By Helen Woods
Laurel residents have played an integral part of bringing about major positive change for cats at the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter. The shelter, which previously euthanized upward of 1,200 healthy cats every year, euthanized only 50 in 2022. This reform was brought in large part by the hard work and dedication of Laurel residents.
For decades, the shelter was known for its very high cat kill rate. Unsocialized outdoor cats, often referred to as feral cats, were trapped by residents and animal control officers, declared unadoptable and euthanized as soon as they arrived at the shelter.
Friendly cats, picked up as strays or surrendered by owners, were often euthanized in an effort to prevent overcrowding. Lobbying by county residents and even a lawsuit by the Prince George’s Feral Friends, a Bowie cat group, failed to bring about change.
In 2012, Laurel residents organized the nonprofit Laurel Cats and made it their mission to show the city of Laurel and county officials that there was a better way to manage cats without spending tax dollars on mass euthanasia. At that time, the city was following county protocol: If a resident complained about a cat on their property, the city animal warden was dispatched to trap the cat and take it to the county animal shelter. If the cat was not friendly, it was immediately euthanized by shelter staff. This was heartbreaking for residents who loved and cared for the cats in the community, and the practice failed to solve the problem as other cats would rapidly replace the cats that were removed.
Residents approached Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and proposed a volunteer-run trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) program as an alternative that would potentially provide a long-term solution to the city’s stray cat problem at no cost to city taxpayers. Moe and his staff tentatively approved the program, and in 2013 the city council officially adopted a resolution endorsing TNVR as the city’s preferred method of population control for stray cats in Laurel.
In the ensuing years, thousands of Laurel and greater Laurel residents have worked to trap, sterilize and vaccinate Laurel’s outdoor cats. Most of these cats are not friendly enough to be adopted to an indoor home and are returned to the site where they were trapped. Volunteer caretakers continue to provide food, water, shelter and medical care for these cats and participate in an annual census of outdoor cats run by Laurel Cats.
The results of the annual Laurel Cats census, as well as data collected by the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter for the Laurel zip codes of 20707 and 20708, have been dramatic. The census shows a continuing decline in Laurel’s outdoor cat population; the population is now estimated at about half of what was in 2012. Intake, euthanasia and complaints about cats to the county shelter from Laurel have declined even more rapidly than the cat population itself.
These hard data and positive metrics, especially the decline in complaints about cats from Laurel residents, grabbed the attention of county lawmakers, who were still overwhelmed by complaints about cats from the rest of the county where little or no TNVR was taking place.
In 2019, then-director of the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment Joe Gill worked with the Prince George’s County Council to draft a bill, CB-046-2019, which would officially endorse TNVR as the county’s preferred method of managing outdoor cats, would end the county’s trap-and-kill program, and would create a return-to-field program, where any feral cats that did make it to the animal shelter would be sterilized, vaccinated and then repatriated to their home colonies by volunteers.
Implementation of this new program was delayed by the pandemic, as the shelter was reduced to skeleton staffing during the shut-down. This reduced staffing required the shelter to develop new intake practices to slow the influx of animals, since the shelter had too few workers to care for animals. The shelter began giving appointment slots to people wishing to surrender animals to slow the influx. This new approach not only proved invaluable to addressing the staffing shortage during the shut-down, but provided the key to solving the shelter’s long-term cat overcrowding problems.
At the urging of Laurel Cats, Best Friends Animal Society and other county cat groups, the shelter opted to maintain this managed intake program even after it fully reopened. By doing so, the shelter has been able to prevent the overcrowding which had been the root cause of euthanasia of friendly cats.
“During my 28 years as a police officer for Laurel city, people would drop off animals they could no longer keep at the police department, requesting that they be taken to the county animal shelter. I would do my best to warn people not to let their animal end up at the Prince George’s County animal shelter, because it would likely be put to sleep. I was so concerned about this practice that I actually adopted two of these cats that were dropped off at the police department rather than letting them go to the shelter,” said Carl DeWalt, a city of Laurel Councilmember (Ward 1) and a volunteer at Laurel Cats. “Laurel Cats has totally transformed this city and how we manage unwanted cats. This makes us a better city and it shows that we are a community that cares.”
The county’s new policies and procedures for feral cats, and its managed intake program for friendly cats has led to a dramatic decline in cat euthanasia at the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter. Only a few years ago, 29% of healthy cats who entered the shelter were euthanized; in 2022, only 2% were. These changes were brought about in large part by the hard work of thousands of Laurel residents who have worked together toward a goal of progressive and humane management to reduce the number of outdoor cats.
Laurel residents should be proud of what they have accomplished. By working together as volunteers, community cat caretakers, donors and supporters, we have not only brought about positive change for cats in Laurel, but for cats in all of Prince George’s County.