In April 2013 I travelled to Figuera da Foz, on the west coast of Portugal, to work with International Cat Care (ICC) as a trainer on their new Cat Population Management course. This was not the first time I had visited Figuera. I had worked on cat population management projects there previously, but as a coastal town surrounded by dense pine forests with its wide Atlantic beaches, Figuera is certainly not the worst place in the world to return to!
This week-long course was the first of its kind to be offered to vets and animal welfare volunteers at ICC’s European Feline TNR Training Centre in Figuera and offered both theoretical and practical training. The vets had the opportunity to learn about the most current surgical techniques for feline neutering and aftercare under the supervision of expert veterinary trainers from the University of Nottingham School for Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine. I worked with the TNR volunteers to teach them about humane and effective cat trapping techniques, community engagement and colony management.
The course also took a much broader look at TNR’s place in a comprehensive approach towards cat population management and several classroom sessions explored the root causes of the problem and people’s attitudes and behaviour towards both feral cats and cat management projects.
Trainees on this course were mostly from Portugal and all were already working on cat population management projects themselves. The vets had been working closely with CFAF’s friends and partners Animais de Rua (AdR), while the TNR volunteers were from Urbanos Gatos (an organisation based in Coimbra, Portugal) and Homeless Pets Help Organisation (who had come all the way from Georgia).
On my first day, before the volunteers arrived, I visited the various locations where cat colonies had been identified and tried to learn their habits and movements and speak to the local carers and feeders so I could plan the most appropriate schedule and training over the coming days. With help from APAFF’s Florbela Brisida, we walked around the derelict buildings, college campuses, car parks, alleyways and whitewashed cottage-lined streets to see what the cats were all up to.
In some of the places we visited, several of the cats were already ear tipped. This is where a small section of their ear is removed under general anaesthetic while the cat is being sterilised, and seeing previously tipped cats was a positive reminder of the ongoing good work already taking place in Figuera.
Once the trainees arrived the days were divided up. The vets would perform supervised surgeries and go through surgical training during the day. There were also some ad hoc classroom and discussion sessions on a couple of afternoons. The TNR trainees would head out with me in the early morning to trap or release cats, join in with the discussion sessions in the afternoon and then head out again in the evenings for more cat trapping. The evening trapping sessions often stretched into the night.
Cat trapping is an interesting process and is very much about understanding the behaviour of cats and their movements but it’s also about working with the community and the carers. They are the ones who look out for and live with the cats every day so their involvement and support is vital.
As with any activity that is dependent on animals, people and the environment, there are many opportunities for things to not go to plan. But therein lies the key to the process – preparation, patience and flexibility. If you manage to cover those three things then you should be able to work around the other stuff!
During the week we faced a variety of situations. In one location we met a wonderful old man who, despite having bad knees, would get up every morning, prepare some fresh fish or chicken and go out to feed the 15 cats that lived in the gardens and fields around his cottage. The cats knew his routine and the comforting sound of his voice and we used manual traps to catch them as quietly and with as little stress as possible. Within 36 hours the cats were sterilised and returned to his care and when we returned a day later to see how he and the cats were doing, they were all back to their old routine as if nothing had happened.
Not everything was as straightforward. At the college campus we were hindered by dogs, cars and ‘helpful’ passersby not to mention the fact that the cats never came down to ground level. They would eat only from the top of a garage roof so we had to find a way of climbing up, setting a trap and then being in a position where we could activate the trap, transfer the cats and reset things as quickly, quietly and calmly as possible… and then use a lamp-post as a fireman’s pole to get down from the roof! The first night there was a trial run – that was as much to do with circumstance as planning – everything that could be against us was against us but it allowed us to acclimatise the cats to the trap and get them comfortable with eating in it. The second night we were able to catch them quickly and with minimal stress. And again, 36 hours later, we were able to return them home.
Throughout this process the training was both practical and theoretical. It wasn't just telling the trainees what to but working together with them as a team and demonstrating, hands on, the process and different techniques. I was incredibly lucky to have such a passionate and skilled team of volunteers. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with and train such a dedicated and generous group of people.
As I mentioned, this was the first training course of its kind in Figuera but CFAF will be working with ICC again as this course develops a grows to provide training not just to Portuguese vets and organisations but for those working in cat population management around the world.
In the meantime I’d like to thank Ian and ICC for inviting myself and CFAF to support this fantastic project. Thank you to Florbela and APAFF for all their help in Figuera. And thanks also to my fellow trainers, the veterinary trainees and, of course, my TNR trainees Cristina Paula, Jorge and Mariam. I know that you will all be able to take what you have done this week and use it to make a truly positive change for animals.