Merced resident Candy Dunham has counted up to 40 stray cats at one time in her yard. The cats have pooped in the Dunham family’s barbecue, ruined their garden and birthed a constant succession of litters under their porch.
Dunham, 36, who has lived in the nearly 100-year-old house on 21st Street with her husband and three teenagers for 11 years, said the feline fiasco is a relatively new problem. About six months ago, Dunham said, an elderly neighbor and an adult son were evicted after not paying their rent for years. When they left, the owner of the property came in with a work crew, she said, and found at least dozens of cats. They were all turned out of the house.
In the months since, the Dunhams and their neighbors have come home at night to several pairs of glowing eyes looking at them in the dark. They wake up in the morning to the hungry cats eating kibble that someone has strewn on the sidewalk in front of their house. They scrape run-over cats off of the road in front of their house. Several of those have left behind litters of newborn kittens who rarely live long after their mother’s death.
“When I come home from work real late, I pull up, and it’s kind of like a horror movie,” Dunham said. “It’s all these eyes looking at you, and they’re up on the furniture and up on the roof. We just want them to venture off, but they won’t.”
The Dunham family’s house is the perfect example of the city of Merced’s huge cat problem, and a clear illustration of why city councilmember Fernando Echevarria is trying to start a trap, neuter and release, or TNR, program. The program would gradually reduce the city’s cat population by trapping and neutering stray cats, ensuring they can’t have kittens.
“We are all for it,” Dunham said. “If it goes through and it’s enacted, this (home) will be the first stop. I’ll help you catch them all and we’ll all be out on our hands and knees catching cats.”
It’s hard to estimate how many stray cats are living in the city of Merced. The Merced Police Department picked up 775 cats in 2021, and so far this year, they’ve picked up 143 cats, according to Merced public information office, Jennifer Flachman. With no city-run animal shelter, the Merced Police Department’s animal control officers have to take any cats they pick up to the Merced County Animal Shelter, which, due to limited space in the shelter, only accepts 10 cats a week from the city of Merced’s animal control staff.
The numbers are in line with what Merced residents said is a growing stray cat problem in the city.
“There are several neighborhoods in the city that are overrun,” said Diana Odom Gunn, a representative of the Merced Downtown Neighborhood Association. “Within a two-block radius of my house, I counted 17 new litters this spring. We support the TNR program — we support any program that reduces the cat population throughout the city.”
What would a trap, neuter, release program look like?
If Echevarria and the rest of the city council are successful in launching a TNR program for the city, stray cat hotspots like the Dunhams’ house might finally see some relief.
“That’s just heart-wrenching,” said Echevarria after hearing about the family’s plight. “I feel for these people and this is why I’m trying to get this program started.”
During the May 2 city council meeting, Echevarria said that he supports establishing a city TNR program, holding it up as an element of the city’s beautification efforts. With so many feral cats on the city’s streets, it wouldn’t just benefit Merced’s human residents, but also decrease the number of unhoused cats who are exposed to the elements and are often starving or sick.
“These cats are so urbanized that they just depend on people to survive,” Echevarria said. “That’s what’s so pitiful about it. The city’s leadership should’ve enacted this program a decade ago.”
He added that he’s been interested in establishing a TNR program for years. When he was first elected in 2018, he brought it up as a member of the previous city council.
“Nobody decided to do anything about it,” he said. “The city didn’t give our local organizations any assistance. Now, we are. We’re really looking at it more in-depth.”
Echevarria requested funding, although he isn’t sure how much it would cost to establish and run a TNR program. City officials will conduct a cost study analysis, he said, to determine how much the city would need and what’s a feasible amount to budget for solving the community’s cat problem.
Echevarria is also recommending that the city establish a cat sanctuary, which he said would deter locals from dumping unwanted cats in city parks and reduce the number of cats in neighborhoods.
“Let’s just have a place where people can take them,” Echevarria said. “If we had a sanctuary, there would be that place we could take them to.”
The TNR program, Echevarria said, would employ at least one trained officer who would respond to calls about stray cats, and, if money allowed, a few more staff members to help support the program. Officers would scan lost cats for microchips, which would help identify the cats and allow city animal control officials to match them back to their homes.
What city animal control officials are doing now
The city does have an animal control program under the umbrella of the Merced Police Department that currently employs two animal control officers, according to Jennifer Flachman, the city’s public information officer. The second officer was hired just this week, she said.
The city’s animal control program web page says it investigates all animal incidents in the city, takes reports of animal bites, investigates cruelty to animals, picks up stray animals and enforces animal licensing provisions. However, the Dunham family hasn’t received a response from either city or county animal control officials, they told The Sun-Star.
“We’ve called the city about the animals and never got a call back,” Dunham said. “We’ve left multiple messages and never gotten a call back. We called animal control and never spoken to anyone who works there.”
One issue that exacerbates the city’s stray cat population is the lack of space at the local animal shelter, local officials say.
One kitten recently trapped, Echevarria said during the city council meeting, was left in the cage it was trapped in outside Target in Merced. The county’s animal control department couldn’t accept the cat, so whoever trapped it returned it to the site and didn’t let the kitten out of the cage. There was no food or water made available to the cat, Echevarria said.
Merced County Animal Control has not yet responded to the The Sun-Star’s request for comment.
“That, we have to look at,” Echevarria said. “We can’t have cats turned away at animal control.”
There are other agencies in the county who try to meet the needs of communities with large populations of stray cats. According to Echevarria, almost 800 cats are treated every year under the TNR program run by a local nonprofit, Atwater Community Cat Network, thus drastically reducing the number of stray kittens in the community.
“They’re no longer producing unwanted little kittens people are complaining about,” Echevarria said. “Obviously, it’s a multilayered problem, but we’re focused on getting these cats off the street and getting them TNR’d and putting them back in their own location so they can enjoy a good life.”
Have other Merced County communities done TNR?
While it might take a while to see results under a TNR program, Echevarria said, the effort would reduce large stray cat populations over time.
One such colony of stray cats used to live in an alleyway near Echevarria’s former home in Atwater, he said. After a TNR program spayed and neutered all the cats, the population of the colony dwindled over the next couple of years.
“At first, there were 70 cats in one alley,” he said. “Once we called in the community cat network, that colony decreased. Now it’s just two or three pet cats who are in and out of people’s yards. It doesn’t take that long.”
Citing statistics from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Kitten Coalition estimates that 3.4 million cats enter animal shelters across the country every year. Approximately 1.4 million are euthanized, while only 1.3 million are adopted. The organization also cites statistics that show that nationwide, 649,000 animals — not just cats — are returned to their owners every year. Of those animals, only 100,000 are cats.
Until there is a TNR program or cat sanctuary in Merced, the Dunhams are left to figure out how to continue living in a house that has been overrun by cats.
“We’ve been talking about what the heck we’re going to do with them, because it’s starting to get out of hand,” Dunham said. “There’s no way we can afford to get rid of them ourselves.”
This story was originally published May 8, 2022 5:00 AM.