In 2003, Dan Spehar and his wife started feeding four kittens that appeared at their house. Although they had intermittently fed single stray cats previously, they had never encountered a group of cats coming around together. Dan and his wife were worried about them breeding and them having even more cats outside. He began to do some online research and discovered that TNR was the best course of action. Since that time, Dan has fostered/adopted several cats, conducted his own research projects into community cat management, and co-founded Together Initiative for Ohio’s Community Cats.
ALLISON: Are you the only caretaker or part of a group?
DAN: I am the primary caretaker. I pay for the spay-neuter surgeries and most of the ongoing vet care, as well as the food. I do have help feeding the cats. We feed/visit with the cats three times per day. I have pondered setting up a 501(c)(3) a couple of times, but always decided instead to spend the money it would cost to do so directly on the cats.
ALLISON: Have you adopted any of the colony cats that you’ve cared for? How are they all getting along?
DAN: Over the years, I have fostered or adopted quite a few friendly cats from the colonies I care for. In fact, nine of the ten cats my wife and I currently share our home with were once colony cats. As that statement implies, I often fail at simply “fostering” the cats I take in. We haven’t had any major problems with the cats coexisting, but at times it takes some creativity to keep the peace.
ALLISON: If a group, how do you connect with each other? Any standard guidelines?
DAN: My brother, Jeff, shares the feeding duties with me. He does a great job of monitoring attendance and any concerns that occasionally arise.
ALLISON: Do you have new volunteers? What info do you like to share with them?
DAN: With only three cats remaining in the colony (at one time we had many more), the two of us can handle whatever needs to be done.
ALLISON: Describe a happy moment with TNR.
DAN: The ability to observe firsthand as the number of cats in a colony that I have managed for more than a decade sharply declined over time—all because of TNR. Twelve years ago, we had more than 25 cats at this location, now there are only three. Also, bonding with the individual cats. There is nothing quite like it.
ALLISON: Ever thought of quitting? What keeps you going?
DAN: I have never seriously thought about quitting. It is difficult when you lose a cat. A few years ago, I trapped a big feral male because he was limping—he also still needed to be fixed, as he had eluded me for some time. Tragically, he crashed and went into cardiac arrest while under anesthesia. The clinic called me, told me what had happened, and said CPR was not working. They asked if I wanted them to use all possible measures to revive him. I said absolutely. They were able to get his heart restarted, but his pulse was weak and they felt he had sustained irreversible brain damage. I had no choice but to have him humanely euthanized. That was a very rough day. I have had a couple of cats hit by cars and a number just suddenly disappear over the years too. I have been able to save a number of sick and injured cats though, so it has not been all heartache in that respect. As I mentioned before, many socialized cats have been adopted into good homes as well.
The satisfaction I get from interacting with the cats each day makes all the cost and effort well worth it. It is also gratifying to know that because of TNR the cats are not reproducing. The cats are happier and healthier, while creating less of a nuisance for neighbors, who might not share my enthusiasm for having the cats around. They’re less likely to hunt too.
DAN: Through my work with the Together Initiative, definitely an improved knowledge of and a heightened appreciation for social media platforms.
ALLISON: What skills have you developed through your rescue work?
Not a skill, but I have benefited from meeting so many genuinely good-hearted folks who willingly give of themselves for the sake of creatures whom they often never even have the opportunity to touch. Community cat advocates are truly a special group of people.
ALLISON: Tell me more about your research.
DAN: he research that I have worked on for the past several years confirms that reductions in population size, such as what my colony has experienced, are not unusual. In fact, to date, Peter Wolf and I have published three TNR case studies documenting even more impressive examples of long-term reductions in population size—on the campus of the University of Central Florida, in an urban Chicago neighborhood, and on the waterfront in Newburyport, Massachusetts. All three of these papers, among others, are available on the Together Initiative website, as well as by doing a quick search on Google Scholar
ALLISON: Why did you start the Together Initiative for Ohio’s Community Cats?
DAN: Co-founder Toby Franks and I were in agreement that a need exited for a statewide community cat resource that was available at no cost to all stakeholders, including TNR groups, individual colony caretakers, animal shelters, humane societies, spay-neuter clinics, rescue groups, veterinarians, animal control agencies, and municipal officials. It was apparent to us that many people involved in TNR had feelings of isolation and an uncertainty about where to turn for information and support. In addition to creating a website and Facebook page that act as a clearinghouse for information, we established a network of organizations and individuals who have committed to the non-lethal management of community cats and who have expressed an amenability to collaboration. Our purpose is to conduct public education and community outreach relating to community cats and TNR in order to encourage the understanding, acceptance, and use of non-lethal management, in addition to promoting stakeholder partnerships.
ALLISON: What are some successful outcomes from it?
DAN: We hold a much-anticipated and well-attended annual conference that provides useful information to community cat stakeholders of all levels of experience. To date, we have held five “Feral Cat Summits,” all in NE Ohio. We are hoping to begin hosting similar events in other parts of the state in 2020.
Our stakeholder network has grown to nearly 200 members representing all corners of Ohio. There is strength in numbers! We have been able to cite the support of our growing network when advising local governments on community cat issues, as we did in Hilliard, Ohio.
In addition, every year we recognize a network member (individual or organization) who is doing exceptional work for community cats. Laura Evans of Jackson Township was our “Community Cat Champion” for 2019. We’re privileged to have the Rascal Unit mobile veterinary clinic as a sponsor for the award.
Editor’s Note: The banner photo is of Delilah, one of the original four cats, who stayed with the Sephars the longest living on their patio. Photo provided by Dan Spehar,