A hairy situation

A hairy situation

Metro has another problem on its hands and this time it has nothing to do with trains or buses.

A colony of feral cats an estimated three to five dozen or more inhabit Metro’s rail yard on Eisenhower Avenue.

The situation, which has grabbed more attention this spring, has presented transit officials, the city’s animal shelter and residents with a conundrum: What to do with all of the stray felines?

Without a home and susceptible to disease, the cats have supporters and detractors. Their existence clings to the advocacy of those seeking a humane, healthy future for the cats. Others would just as soon not have them around.

“They’ve got a bit of a mixed bag with what they’re dealing with at the rail yard,” said Martha Armstrong, executive director of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, which runs the city’s animal control program.

“They’ve got some employees who don’t want the cats there, but they probably have an equal or perhaps greater number of people who work there that are feeding the cats,” Armstrong said.

The attention the cats are receiving now is due in large part to public pressure and the insistence of Alexandria resident Jan Raffaele to get the colony stabilized.

After hearing from a friend who spotted several cats seemingly out of place along the edge of the Metro’s Eisenhower Avenue property, Raffaele, who has an extensive history in animal-rescue and care efforts, began talks with Metro officials about their feral cat situation.

Concerned that the public transit firm might move to trap and kill the stray animals, she presented a plan to trap, neuter and return the cats to the area at a cost of between $45 and $60 per animal.

“The whole point is, what is the lasting solution? It’s not trapping, removing and killing,” Raffaele said.

However, according to Raffaele, talks stalled with Metro officials about allowing a group of volunteers to enter the property and tend to the animals. The company eventually found a contractor that animal advocates feared would trap the cats and cause their eventual demise.

And as Raffaele and other saw it last month, they had to move fast. Cats most often breed in February and give birth in April after a  60-day gestation period, meaning the longer the issue was put off, the more cats there would be to handle and the more inhumane it would be to totally remove any adults.

“If they are trapping [right now], it’s a double-whammy of cruelty,” Raffaele said. “At this stage … if they’re trapping these female cats, they’re leaving these kittens behind to starve to death.”

Thankfully for any newborn kittens, nothing has happened yet.

The Animal Welfare League picked up Raffaele’s discussion with Metro on Monday and is working with city leaders to alter an ordinance that could otherwise hurt their chances for survival. The two parties will meet today, Armstrong said. Metro has since backed off its original plans.

City law requires cats to be licensed and up-to-date with rabies vaccinations. The municipal code also states that no more than four cats can be licensed to a single household.

That’s bad news for cats without a home. With no one to claim them most are probably unadoptable and or require intensive “re-socialization,” Raffaele said they would eventually be destroyed at the city animal shelter.

The Animal Welfare League would have to deal with all of the ferals cats as the legal receiving points for them.

Armstrong said the shelter would prefer to trap and sterilize all of the healthy felines from Eisenhower rail yard, so it is seeking leniency from the city to work with feral cat caregivers and “come up with something that will make everybody mostly happy.”

In the past, Metro has not had this problem at any of its other locations, according to Metro spokesperson Taryn McNeil, who confirmed that no final course of action has been decided.

“There is no formal policy that pertains to cats, but in regards to our employees, our policy is to provide a safe workplace,” McNeil wrote in an email.

Raffaele said the cats would pose a minimal public health risk because the animals, by nature, are shy and avoid human contact.

Feral cats biologically identical to domesticated cats but undomesticated because they were left behind, ran away or were born wild subsist on whatever food they can find, including what is intentionally left behind for them by residents and Metro employees.

If the food is still coming from people inside the Metro fence, Armstrong said, you can expect cats will remain in the area.

If the cats are still there, Raffaele said the only sensible thing is to keep the colony sterilized, rabies-free and marked so that any newcomers can be cared for in the same fashion.

“Instead of having a colony that’s spayed and neutered and stabilized, you continue to have a colony that’s breeding,” Raffaele said. “You have a situation where you’re continuously trapping and killing.”