Camp Fire Cats and the Rodent Ranger Program

Camp Fire Cats and the Rodent Ranger Program

By Joy Smith

There has been some recent grumbling on social media that FieldHaven has placed some of the Camp Fire cats for adoption in our Rodent Ranger program.

We would like to take this opportunity to describe the 2nd Chance Ranch and the Rodent Ranger program in the hope this will resolve misconceptions.

FieldHaven began a Rodent Ranger (commonly known as “barn cat”) program to supplement our TNR program in the early 2000’s. This was before most shelters offered such a program. Over the years we have been the leader in our area for programs to offers alternatives to euthanasia for feral, semi-feral, behaviorally challenged cats and cats that just plain prefer the outdoor life. We have mentored other shelters to implement the success we have achieved in life-saving. We helped Placer County Animal Services move from a nearly 100% euthanasia rate for ferals to less than 10% in one year by implementing a well-organized barn cat program. For this success we were awarded a national award by National Association of Counties (NACo).

Now that we have hopefully established our expertise and credibility in this area, let us describe how we are assessing the Camp Fire cats as they come into one of our shelters.

FieldHaven’s Camp Fire response has been a work in progress. We have modified our procedures and protocols as we navigate through this exceptional challenge. Remember, the Camp Fire aftermath is like no other disaster this country has experienced. We are still rescuing animals four months after the event at a steady rate. What complicates the rescue is that the communities of Magalia and Paradise had a large stray cat population before the fire. As cats are rescued and sheltered we must assess their behavior and use our skills to determine if the cats are friendly, fearful or feral. This is not an easy process. Let us explain how each cat is assessed as they come in from the fire zone.

Cats come into the Transfer Station in traps. Most of the cats coming from the fire zone are traumatized to varying degrees. Some start acting like their “normal” selves briefly after coming into the shelter. Others take days, maybe weeks to slowly resume their normal behavior and personality. Still others are completely feral and never have any intention of befriending humans. We may know right away if someone is feral. Sometimes we have to slowly peel away the layers of their personality to see if a frightened pet emerges or if we are just annoying that feral who really just wants to go back to his ‘hood.

This takes time. A lot of time. And, an enormous understanding of cat behavior. FieldHaven is fortunate to have both the time and the expertise. We have the capacity between our three locations to house 175-200 Camp Fire cats. Expertise in cat behavior is something we are well known for. Our staff and volunteers have years of experience with cats; from the very friendliest of pampered house pets to the fiercest of ferals.

We are putting all that knowledge to great use and learning from what the cats of Paradise are telling us as they emerge from their survival mode. We are also learning even more about behavior and documenting our findings so we have more knowledge for the next disaster situation and can share our findings with others.

Let’s skip to the Rodent Ranger classification that some people are having a hard time understanding.

Be assured, we don’t lightly decide that a cat is going into our Rodent Ranger program to be a “barn cat”. Which, BTW, being a FieldHaven Rodent Ranger doesn’t mean you’re destined to go off to a rough and ready ranch having to hunt for your every meal. But that’s another blog for another day.

We understand that many cats are fearful, reclusive and shy. Probably most of you can say you have a cat like that in your family. The cat that is in love with you when it’s just the two of you but if people come over dashes under the bed not to come out until she or he is completely certain no more intruders are in the house.

The truly challenging part of our goal with each cat is to figure out who they are if we can’t find their family right away. An undisputable fact is that shelters are stressful for cats. Add to that a cat who has just been recovered from a virtual hell with living through the fire and then surviving for months in a foreign environment. Everything they knew about their home is gone. The smells, the structures, the terrain. Completely obliterated.

To that end, each of our shelters are designed to give each cat an opportunity to heal while we search for their families. The cats that we initially find feral or fearful are housed in roomy cages with privacy. Staff and volunteer interaction is purposeful and planned for enrichment and/or assessment.

There are some cats that are determined to be feral, community cats. If they are healthy and robust these cats will TNR’d; spayed/neutered, vaccinated and microchipped. They are returned to the feeding station from which they were trapped.

There may be exceptions to TNR if a feral cat is not healthy. They are transferred to the 2nd Chance Ranch where they receive the necessary medical care. They may be moved into the Rodent Ranger program if we don’t feel them to be robust enough for TNR.

There are cats we find to be very timid or semi-feral. If their families are not located, they are moved to the 2nd Chance Ranch and into our Rodent Ranger program. But their behavioral enrichment doesn’t stop there. We have volunteers who specialize in caring for the guests in the 2nd Chance Ranch. They are perceptive to the cat’s needs and it is not unusual for a cat to progress to the point that they become more social.

Rodent Ranger adoptions are conducted thoughtfully. FieldHaven’s TNR/Rodent Ranger Program Manager, Jen Paul interviews each potential adopter and carefully places the cats in the appropriate environment. For example, cats that originated from a rural setting would not be placed in an urban setting and vice versa. Each location whether it be a local garden center, a winery or a horse stable is carefully screened and instructed in our thorough imprinting process.

So there you have it. FieldHaven’s Rodent Ranger program is not a program for “we don’t know what to do with you so we’ll put you in a barn cat program.”

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