When Maria Marcinko took office as a Steelton borough councilwoman in 2010, the community had a budget-draining problem on its hands: feral cats, hundreds of them. Many were starving or sick. They fought and howled and knocked over trashcans. And they reproduced prolifically.
The borough had been contracting with an animal control company that trapped the cats and took them to Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, where virtually all were promptly euthanized. Taxpayers were on the hook for thousands of dollars, and Marcinko was tasked with finding a solution.
“It was costing us $138 per cat, or $26,000 to $27,000 a year for animal control,” said Marcinko. “I didn’t know anything about TNR, but I decided we would take care of our own.”
TNR stands for “Trap, Neuter, Return,” a strategy that is being adopted by a growing number of communities seeking to address cat overpopulation. The idea sounds simple: trap the feral cats, get them sterilized and vaccinated and return them to the place where you found them.
But it takes community buy-in. Such an effort needs volunteers, traps, a way to provide low- or no-cost spay/neuter surgeries and people to care for colonies. A community also needs sympathetic property owners who won’t evict the cats.
Steelton went whole hog on the idea and, by all accounts, it has paid off.
In early 2010, Marcinko sent out the notice of the first community meeting about the cats with the monthly water bills. Soon, there was a core of several dozen volunteers. For a borough struggling with economic distress and blight, things came together quickly for the cat ladies and their cause.
They found a generous veterinarian, Diane Ford of Campbelltown, who agreed to work at reduced rates and began applying for grants to pay for medical services.
When group members realized they needed a building to house cats awaiting surgery and a place to perform the procedure, the Steelton Community Development Foundation gave them use of an old bank building. When they needed extra help to paint and repair the building, Dauphin County Courts agreed to assign offenders sentenced to community service to that duty—an arrangement that carries on to this day.
Several months ago, standing in what was once the president’s office of the former Mellon Bank, Rosemary Loncar showed off the group’s surgical suite to several visitors. Sitting next to the marble-framed fireplace with the walnut paneling was a stainless steel operating table, an anesthesia machine and shelves for medical supplies.
From here, the group runs monthly spay/neuter clinics serving an average of 60 cats over two days. So far this year, after getting a late start because of the harsh winter, the group has fixed 200 cats, preventing the births of hundreds of more unwanted kittens.
“The problem is caused by humans,” said Loncar, who learned about feral cat care-taking a decade ago when her mother called her desperate and in tears because the number of cats she was feeding was multiplying, and she could no longer afford the food.
The act of abandoning un-spayed and un-neutered cats in a community can turn from a few stray animals wandering the streets into an unmanageable colony in no time, with female cats producing as many as three litters of kittens a year.
Traditional methods of cat control usually involve trapping and end with euthanasia for the often-untamed animals, but, inevitably, not all cats are caught, and those removed create a void quickly filled by other cats. TNR allows sterilized populations to live out their lives without fear of further reproduction.
“We know the program works,” said Loncar, who retired from her state government job in 2004. “It takes time.”
Kittens—and sometimes an adult cat if they are socialized—can be adopted to permanent homes, and the volunteers contact Castaway Critters, Compassionate Hearts and other rescue groups to place them. When they find cats that are declawed, blind, deaf or too injured or sick to live outdoors, they send them to The Best Little Cat House, an area feline hospice.
Loncar invited me to observe feeding time at one of the two colonies she tends, totaling about 25 cats. On a raw Sunday afternoon early this year, she approached the wooded area with two plates of cat chow. Suddenly, the brush on the hillsides started moving as cats, one by one, began making their way to the feeding area.
Colony caretakers are loath to identify the locations—and there are about 20 currently in Steelton—out of fear that more cats would be dropped off there or that someone might hurt the animals.
Loncar calls each one by name. Murphy, an orange tabby, lounges on a car hood and Peaches, a striking, long-haired tortoise shell cat, trots across the street. They live in tarp-covered Styrofoam boxes used to ship medical supplies that are filled with straw. Loncar also has set up covered feeding stations so the cats have a protected place to eat in bad weather.
As it marked its four-year anniversary in February, Steelton Community Cats celebrated the successful spaying and neutering of more than 3,000 cats, including many from the neighboring municipalities of Swatara Township and Highspire.
Steelton weathered an economic beating with the collapse of Bethlehem Steel. It watched its population shrink and still combats blight in its neighborhoods. But, now, the gritty borough along the Susquehanna River has an award-winning animal health and welfare program to be proud of that not only has saved lives but has saved money.
The total bill for the citizens of Steelton for cat control in 2013? Zero. Total taxpayer savings? About $100,000.
The borough also has gained control of its cat population, even enlisting support of employees of ArcelorMittal, the steelmaker now occupying the site of the old Bethlehem Steel plant, which helps with trapping, said Loncar.
The Steelton success has led nearby Swatara and Derry townships to start their own TNR programs, and the program’s volunteers are fielding calls from communities around the country seeking help.
Loncar says the group hopes it can show other communities that there is a way to address out-of-control cat populations without resorting to “trap and kill” methods or punitive ordinances such as bans on feeding outdoor cats or cat licensing requirements, as several municipalities across Pennsylvania have proposed in the last year.
For its groundbreaking work, Steelton Community Cats has won accolades from Alley Cat Allies, a national feral cat advocacy group and the Central Penn Business Journal, which last year named it the most innovative non-profit group in the region.
And Loncar says property owners are noticing that managed cat colonies help reduce another less attractive animal population: rodents.
“We had one minister tell us he’s happy because he doesn’t see mice in the church kitchen anymore,” said Loncar.
For more information on Steelton Community Cats, to donate supplies or funding or to volunteer, visit the group’s website at www.steeltoncats.org or call 717-877-4146. The next spay/neuter clinic is July 24 and 25.