By Jay Cook |MIDDLETOWN – In 2016, the township spent just over $44,000 on an issue many across Monmouth County believe is becoming more and more of a problem.While not specifically isolated to Middletown, the township is in the midst of a feral cat problem, seeing numbers rise almost exponentially each year.“Our stray cat problem here in Middletown is almost to the point where it’s uncontrollable,” said Robert Card, a township animal control officer.Card estimates there are anywhere from 13,000 to 15,000 feral cats township wide. In the Leonardo section alone, he believes there are approximately 6,000 to 8,000 feral cats residing there.“It’s kind of like the deer around here,” Card said. “There’s nothing to do except eat and procreate.”Thriving in heavily wooded areas and along the shoreline, feral cats are the offspring of either stray, lost/escaped or once domesticated cats that have learned to live and flourish in the wild.Feral cats commonly live in colonies with numerous others, ranging from just a few to potentially tens of cats. To some extent, the cats have learned how to fend for themselves, becoming well-rounded scavengers in efforts to find enough food to survive.According to Anthony Mercantante, Middletown’s township administrator, the township’s animal control department is one of the busiest in the county. Middletown has a shared service agreement with Hazlet and Holmdel townships for animal control services, meaning Card and his team watch over approximately 65 square miles of land among the three municipalities.Ross Licitra, the executive director and chief of humane law enforcement for the Monmouth County SPCA (MCSPCA), believes there are easily at least 50,000 feral cats living in the wild throughout Monmouth County. While the potential for tick-borne or bacterial diseases – either Lyme disease or cat scratch fever – is always a concern, rabies stands alone at the top of the list for worst-case scenarios.Henry said feral cats are a form of wildlife that has easy access to people, garbage and homes, making the potential spread of rabies into the human population quite realistic.“I think there’s been approximately 300 rabid cats that the state has tested since 1989,” said Henry. “They do represent a rabies risk, because the cats cannot be easily recaptured after their first rabies shot.”In 2014, Middletown dealt with a small outbreak of rabies, which was found in over a dozen animals, the majority of them raccoons. While the disease did not reach the feral cat population then, it did not diminish the concern.“We know that most of the stray cats we have around here (Middletown) are not vaccinated against rabies,” said Card, the animal control officer. “When you have stray cats and potentially rabid wildlife fighting over food sources, that can cause an outbreak in feline rabies.”In Health Source, the Spring 2016 newsletter published by the MCRHC, the commission outlines the potential relationship between feral cats and rabies.The section outlined ways residents can protect themselves and their families from mixing with feral cats: keep rabies and all other vaccinations up to date on house pets, as well as spay- ing and neutering them, and do not feed pets outside, while keeping lids on all garbage pales and bins.FIXING THE PROBLEMThe feral cat population has grown in recent years for a myriad of reasons, and the MCSPCA is trying to do its part to quell the numbers.Using a program called Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR), the organization hopes their initiative can safely and responsibly slow the spread of feral cats.“The TNR program has been proven successful time over time because cats living in a colony that have been neutered don’t roam, and they keep other cats from coming into their colony,” Licitra said.Through relationships with residents and agreements with municipalities, feral cats can be safely trapped and brought to the Vogel Spay Neuter Clinic at the MCSPCA’s headquarters in Eatontown.In a quick operation lasting no longer than a half hour, the cats are either spayed or neutered, depending on their gender, given all proper vaccinations and get one of their ears tipped, a visible marking for the future showing that a specific cat has been through the TNR process.Feral cats are returned to where they were caught after the procedures. They return to their colonies with their offspring and mates, and continue to live.In some instances, though, they are relocated across the county.Through a MCSPCA-sponsored program called Backyard Buddies, cats that have gone through TNR and a total slate of vaccinations are brought to farms and other sprawling properties in western Monmouth County to live out their days.Sally Williams, a cat-behavior consultant and owner of The Contented Cat in Rumson, believes the program can help the feral cats.“It saves the shelter money from housing a feral cat, it saves cats’ lives and they provide a service,” said Williams. “It’s a wonderful program.”WORKING WITH THE TOWNSThrough the MCSPCA, Licitra said his organization is partnering with towns throughout the county who have believe their feral cat populations are becoming out of control.The first town to institute a feral cat TNR program, he said, was Sea Bright, which adopted the program in December 2010.“It’s basically volunteers coming out to watch these cats,” said Sea Bright Police Chief John Sorrentino. “We get a lot of food donated to this program. We try to keep the cats as healthy as we can for as long as they can live.”Sorrentino said after the borough noticed a growing feral cat population, it wanted to become proactive on the issue, ensuring that the numbers didn’t continue to grow.At the peak, he said there were roughly 80 cats roaming in Sea Bright, which has less than 1 square mile of total land. Through cooperation with the MCSPCA, the borough maintains spayed and neutered cats through approved colonies.Because of its early activity, Sorrentino said Sea Bright in turn became a dumping ground and safe haven of sorts for people looking to unload a cat they caught outside, instead of bringing it in for TNR.“When you dump a cat, that community has to take on the burden of TNR, feeding, maintaining, vaccinating,” Sorrentino said. “In reality, that cat is now subject to the elements.”After the responsible trapping of a feral cat, the regular price for spaying or neutering would cost a person $145 for a male, and $170 for a female – Licitra said the female surgery is a bit more difficult. That price also would include a full slate of vaccinations.Licitra said Middletown pays the MCSPCA a flat fee of $75 for the same services. After a resident or animal control traps a cat, the MCSPCA comes in, does the procedure, and drops it back off.Another agreement between Monmouth County municipalities and the MCSPCA is through a memorandum of understanding, which is currently utilized in the boroughs of Highlands and Eatontown.In April 2016, Highlands passed a resolution agreeing that the MCSPCA would be responsible for the trapping, pickup, surgery and return of the feral cats in town.Highlands and the MCSPCA split the cost, each paying $37.50, for up to 100 cats. After that, the resolution would be revisited to see if more or less work is needed.For Licitra, he believes the feral cat population can soon be under control. He compared it to how feral or wild dogs used to roam Monmouth County, and how responsible care and spaying and neutering brought the population under control and virtually stopped its growth.“We want to get the message out and stop this problem,” Licitra said of the feral cats. “We’re not in the business of making money, we’re in the business of keeping animals safe.”This article was first published in the March 30-April 6, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times. “It’s definitely an issue that started out in the cities and has spread out to the suburbs with the expansion of people,” Licitra said. “It absolutely has gotten worse and worse every year, no doubt.”PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNSAs it is with any wild animal that can potentially have human interaction, the risks associated with handling feral cats is concerning to those in the public health workforce.“It’s a challenge to try and provide education to people to let them know, if they’re feeding feral cats, you don’t know what the cats might be suffering from or any disease they might have,” said David Henry, a health officer with the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission (MCRHC), which serves 21 of the 53 municipalities in the county.