Lurking in the alleyways behind campus corner, in the tight spaces beneath rental houses and scurrying across the street to avoid oncoming traffic are the many stray cats of the Norman, Oklahoma, community.
The surrounding area of the University of Oklahoma has experienced a decline of stray felines over the past decade, and although the problem persists today, Norman’s history of stray cats varies.
Today, with the advocacy of organizations like Hands Helping Paws, the overpopulation problem continues to decline, but many still see a persisting trend of cats wandering the streets of Norman.
Kim Fairbanks works for the Department of Real Estate Operations at the University of Oklahoma, but a little under 10 years ago she and a retired colleague decided to do more for the feral and stray cat overpopulation problem in the community. They started Hands Helping Paws, a nonprofit organization that specializes in “trap, neuter, return,” otherwise known as TNR cat rescue, to bring down the feral cat population that, 10 years ago, was very noticeable.
“We had all kinds of stray and feral cats on campus continually having babies and getting hit by cars. So, we were trapping the campus cats. You could notice that there is are dramatically almost no cats on campus now,” said Fairbanks.
Fairbanks did a trap, neuter, return rescue of a colony of 18 cats in 2008, and with no newcomers and no reproduction, there were only four cats left after a couple of years in the same area they were found. She thinks there are still many people in Norman who do not know enough about the overpopulation problem in the community. Hands Helping Paws works as a resource for students who have any questions or concerns about the cat population that is evident near campus.
Hands Helping Paws is different than other shelters in town because it does not take in animals to be sheltered, they only help facilitate the wellbeing of stray and feral cats as they are in the community. Some argue that the cats that roamed campus 10 years ago may have found their way into the residential neighborhoods near campus.
Feral cats are not socialized to people and survive on their own outdoors. Most of the time these cats are not friendly and cannot be put up for adoption as an adult. Stray cats, on the other hand, are socialized to humans and can often be adopted into homes. To communities like Norman, the difference between a stray and feral cat can be important if cats are often found near houses or apartments. Feral cats are often unfriendly and will not approach people.
Hands Helping Paws partners with Norman Animal Welfare to prevent some feral cats from ever entering the shelter system by doing trap, neuter, return rescue operations on site. Fairbanks takes referrals from Norman Animal Welfare and also works with them to conduct a small adoption program.
Since 2016, Fairbanks operates a barn cat program within Hands Helping Paws that allows unfriendly cats to live as working “mouser” cats in barns who can help eat mice that populate properties. She began this program when she rescued 21 cats from shelter euthanasia in one day, had them spayed, neutered, vaccinated and back in barns within four to five days. In this way, Hands Helping Paws further assists the Norman community because shelters use taxpayer money to euthanize shelter animals.
According to the Oklahoma Alliance for Animals website, “these innocent animals pay the cost with their lives and taxpayers pay the cost with tax dollars that could (and should) be used to meet other needs.”
Caroline Graham is a pre-law senior at OU and has lived in a rental house near campus since the summer of 2017. She often feeds different community cats that frequent her porch, but said it can be difficult because other animals like opossums are attracted to the wet food she sets out. For this reason, her roommate, OU senior Hannah Hackworth, does not always support feeding the community cats, but Graham worries that if she does not support these cats, no one else on her street will.
“Lately the same two have been coming around, but before that there was one alone that always came. The most I’ve seen in one week was 9, but consistently, there are about three to four right around our house,” said Graham.
Graham said Hackworth has recently warmed up to the idea of supporting these cats because they have seen two smaller kittens make their way to their porch that do not seem to have a home. Fairbanks said kittens can be removed from the streets to become socialized and adopted into homes because they are not yet feral.
Fairbanks wants students and others in the Norman community to understand the negative impact of removing adult feral cats from the streets has on the wellbeing of the animal.
“If you remove the cats from their community or colony and take them away, shelters will kill them,” Fairbanks said. “If you don’t relocate properly it is a death sentence because they don’t know where their shelter is and they don’t know where the food and water is.”
Second Chance Animal Sanctuary is a nonprofit “no kill” animal shelter that runs only on donations. They rescue dogs and cats from nearby shelters to give them a second chance at life in a permanent home. Second Chance also focuses on compatible pets for their owners, making the process of adoption more stable and enduring than adopting without thinking of long-term implications of pet owning.
Second Chance adopts out around 600 animals annually, helping the problem of overpopulation by giving stray or unwanted animals a home. However, the problem is not solved at adoption shelters.
“The number one thing that anyone could do to help animal welfare, dogs and cats across the board, whether it be street cats or just household pets, is spay and neuter,” Fairbanks said. “That’s the only way we are going to make any dent into the pet overpopulation problem.”