kittens. If healthy, they’d be candidates for adoption. But that’s not what happened. “I ended up losing the full litter,” says Craig. “And one of them in particular — oh, my gosh, Stevie, she pulls at my heartstrings. She had HCM. It’s basically an enlarged heart. And after that point, I was like, ‘I will get every one of these cats fixed,’ because I didn’t want them to have more babies that suffered the way that Stevie suffered.”
For the past year, Craig has been working with residents and the apartment complex’s management to get a handle on the cat population. On Instagram (@kittenitwithkiki), she’s documented the trapping of cat after cat after cat. As of press time, she had spayed and neutered 47 of them. She also feeds them daily and keeps an eye on them for any injuries or health concerns. The vast majority of the cats are orange tabbies, and somehow, she keeps them all straight.
Some of the apartment residents genuinely care for the cats and help to feed them. But others are not so charmed. “To some extent,” she admits, “I’m sure these kitties are kind of pests to them. They sleep on their cars, and they’re lounging in the walkways, and I’m sure they fight. So I’ve had to kind of be patient with that. … I try really hard to not be seen, not be heard, not be a nuisance, because I realize that they could say, ‘You’re not welcome back. We don’t want you on our property.’ ”
Craig has been making TNR how-to videos and posting them on Instagram to demystify the process. In one, she shows her garage setup for cat recovery. She keeps the traps off the floor by putting them on parallel 2-by-2s, so the cats’ waste can drip down onto puppy pads. She also shows how to use a trap fork — which you can insert through the bars to separate the cat from the door — to safely feed the cats, without risking an escape before the cats are ready to be released.
“I think that TNR can seem very overwhelming,” she says. “If you start reading about it online, you’re like, ‘There’s this trap, and I do what with it? And I don’t know how to work that, and I don’t know where to take it. And I have to transport this animal. Where do I keep it? What do I feed it?’ It just seems like a lot.”
She encourages those who want to get involved to share resources and ask for help. She frequently finds volunteers who will transport the cats to Lebanon’s Joy Clinic, and people in the rescue community often send boxes of food for the colony.
“It is kind of a strange passion,” Craig admits. “When I have talked to people about this, their eyes kind of roll in the back of their head. But I think it’s important. It’s so important. And I think that a lot of people think, ‘Not my cats. Not my problem.’ Well, it’s someone’s problem, and you kind of have to solve it.”
Dip into any discussion group about free-roaming cats on the web, and you’ll find that felines are a contentious topic. Opinions swing violently in favor of cats and against, with internet users citing statistics and studies — some more legitimate than others. Search the Twitter hashtag #CatWars, and you’ll find pro-euthanasia conservationists, cute-cat contests and innumerable felines battling Christmas trees. Plenty of studies show that TNR does reduce community cat populations. But just as many studies seem to point to the opposite. Depending on your ethical point of view, you can summon information to back up your claims.
There’s no way around the impact these cats have on wildlife. In 2013, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of a study conducted in the contiguous United States. Researchers used existing scientific literature about cat predation, omitting studies that were too small or with results too extreme. The report found that the magnitude of wildlife mortality is far greater than expected — 1.3 billion to 4 billion birds and 6.2 billion to 22.3 billion mammals are killed annually by free-roaming cats. Cats without owners cause the majority of the damage — 69 percent and 89 percent, respectively. The study also found that the majority of birds preyed upon were native species.
“I love birds,” says Corwin. “I love squirrels. And yes, cats do prey on those animals. Really the argument that we make is that spaying and neutering the cats really is the best way to protect the wildlife and to keep the cat population as low as possible. We’ve seen there have been many eradication efforts around the world, either in island areas or in other wildlife areas, that were wildly unsuccessful or extraordinarily expensive, and they had to do hideous things to eradicate these cats.”
In December, the Oakland, Calif., East Bay Regional Parks District admitted to shooting a colony of cats that were threatening a sensitive ecological area. Their caretaker was in the process of TNR and says she was not aware of the district’s plans to use lethal force. Proponents of euthanasia — or “trap and kill” — often claim that free-roaming cats spread the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis, which can cause mild flu-like symptoms in some people but severe complications for pregnant women, immunocompromised people and infants. The bag of cat litter in your laundry room probably warns against pregnant women handling cat feces. But toxoplasmosis is so rare that neither the county or state tracks it in our population. In fact, if you were to contract the disease from a cat, you would have to ingest the feces of a cat infected with the parasite.
“There are standards,” says Bluestone. “Do not touch it, do not snack on it. Do not do that. If you can maintain those standards, there’s really no risk.” As for other diseases, the PCC vaccinates cats against rabies and common respiratory illnesses. The Humane Society of the United States is supportive of TNR, but advocates for “wildlife-sensitive-area mapping, cat-colony relocation or feeding modification, the establishment of appropriate sanctuaries, and other innovative solutions” to reduce the negative impact that feral cats have on other wildlife. But it seems a wholesale resolution among TNR advocates and euthanasia proponents is unlikely. People who love cats will keep feeding them, even if feeding bans are in place, and people who think cats should be eradicated are unlikely to work with TNR programs. But advocates on all sides can agree on one thing: Spaying and neutering pets is vital to population control.
Photos: Eric England
Zahnle goes back to the Antioch colony site three times a day to trap the stragglers — 26 in all. By Thursday afternoon, she arrives with her last car full of spayed, neutered and vaccinated cats.
“It’s a good day for freedom,” she says, opening her trunk. These are the last 11. I recognize a few from Sunday’s trapping — Percy, Guinevere and Truffles. Several females were pregnant, and it’s customary for TNR clinics to terminate the pregnancies when the cats are spayed. It will certainly make the females’ lives easier, and it’s fewer mouths for Joe to feed.
Zahnle takes one trap out of her car and sets it on the grass. She slowly pulls back the sheet, unlatches the trap door, and opens it. Most of the cats spring out like jack-in-the-boxes and take off. A couple huddle in the back of the trap for a few moments before rushing to freedom. One tabby tomcat walks out backward and heads to the woods.
I ask Zahnle what her hopes are for these 26 cats.
“That they have a relatively humane life, don’t get into trouble and maybe change people’s view about their role in the world.”
And how does she feel after five intense days of trapping, transporting and releasing a colony of cats?
“I feel tired, but it feels good because you know the colony could be three times this size next week. Even talking to a couple people around here — neighbors, the FedEx guy, even our friend from the first day — just being out here with it feels impactful.”
Illustration: Mary Louise Meadors
Photo: Eric England