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Gainesville’s largest TNR program Operation Catnip makes waves for community cat welfare

Operation Catnip founder Dr. Julie Levy (far left) poses with shelter medicine instructors (left to right) Dr. Simone Guerios, Meredith Hippert, Dr. Maria Serrano and Dr. Willie Bidot, at an Operation Catnip clinic held at UF’s vet school in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Julie Levy)
Operation Catnip founder Dr. Julie Levy (far left) poses with shelter medicine instructors (left to right) Dr. Simone Guerios, Meredith Hippert, Dr. Maria Serrano and Dr. Willie Bidot, at an Operation Catnip clinic held at UF’s vet school in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Julie Levy)

 

Dr. Julie Levy grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, but she didn’t think she could do science.

“Typical girl thing,” Levy said.

Levy would soon realize just how wrong her younger self had been when she started her first faculty position at the University of Florida’s veterinary school in 1997.

Alachua County’s animal shelter had taken in almost 6,000 cats that year and ended up euthanizing 80% of them.

“It was just a massive overpopulation flowing into the shelter, overwhelming it to the point that its only foreseeable option was to euthanize thousands of cats every year,” Levy said.

She said she noticed there were no proactive or preventive programs in place at the time to combat the issue. So, with the help of her colleagues, she started one herself.

Operation Catnip was born just a year later, becoming the first, and now the largest, university-based trap-neuter-return program in the world. Since its opening, the program has been replicated across the globe, reaching about five continents so far.

The main function of the program is to allow caregivers to bring community cats into the clinic so that they can get fixed, vaccinated and returned to where they were found.

According to Melissa Jenkins, the director of operations at Operation Catnip, TNR is especially vital during the spring and summer months, otherwise known as “kitten season,” when there is a huge influx of kittens being born and brought into shelters.

To combat overpopulation, the program encourages members of the community who’ve already started caring for the kittens to take them in.

“Last year, we kept 1,400 kittens out of the shelter through people being willing to foster and find homes for them on their own,” said Jenkins.

Without them, over 1,000 kittens would have remained at shelters where they are less likely to thrive due to the specialized care they need.

“They are very likely to get sick because they have under-developed immune systems,” said Jenkins.

Operation Catnip also networks with local shelters and rescues so people who bring kittens in know Operation Catnip provides free medical care.

Kind Kitty Rescue, a private-intake kitten rescue that moved to Gainesville in November, works with Operation Catnip in TNR and owners Halie Waid and Hillary Saunders have firsthand experience in caring for neonatal kittens.

The kitten rescue worked with Operation Catnip back in Virginia and when Waid and Saunders saw that the program was also in Gainesville, they immediately introduced themselves and joined their network.

Besides helping community cats and their caregivers, Operation Catnip also gives veterinary students an opportunity to get hands-on experience performing surgeries and managing animal shelters.

For fourth-year veterinary student Katie Houston, working at Operation Catnip cemented the dream she had when she first came to UF, which was to work in shelter medicine.

What stood out to her the most about the faculty who worked there was their teaching values.

“Their real goal, at the end of the day, is to create a generation of people that are way more compassionate and understanding for what community cats actually are,” Houston said. “It really hits you hard when working in the clinic.”

Houston said she started working during her first year and has since become an ambassador for the program. Her main duty is to bridge the gap for students who want to get involved but don’t know how.

“I’ve kind of slowly worked my way up the chain of command,” said Houston. She now does surgeries independently and runs medical case management alongside experienced doctors.

She credits a lot of her success to the people she’s met along the way who’ve mentored her.

“They really have let me grow into my own as a baby shelter vet,” Houston said. “I really don’t know what I would have done without having this program in my vet school career.”

Unlike Houston, fourth-year student Lindsay Garrison specializes in large animals such as horses, sheep and cows. But she decided to do an internship in the program to get more surgical experience.

“We do get a little bit of surgical experience while we’re in school,” said Garrison, “but certainly not to the degree of working in a spay-neuter facility.”

She said she appreciated how hands-on the program was and the types of medicine she’s learned to work with. Operation Catnip taught her not only how to spay and neuter cats, but also how to treat eye problems and respiratory infections.

The first time she returned a group of cats to their homes, she remembered them running out of their little cages.

“That was a really great moment,” Garrison said. Seeing the animals that she’d vaccinated, dewormed, spayed or neutered go back into the world to be a cat again was a rewarding feeling, she said.

In 2022, some 6,000 of the 7,000 surgeries performed at Operation Catnip were done by the students themselves.

To this day, Levy said she finds these numbers something to be proud of.

“It’s a really unique opportunity they have here at the University of Florida that they can’t get anywhere else,” Levy said.

She said she is also proud of how far Gainesville has come in caring for community cats and solving the overpopulation crisis. Although there is a massive shortage of vets in the United States, she said the community does a good job of trying to fill the gap. Even the people who happen upon a stray cat in the street do their part.

“They really don’t like the cats, but they still feel compelled to protect them,” said Levy. “I love that about people.”

The same shelter that took in 8,000 cats in 1997 now takes in 2,000 a year. Instead of putting down the majority, the shelter now euthanizes fewer than 100.

Levy said she was pushed to go back to undergrad and apply to veterinary school in 1997 because she saw her mother do it first.

“My mom, late in her life, became a nurse,” Levy said. “She had to take science classes and was successful.”

It was a long journey to reach her original childhood dream, Levy said, but she’s found her place in academia and veterinary schools.

She now serves as the Fran Marino Distinguished Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at UF.

“It is the perfect blend of teaching and making the world a better place,” she said. “And science, believe it or not.”

*When Kind Kitty Rescue owners Halie Waid and Hillary Saunders are educating rescuers about neonatal care, the first thing they tell them about is compassion fatigue.

It’s when you’re doing so much good that you forget to take care of yourself, Saunders said.

When they first started their rescue in Virginia, they took in as many as 56 kittens at one time. Each kitten required bottle feeding every two hours, 24/7.

“Imagine doing that with 56 kittens, and they’re two of us,” Waid said.

Waid said when they go out rescuing, they ideally want to trap both the mother and her kittens at the same time. But that doesn’t always work out.

Back in Virginia, they recalled a day when it was snowing and they had to take a litter of kittens into their house and leave the mother outside.

To lure the mother into a cage, they recorded the kitten’s screams on their phone and played the recording on a loop under a blanket that was placed in the cage.

“The mom went in, so then we were able to reunite everybody,” Saunders said.

While days like those have been rewarding for Waid and Saunders, there have been many times when the kittens did not survive.

That's when the Kind Kitty Rescue owners would feel they weren’t making the impact that they wanted — one that would save as many kittens as possible.

Waid and Saunders said they began trying out TNR in addition to providing neonatal care, which resulted in half the number of kittens coming into their home.

“We’ve found that the best way to help kittens in the community is to spay and neuter at the source,” Saunders said.

Caia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6937 or emailing news@wuft.org.