Prison cat program declawed; fur flies
(Updated Monday, September 25, 2006, 6:00 AM)
AVENAL — For nearly two decades, Avenal State Prison has served as a home to a population other than inmates. Hundreds of feral cats pass through the grounds in the desolate foothills of western Kings County.
About five years ago, prison staff and volunteers launched an effort to control the growing population, which peaked at more than 600 cats, through a trapping program known as trap-neuter-release, or TNR, at no cost to the prison.
Cats were humanely trapped, taken to local veterinarians to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Adult cats were released back into the prison area while adoptable kittens were placed in homes. Cat advocates say it reduced the prison's cat population to between 100 and 200 cats.
But seven months ago, prison officials halted the program, calling it unsuccessful. Local cat advocates are not happy and are pushing for a return of the program.
The ongoing battle has attracted national attention.
Alley Cat Allies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides information on feral and stray cats, has tracked the Avenal issue on its Web site.
Fresno resident Joyce Bicknell, a leading advocate for the Avenal cats, said she just wants a "logical reason" for getting rid of the program.
"It's good for the inmates. It's good for rodent control. And you're never going to get rid of them," she said. "It's a perfect environment for them."
The prison covers 640 acres and is surrounded by dirt on three sides and sits along Highway 33. The medium-security facility houses about 7,500 inmates.
Prison spokesman Lt. James Haley said officials don't have the time or resources to care for and control the cat population.
"It was a bigger issue than we could handle," he said.
Miss Samples was an inmate's pet at Avenal State
Prison officials decided to end the program in February because only four of 150 cats trapped in the past four to five months had markings on their ears — a sign they had been neutered, Haley said.
"We're not believing it was too effective," he said.
Prison officials decided to remove eight to 10 feeding stations — set up by volunteers — after being cited by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
According to the Cal OSHA report, a compliance officer inspected the facility in August 2005 and found the population-control program was "not fully instituted or evaluated to be effective."
The prison received a $2,250 fine for three violations.
Dean Fryer, a Cal OSHA spokesman, said the citation did not call for the abandonment of the program but that "better controls" were needed.
Once the TNR program ended, volunteers and the prison came up with a new agreement. The prison traps cats and volunteers are allowed to pick them up at the prison.
Haley said cats are held at the prison's firehouse. If volunteers can't get there by 4 p.m., they are taken to Avenal Animal Control for volunteers to pick up.
Bicknell, who works with Feral Paws Rescue, the organization caring for the Avenal cats, said volunteers have received only a few calls in the last five months.
Volunteers found a wounded kitten in May stuck in a trap, she said. The kitten's foot was caught under wire and it appeared to have tried to pull its leg free but caused a severe wound above its ankle, partially cutting off its limb. It was later adopted and is doing well.
Bicknell said volunteers are unhappy with the cats ending up at Avenal Animal Control because it doesn't have cages for cats so trapped cats stay on the office's lawn until volunteers can pick them up.
Bicknell said she would prefer the cats stay in cages at the prison — a fenced, safe environment.
The California prison system does not have a policy on handling animal problems except that policies must be humane, said Brian Parriott, a spokesman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Individual facilities create policies to deal with specific problems.
Most institutions have a few feral cats but Parriott said he was unaware of another facility in the state with a feral cat population as large as the one at Avenal.
Other facilities across the United States use the TNR program, including correctional facilities in Montana and New York and the University of Central Florida.
Ledy VanKavage, an attorney with American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said TNR programs are the best way to handle a feral population. Reproduction and diseases among colonies are controlled. Cats remain territorial and don't allow new cats into the population.
"TNR programs really, really do work to control the population," VanKavage said.
No one is certain how the cats first came to the Avenal prison. Haley said cats have been around since the facility opened in January 1987.
Bicknell, a retired California Feline Foundation employee, said the area is ideal for cats. There is plenty of dry, open space and mice.
Avenal prison officials have seen fewer cats in recent months despite assertions by advocates the population is growing again, Haley said. He attributes part of the reduction to cats no longer depending on feeding stations.
"These are feral cats ... they're used to being on their own," he said.
Haley calls the ongoing battle over the TNR program "very frustrating." He has been flooded with e-mails and calls from cat supporters demanding the trapping program be reinstated. The prison was forced to create a new e-mail account for Haley because it was overwhelmed with messages regarding the cats, he said.
Haley said he tries to explain that funding no longer is available.
"Do you want your tax dollars spent on cats or do you want tax dollars spent on inmates?" he said.
But Bicknell disagrees, saying funding is available through grants and donations and volunteers have veterinarians willing to help out. She said the program was a model for how to handle a feral cat population.
"This whole program has been sent back to 2000," she said, referring to when cats ran rampant.
Bicknell and other volunteers ultimately want the program reinstated. They're trying to draw local, state and national support.
"The option before us is to get as much attention as possible," she said.
Haley said the prison has done it's best to work with volunteers.
"Everybody has sympathy for the situation," he said, "but we also have to look at the realities of the situation."
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