Core Creek Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, was once the subject of widespread public scrutiny. A population of nearly 500 cats lived freely in the popular park, and people complained about them for years. Cats were often abandoned in the park, which led to large colonies of breeding cats, overwhelming caregivers and causing trash pile-ups. Public outcry in late 2015 prompted the municipal government to bring in a team of animal organizations to tackle the issue using Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).
Animal Lifeline, a support organization for rescues, shelters, and municipal groups that advocate for animals, and RedRover, an animal disaster relief and emergency sheltering organization, spearheaded the Core Creek Park TNR project. During fall 2015 and winter 2016, Animal Lifeline—with support from Alley Cat Allies—collaborated with Bucks County municipal officials to plan the large-scale TNR project for the Core Creek Park cats. Animal Lifeline brought together county officials, shelters, rescues, donors, and volunteers for the TNR effort (also called Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return, or TNVR) that began in April 2016.
In a fast and furious 16 days, hundreds of cats and kittens were caught, spayed or neutered, and vaccinated. A total of 457 cats from the park were trapped, according to a report in the National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) magazine, NACA News. More than half of the cats were determined to be adoptable. The cats who were returned to the park now live in a safe environment with volunteer caregivers coordinated by partner Rescue Purrfect. The project has left the community with a positive view of its community cats and a lifesaving precedent for the future.
A total of 457 cats and kittens were spayed or neutered. Of these cats, 157 were returned to the park to live healthy lives outdoors, according to NACA News. Most of the other cats were put up for adoption. Twelve cats had to be humanely euthanized due to injuries that were beyond treatment. Only a handful of new cats were found in the park in the months following the TNR effort.
Bringing a community together
The Core Creek Park project was only possible through community collaboration. County officials, shelters, rescue organizations, veterinarians, police officers, local prison inmates, and others got involved. Municipal officials went from having doubts about the project to embracing TNR and supporting the long-term care of the cats. The community was grateful, and volunteers continue to care for the cats today.
Setting a precedent
Because of the collaborative nature of the TNR effort, the community is now aware of TNR’s benefits. Animal Lifeline and RedRover created a detailed protocol, so the county is prepared should a need arise for more large-scale TNR. Also, strict measures were put in place to prevent people from abandoning cats in Core Creek Park.
For years, people abandoned cats in Core Creek Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, leading to a population of about 500 cats. The park became littered with trash and dirty housing left by well-meaning people. Despite concerns, little was done until November 2015. In response to complaints about odor, the park services department spread lime around the park. People worried that the lime would harm the cats, and the story made the news. Suddenly, there was a spotlight on the park’s large cat population.
Denise Bash, founder of the Pennsylvania organization Animal Lifeline, was familiar with the Core Creek Park cats and decided to get involved. She set up talks with the municipal leaders to offer assistance and to make clear that Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) was the best way forward. She advised county officials that by state law, cats must be humanely euthanized. That meant culling the cats would be incredibly expensive. Animal Lifeline’s TNR plan, however, would cost the county nothing.
County officials gave Bash and Animal Lifeline permission to assess the situation at the park in January 2016. They concluded that if nothing was done, the number of cats in the park would increase significantly by 2017. Bucks County agreed to work with Animal Lifeline and RedRover to plan and execute the large-scale TNR effort.
How the TNR Process Worked
Response and Research
The Core Creek Park TNR project used a disaster response model in order to coordinate many resources in a short time frame.
Bash and other advocates learned the chain of command of the local government and found out who else would have to be involved in order to help the cats and also to protect the animals endemic to the park. That included the local commissioners, Parks Department, Health Department, police, and animal control. Bash advised them on local and state animal laws so they could plan out a protocol that would best help the cats—and that all parties could agree on.
Every detail of the 16-day TNR effort was planned, including how much food, traps, vaccines, and staff was needed, where cats could be spayed and neutered, and how many cats could be held in a temporary shelter. Advocates gathered supplies and funding from animal shelters in the region. Veterinarians advised on safety measures, and a specific protocol was created for all veterinarians and volunteers. Foster homes were lined up in advance for the cats and kittens who could be socialized. The municipality agreed to close the gates of the park from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. as a security measure to prevent people from abandoning their cats there.
Because the project was planned out with a beginning, middle, and end, it was easier to get the municipality and community on board. Careful, detailed planning was the biggest factor in the project’s success.
“Planning is the key,” said Beth Gammie, director of field services for RedRover. “Make sure you actually have what it takes to get things done. If you don’t, [then] don’t offer to help.”
