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(A cat lounges in the shade Wednesday at the Willowbrook Apartments in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree))
Saturday July 6, 2013

BENNINGTON -- There's an overpopulation of cats in Bennington that predates the chamber's latest street art exhibit.

Stray cats have been a constant issue, including at the Willowbrook Apartments, where a committee is now in place to beef up the existing pet policy.

"We've had a problem with cats," acknowledged Tracie Benjamin, clerk for the Bennington Housing Authority. Despite a "one cat per apartment" policy, according to Benjamin, the number of felines at Willowbrook is greater than the number of apartments, and the problem is exacerbated by drive-by drop-offs.

"And they're not alone," said Sharon Burnett, the manager at Second Chance Animal Shelter in Shaftsbury. "We're bending over backwards to spay and neuter these cats ... because that is the way to control (the population)."

Last year, the shelter "fixed" almost 500 cats, both those with owners and "community cats," a colloquial term for those without homes.

With about 100 cats on hand at the shelter at any given time -- roughly 60 percent kittens under four months old -- Burnett said Second Chance could only take in as many cats as they can adopt out. "There is a capacity for care," she said.

The waiting list at the shelter has some tenants at Willowbrook worried their pets may be trapped and euthanized under new housing authority policy.

"That is not something that's going to be done," replied Benjamin. "But for somebody to think 14 cats is OK -- it's not."

Two programs exist locally to help pet owners spay and neuter their animals: the local shelter's Spay Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP), which affords those on public assistance low-cost operations, and the Vermont Spay Neuter Incentive Program (VSNIP), a statewide program that offers financial assistance for spaying and neutering and vaccinations paid for through a surcharge on every dog registration.

Differentiating between stray and feral cats -- the former have been socialized, while the latter have not and can't be adopted out -- Burnett said the cat problem hadn't gotten worse over the course of her six years at the shelter. Or much better.

"Unless every cat is spayed and neutered ... you're going to have more cats," Burnett said.

The Vermont Humane Federation calls for a "TNR" policy for feral cat populations: trap, neuter or spay and vaccinate, and then return. Organizations like Alley Cat Allies say trap-neuter-return is the most humane, effective approach to feral cats.

'Never-ending problem'

Benjamin tallied over 100 cats hanging around and in Willowbrook's 75 apartments. She said the one cat policy had been part of the policy handbook that every tenant agreed to before moving in. Cats older than six months also must be spayed or neutered and have their rabies vaccination.

While "we have responsible pet owners," others are having kittens and turning cats loose, Benjamin said, including one recent instance with 14 cats in one apartment. "It's a never-ending problem."

Benjamin said the housing authority was in the process of brainstorming solutions to the overpopulation of felines, which has negative consequences on both the health of the cats and standard of living for residents. "We are having policy meetings right now," she said. Better enforcement will need to be part of the solution, she said.

The new policy may be in place for the fall after details are finalized and residents are given 30-days notice to agree or not agree.

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