Curbing Feral Cats in Highlands

April 24, 2018
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To manage its feral cat problem, Highlands and 8 other Monmouth County towns are working with the MCSPCA for a trap, neuter and return program. Photo by Jay Cook

By Jay Cook |

HIGHLANDS – Debralee Lang tiptoed through a barren Honeysuckle Lodge on Cedar Street, poking her head underneath a number of vacant, summertime bungalows while also peering around each corner. Instinct told her this property could be the next curable feral cat hotspot in Highlands.

“I want to put a trap out now,” said Lang, a Monmouth County SPCA (MCSPCA) animal control officer. “I really do.”

Lang spent the bulk of her Tuesday afternoon in Highlands prospecting leads gathered from the night before at a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) public meeting led by the MCSPCA and Highlands elected officials.

Debralee Lang is an MCSPCA animal control officer working in Highlands.

Tucked between Route 36 and Sandy Hook Bay, the small borough of nearly 5,000 residents has long been plagued by a large feral cat population both downtown and in the hills. The situation grew after Super Storm Sandy displaced some residents and wrecked even more homes.

Highlands’ feral cat population is now “well into the hundreds,” Lang said, and is indirectly supported by cats finding shelter in homes still under construction since that 2012 storm and local homeowners simply unaware of their options.

“People get overwhelmed,” said Lang. “They don’t know where to turn to or what to do. When they call with just two cats, they’re saving it from becoming 30 cats.”

Highlands is one of eight Monmouth County towns that have agreements with the MCSPCA for their TNR programs. Atlantic Highlands, Eatontown, Farmingdale, Lake Como, Long Branch, Red Bank and Sea Bright are the others.

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Highlands was one of the first to sign on, in 2011, but Sandy’s aftermath over the next few years naturally halted the program’s momentum. Highlands refocused the program in 2016 and, with the body of data now collected, officials believe they can effectively readdress the issue.

“No one person can be everywhere,” said Highlands Borough Council President Carolyn Broullon. “With more people involved, the program will work better. More cats will go through it and more cats will get adopted.”

The program’s process is relatively cut-and-dried. After identifying a new colony or hotspot around town, the MCSPCA will come in and set traps to catch any roaming feral cats. If caught early enough in the day, a feline could go in for same-day surgery to be spayed or neutered. The animal will also receive a rabies vaccine, distemper shot, a microchip and their left ear will be tipped to verify it’s been treated.

Returning policies vary depending on the cat. Young kittens will have the opportunity to be adopted and taken off the streets. Older, mature cats typically are brought right back to the spot they were trapped.

“The basis for this program is ultimately for them to go back to the streets, but if they are adoptable animals, we’re going to try to adopt them,” said Tom Nuccio, MCSPCA’s lieutenant of humane law enforcement.

The main benefit of the TNR program, though, is the cost savings. For private citizens, the surgery will cost $100. For residents living in a TNR-sponsored town, the fee is marked down to $75 and is split 50/50 between the town and the MCSPCA, for up to 100 cats annually. The animal control officers, just like Lang, are also constantly patrolling colonies for untreated cats.

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Highlands has seen tangible results since the program was brought back to life in 2016. According to data from the past two years, 132 feral cats have gone through its TNR program. Numbers from 2016 show a peak of 106 trapped cats but that figure dipped to 26 a year ago. Broullon credited that to changes in borough animal control but said projections for 2018 already show another busy year.

“We just have to keep up our diligence,” she said. “It’s up to the borough to really continually keep this out there.”

Public outreach has also proven to be essential. Lang gathered over a half-dozen leads from Monday’s meeting, thanks in part to residents reporting what they’ve seen and experienced.

One of those Highlanders was Rob Sherman, who lives along Route 36. Since 2011, Sherman said he’d brought over 100 kittens to MCSPCA for adoption to take them out of the wild.

“It’s very important to me because I’m concerned about cats,” said Sherman. “Never in my life again do I want to see a hawk carry a kitten off or a raccoon do the same thing. And I’ve seen both.”

Dale Barth, who lives on Portland Road, said she’s been involved with the TNR program since before Sandy – it’s helped shrink the size of her cat colony from 27 to only three.

“The first thing that I’ve noticed is there are fewer kittens on the street,” said Barth, “and that means things are on their way to getting better.”

For more information about the TNR program in Highlands, visit highlandsborough.org or email Debralee Lang, the MCSPCA animal control officer, at debralee@monmouthcountyspca.org.


This article was first published in the April 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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