The Humane Society of Johnson County works to keep feral felines in check

By Jen Bingham | Photography by Josh Marshall

It’s a bright fall day and Janet Gorrell has just arrived at the Humane Society of Johnson County where she serves as board president. She breezes in the door and greets three employees, trading jokes and commentary about animals in their care. The office is a relatively small space with one friendly, calm, adoptable dog named Tucker who greets visitors, as well as a number of well-cared-for cats waiting for adoption sitting in large cages or atop cat trees.

Outside, in a large attached garage, several long cages are carefully covered by blankets or towels so their inhabitants can’t see out. From one of the cages comes a series of annoyed yowls. Despite the irritated cries of the one, Gorrell explains that the use of the towels helps to calm the caged animals.

Gorrell is on her way to transport a recently spayed mother cat and her kittens back to live as community cats in a local trailer park.

At 53, she runs the community cat program, which is one of the humane society’s many programs designed to help animals in the area. Gorrell, a volunteer for the program, feels blessed to be able to work with the local humane society.

A new ordinance Gorrell and Johnson County Animal Control helped push through last year (with the help and advice of IndyFeral, a community cat organization from Indianapolis) allows unowned cats to live in the community instead of being automatically euthanized, as was previously the case.

But along with this new ordinance comes the responsibility of managing feral cat communities and avoiding a population explosion. The community cat program uses donations and grants to trap feral cats. The cats are then spayed or neutered, vaccinated and ear tipped (which means cutting the tip off the left ear — a universal sign that a cat has indeed been spayed or neutered), and released. The process is known as trap, neuter and release, usually just referred to as TNR and often used as a verb: TNRing.

“I’ve been TNRing the cats in my neighborhood for a number of years,” says Gorrell, explaining what drove her to start the program in Johnson County. “Just through talking to people, I realized that the majority of people wanted to do something for these cats, but there were no resources in our county available.”

With the help of local veterinarians who are willing to perform services at a reduced cost for the program, as well as funds from several organizations in Bloomington, Brownsburg and Indianapolis, Gorrell and others are able to run the program in Johnson County.

After the cats have been captured and neutered, they are returned to what are termed “feral colonies” — groups of cared-for cats who are tended and fed, but who, for the most part, may remain wild their entire lives.

“A lot of these caretakers are attached to these cats they’ve never even touched,” Gorrell says. “I just did a lady’s cats — six cats this past week — and she called me and said, ‘I miss them being at their door.’ But again, she’s never touched them; they’ve never laid on her lap or anything like that. They’re company for some.”

Gorrell says the cats that exhibit feral behavior are happy to live outside and have no desire to live as pets. When left to their own devices, they may get into loud fights and reproduce heavily, but spaying and neutering calm their demeanor.

“A lot of these cats are extremely healthy,” Gorrell says. “Cats have been outside for thousands and thousands of years, and so these cats that are out there have adapted to the outdoors.”

Life on the outside

The kittens she is taking to the trailer park are considered wild or feral, though their mother is a bit friendlier, Gorrell says. She loads the covered cages carefully into the back of her truck.

Before pulling away, she flips through the paperwork for these cats. “Every cat that goes through our program is named,” she says. “I think the cat deserves a name. Each gets a rabies certificate.”

When asked why she devotes so much time to these animals, her answer is simple. “Not as many people care about cats,” she says. “And unless we speak up for them, they don’t have a voice. Just to see the number of cats who were healthy cats that were being euthanized in our shelters and the rate that they were multiplying (while) nothing was being done. (I knew we needed) to go to the source of the issue and deal with the source of the problem.”

Gorrell pulls in to the trailer park, looking for her contact there. Once she finds him, she parks and heads to the back of her truck to open the cages. Mama Cat (as Gorrell refers to her) saunters out as if nothing has happened, tail held high. The kittens are more nervous and run a short distance before returning to cautiously investigate the bowl of food she has set out for them.

Gorrell counsels the park manager on how to deal with the many other feral cats in his community and offers to provide more assistance through the program. “Euthanizing cats to get rid of them doesn’t work,” she says. “If we euthanized all the cats in this community, more would just move in to fill the space.”

She explains that each cat that is sterilized prevents a snowballing number of future cats, as many as 24 for each female — and who knows for each male.

Michael Delp, director of animal control at Johnson County Animal Control and director of the Johnson County Animal Shelter, works closely with Gorrell and the humane society. “Just a few years ago, we euthanized over 1,300 cats a year,” Delp says. “In May and June this year we euthanized zero.” This number is especially impressive when you realize that these months tend to be the high tide of kitten births.

Delp credits the reduction to the program. He estimates that fewer than 100 cats have been euthanized this year. “All the cats we put down have been sick or injured cats,” he says.

Gorrell says that her organization has pulled about 200 cats from animal control since the community cat program began. She feels privileged to have such a great working relationship with Delp and his team.

The program has taken off quickly, giving the team much more work than it planned for initially. “We’ve been a victim of our own success,” Delp explains. “It’s been more successful than we thought it would be, which is a great problem to have. People from all over the county are calling for help with stray cats; we have to put them on a waiting list. With more people helping, we could get out there right away.”

Delp helps to transport the TNR cats to various locations. “I’ll give you an example,” he says. “I took 17 cats to Brownsburg for spay and neuter. We will re-release them into the community; they won’t breed anymore, are vaccinated for rabies, won’t have objectionable behavior associated with cats that haven’t been spayed and neutered.”

He says that the community cat program needs more people to help transport animals, and Gorrell agrees.

“It’s very rewarding,” she says of volunteering for the program. “(It’s) something you can do in your spare time, (and) we’re always looking for volunteers to help out with this.”