Thanks to a collaboration between UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a nonprofit organization, veterinary students were able to receive hands-on mentorship and sterilize more than 150 cats during the weekend of Oct. 13 and 14.
Nonprofit Operation Catnip works to spay, neuter and vaccinate free-roaming community cats to keep the feline populations in check around Gainesville. The organization’s Operations Director Melissa Jenkins was very pleased with how the collaboration went for UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the organization for minority pre-vet students.
“We believe in training these students to be capable, confident and fast surgeons. Our hope is that wherever their careers take them, they can use the skills they’ve learned at Operation Catnip to help community cats and all other animals they find in their care,” Jenkins said.
11 students enrolled in the course to receive hands-on mentorship at the clinic, learning everything from anesthetizing the cats, preparing them for surgery and the post-op administration of necessary medications. Doctors of veterinary medicine were there to teach the students how to perform the spay-neuter surgeries one-on-one.
A total of 166 cats were sterilized and given “ear tips” – a universally recognized sign of three-eighths of an inch taken off a cat’s left ear (while under anesthesia) to signify it’s been fixed. This is part of the process of TNR, which stands for trap, neuter and return.
TNR isn’t a passion for just UF veterinary students, however. That weekend of Oct. 14, Ines Aviles-Spadoni and Pristine Thai trapped five cats at a house on the northeast side of Gainesville with the help of Stephanie Parish, a professional cat trapper under Operation Catnip’s payroll.
Thai, a 19-year-old sophomore double majoring in public relations and political science, has been involved with Operation Catnip since late February and has been an official volunteer since September. Aviles-Spadoni, the 55-year-old research program coordinator at UF’s Transportation Institute in the college of engineering, regularly monitors the health and wellbeing of nine ear-tipped community cats. Her after-work routine takes her across campus from buildings like Weil Hall and the Reitz Union to Tolbert Hall.
Eight cats were located at the site, four of them being ginger kittens, their mother pregnant again with her next litter. Thai and Aviles-Spadoni were able to trap the mother and grown children, one of them being humanely euthanized at Operation Catnip because of previous injuries.
“My friends all hear about my TNR side quests, so they always tell me if they’ve seen a campus cat,” Thai said. She has located many of these cats due to UF’s Community Snapchat stories, where Thai screenshots cat sightings to keep track of ones to investigate later. As an Operation Catnip volunteer, she also works with a professional cat trapper in possession of a never-ending list of clients who have cats ready to be TNR’ed.
“The professional scopes it out for me in a preliminary visit to determine if it’s appropriate for someone of my experience and resources to take on, and if it is, I take care of it when I’m able to,” Thai said. As of Thursday, Thai has personally trapped 23 cats.
“TNRing the campus cats isn’t an easy task, mostly because no one knows exactly how many there are,” Thai said. With 2,000 acres of land encompassing UF’s campus, there are numerous hidden places for cats to live. Thai also noted that cats can change territories, which makes them difficult to keep tabs on. “There are likely dozens and dozens of cats on campus that I will never know about, unfortunately,” Thai said.
Aviles-Spadoni feels that community cat caretakers are negatively stigmatized. “There’s this crazy cat lady trope,” she said. “They think that people who care for cats are women who are middle-aged, who have no children, who are unmarried, and it’s not true. We’re professionals with multiple degrees. We can be professors, students and members of the community from all parts of life. Our goal is to reduce the population of community cats and kittens through TNR.”
At the beginning of this year, Aviles-Spadoni met Thai through a social media page where a discussion about cats was taking place. They arranged for them to meet in-person at a picnic table between the aerospace and mechanical engineering buildings, where Aviles-Spadoni knew Willy, a socialized black-and-white community cat, would be waiting to introduce himself too.
Since 2011, Aviles-Spadoni estimated she has helped TNR 15 cats and is proud to have found homes for four of those. Nowadays, she helps Operation Catnip more on the donating fronts, whether that’s through funding or giving her time to drive volunteers like Thai to her trapping sites.
Those interested in volunteering for Operation Catnip in the future can fill out an application on the nonprofit’s website.