Outreach and Education
In the early stages of the project, Bash and Animal Lifeline identified stakeholders. Through social media, Bash researched and reached out to all the stakeholders with different opinions about the cats—whether people who were inconvenienced by the presence of the cats, birdwatchers, colony caregivers and county officials—to discuss the project. Animal Lifeline sent out press releases to ask for help, services, and supplies from animal organizations, rescues, local veterinarians, and national foundations.
The county public information officer circulated press releases around the county detailing the TNR plans. Through the county’s emergency management call system, the county called citizens and explained that trapping would be happening in the area. Residents knew to keep their cats indoors during the process. These measures ensured that residents knew what was going on and that there would be fewer complaints.
Government officials, property owners, police, and citizens were educated about the benefits of TNR and why catch and kill is ineffective. They were told that the TNR project would prevent the birth of litters, promote public health, allow any socialized cats to be adopted, and improve the park. Animal Lifeline assured citizens who were worried that there were long-term care plans to keep cats safe and healthy outdoors.
Bash also reached out to groups she thought might oppose community cat efforts, like wildlife and bird groups, and offered to speak with them about the project and answer their questions. By respecting their concerns and maintaining an open discussion, those groups did not actively fight the TNR effort. She also promised to present to these groups after the project ended so they would know what happened.
The Core Creek Park TNR project was a true community effort. Despite differing opinions, the leaders of the project were respectful to every group so everyone could come together to help the cats.
- The municipality. The municipal government was vital to the project’s success. The government helped inform citizens and offered resources, and it supported the TNR effort overall. It donated an empty warehouse to serve as a temporary shelter for the cats.
- Alley Cat Allies. As the TNR experts and the leading organization dedicated to protecting cats, Alley Cat Allies provided strategic advice on all aspects of the TNR project. Concerned citizens were directed to Alley Cat Allies resources to answer their questions about cats and TNR. Alley Cat Allies supported the project, which boosted its prospects for success. Alley Cat Allies’ approval was mentioned in every press release, so citizens knew that the project was humane and effective.
- Veterinarians. Animal Lifeline reached out to every veterinary clinic in the area to ask veterinarians if they could donate their time or supplies. The Pennsylvania SPCA and Rescue Purrfect were co-leads with Animal Lifeline on veterinary care. The Bridge Clinic offered its veterinarian and clinic for surgery. Veterinarians from all over the county and three clinics agreed to spay/neuter and assess the cats. Ten veterinary assistants also volunteered to take shifts, and many of them drove for over an hour to help.
- Donations and funding. Animal Lifeline and RedRover, the largest donors to the project, reached out to groups all over the county and nation for donations of funds, food, traps, and vaccines. Other large donors included Greatergood.org and the Jackson Galaxy Foundation, and regional nonprofits The Bridge Clinic and The Cat Shack. The International Fund for Animal Welfare helped with transport; animal shelters and animal control supplied traps; and veterinarians reached out to their medical suppliers for vaccine donations. The Doylestown Animal Medical Clinic donated vaccination and pain medications. The Jackson Galaxy Foundation and Wellness Natural Pet Food donated enough food for the cats to last five months. A volunteer tracked all donations.
- Volunteers. Since the project was widely publicized, many citizens offered to be volunteer trappers or shelter caretakers.
- Law enforcement. The local police and park service kept the project running smoothly. They were called in to prevent people from sabotaging traps or taking any other effort to impede TNR.
- Rescue and shelter partners. Area rescues and animal shelters sent veterinarians, donated vaccines, and conducted wellness checks on the cats.
Every day of the 16-day TNR effort was mapped out. Cats were not returned to the park until every cat was neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped. This ensured that trappers wouldn’t catch cats who had already undergone TNR. The park was divided into three color-coded sections so trappers could return cats to their exact area.
- Volunteer training. All volunteers were trained, had medical insurance, and had someone to report to. Volunteers with TNR experience were designated as leaders.
- Preparing the park. Volunteers cleaned up the park and worked with inmates in local prisons, who said they wanted to get involved, to build new cat houses. These houses, designed by Alley Cat Allies, ensure the cats have a safe place to sleep outdoors. The inmates were very happy to do their part to help, and the county is proud of and thankful for their work.
- Trapping. Trapping occurred for 10 days with three shifts a day, from early morning to late night. There were at least 100 traps out at all times, and they were checked constantly. Every cat was identified with a tag on their trap in the field so they could be returned to their exact area of the park. At designated times, trapped cats were transported by van to the temporary shelter.
- Sheltering: The cats were held in cages in a temporary shelter, which was managed by RedRover and volunteers. The space for the temporary shelter was provided and secured by the county. There were two volunteers for every 25 cats, and veterinarians took shifts to check on the cats once a day. Quarantine rooms were created for any sick cats.
- Spay/Neuter: On six preplanned days, cats were transported from the shelter to the clinics. Veterinarians took shifts to spay or neuter, vaccinate, microchip, and eartip every cat, and provided more medical care when needed. Cats went to the clinic in the morning for surgery and returned to the shelter at night to recover. Schedules were coordinated so trappers did not bring in new cats while cats were being processed to travel to the clinics.
- Recording: Each cat’s medical information and microchip number was recorded.
- Return: Unsocialized cats were returned to their specific areas of the park after they were trapped, neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped. Cats were returned at the end of the operations so that no cats were erroneously re-trapped.
- Adoption: Foster caregivers and cat behaviorists worked to assess and adopt out any socialized cats. Preplanned foster placements meant that adoptable cats and kittens were never held in the temporary shelter, which freed up space.
Long-term plans were created for the continued care of the cats, which was critical. The aftercare program is run by Rescue Purrfect, a regional rescue run by Michele Miller (who also runs The Bridge Clinic), with some financial support from Animal Lifeline. Fifteen volunteer feeders were specifically trained and assigned to different sections of the park. They make sure that cats are fed the same amount of food at the same times every day and that no food is left overnight to attract wildlife. Veterinarians calculated how much the cats would eat weekly. RedRover provided a grant for food. All caregivers had to sign a memorandum of understanding to become feeders so that feeding is as regulated as possible.
Signs were put up by the county to discourage other people from feeding the cats and to warn against abandoning cats. Cameras were also set up around the park to use as needed, like if there are suspicions someone is dumping cats or new kittens need to be found. The park is monitored for any new cats and kittens, and money was put in a medical fund from Animal Lifeline in case more care is needed.
The Core Creek Park TNR project is a successful model for every community. The strong leadership of Animal Lifeline and RedRover pulled groups from the county and beyond together to protect cats. Through detailed planning and strong organization, the groups helped 457 cats. Of these cats, 157 were returned to live long, healthy lives in Core Creek Park, and most of the others were put up for adoption.
Since the project ended, almost no new cats or kittens have been found in the park. Thanks to regular caregivers, the new cats were quickly identified and neutered. It’s estimated that at least 85 percent of the park’s cats were neutered, which means the colony numbers are guaranteed to decline. The park has been transformed into a cleaner, healthier place for cats and people. This is a remarkable achievement in a short amount of time, and the community has already seen the benefits.
“The Core Creek Park TNR project was the ideal example of a private-public partnership,” said Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Bucks County commissioner. “The project allowed us to recognize the gravity of the problem and resolve it in a way that was both humane and affordable. I could not recommend this TNR approach any more [enthusiastically].”
Bash and Gammie have advice for any community that wants to attempt a similar project:
- Be professional and respectful. When you’re meeting with your local government or educating citizens, keep to the facts as much as you appeal to emotions. For example, Bash said, “you can’t go into a meeting with your township and say the word ‘furbaby.’”
- Know your local laws and chain of command. Figure out which departments and officials will need to be involved to help the cats. Understand and respect the challenges of different officials, and think about things from their perspective.
- Agree to disagree. “The first thing I did in the meeting with the municipality was define collaboration,” said Bash. “I told them we were all going to sit down with different opinions, but had to come out with a plan we created together that’s best for the cats and the entire community. That ground rule made it easier to compromise.”
- Plan, plan, plan. With a detailed plan and strong leadership, your project has credibility and will run smoothly.
- Tell everyone, and don’t rule out any help. From shelter staff to prison inmates and park patrons, everybody was able to help the Core Creek Park TNR project in their own way. Keep an open mind. “This kind of project is inspiring and energizing,” said Gammie. “You can really expand your network of trappers, fosters, and donors. When you’re doing great work, everyone wants to pitch in.”
- Determine your resources. Every state has an animal response section—look up who is in charge of disaster response for animals and ask for help. If you don’t have many veterinarians in your community, try talking to your state veterinary board and see if you can get help. You can also ask your state Federation of Humane Societies to send a plea to their membership.
“Just knowing that someone is doing something to help the cats made people immensely grateful,” said Gammie. “I can’t even count how many times people came up to our volunteers and thanked them. The project was transformative for the community.”
Animal Lifeline continues to use the success of the Core Creek Park TNR project to educate other counties. In 2017, Animal Lifeline gave about $40,000 in vouchers and grants to partners to provide free spay and neuter for community cats in Bucks County.