Parx takes steps to keep cats healthy and away from the racetrack

A feral cat that was caught looks out of his cage in anger at Animal Lifeline employees that were going to care for him. The Philly SPCA has made an agreement with the Parx Casino racetrack to fix 300-plus feral cats who live on site in order to save the cats' lives. They've already been rounding them up. But I'm told that the SPCA folks will still be tracking down some cats and examining them onsite. 06/11/2014 ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
A feral cat that was caught looks out of his cage in anger at Animal Lifeline employees that were going to care for him. The Philly SPCA has made an agreement with the Parx Casino racetrack to fix 300-plus feral cats who live on site in order to save the cats' lives. They've already been rounding them up. But I'm told that the SPCA folks will still be tracking down some cats and examining them onsite. 06/11/2014 ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Posted: June 13, 2014

For years, the Parx Casino Racetrack in Bensalem has been more than just a showcase for a fleet of highly prized horses.

It is also home to as many as 300 stray and feral cats who roam the grounds freely, wander in and out of stables, and dart across parking lots.

Parx officials have long been frustrated by the booming feline population, which could carry disease or present other threats to the horses. In recent months, rumors even spread that the track was planning to round up the creatures and exterminate them, allegations that Parx officials have denied.

On Wednesday, the casino showed off a program that animal advocacy groups say is not only kinder, but a more effective approach. It is a large-scale operation during which members of the Pennsylvania SPCA and other organizations capture as many cats as they can in small traps, spay or neuter them, and release them back into the wild.

In addition to surgeries, the cats are vaccinated against rabies, treated for fleas, ticks and worms, fitted with microchips, and given other medical care that advocates say will make them healthier, happier, and, in general, better neighbors.

"It's public health for kitties," said Denise Bash of the Warrington-based support agency Animal Lifeline, one of the agencies involved with the program. "We're trying to make this a safer place for everybody."

Bash and others taking part in the program hope to treat from 150 to 200 cats before the end of the week, said Sarah Eremus of the SPCA.

The Trap Neuter Release system is poised to become the leading method of animal control in the country, said Elizabeth Putsche, a staff attorney with the national organization Alley Cat Allies, which is based outside Washington.

When cats are removed from an area and euthanized, often some remain and continue breeding, she said. Even when all cats are cleared out, she said, inevitably more move in, and the problems begin anew.

Spaying and neutering the felines stabilizes the population, she said, and also lessens fights, spraying, and other behavior associated with non-neutered cats.

"It's great because it's humane, but it's also the most effective form of animal control that we have," Putsche said. "It breaks the cycle of unvaccinated, un-neutered cats."

Parx chief operating officer Joseph Wilson said the area had been home to cat colonies since before the racetrack was built, and that the casino had implemented a similar program several years ago.

"There's a need for them to be managed so there's not a bunch of sick cats running around," he said Wednesday, standing near 30 or more meowing cats that were in cages and plastic carriers near the stables. "And kittens."

In addition to passing disease to the horses, the cats could pose dangers to riders on the track. In April, a Philadelphia jury in a wrongful-death lawsuit found Parx liable for nearly $8 million for a 2010 accident in which a jockey was killed after a chicken ran onto the track and startled his racehorse. The jury found Parx negligent in failing to keep the track clear.

In addition to the feral cats, some socialized cats live in the stables and have forged relationships with Parx employees, Eremus said. This week, some of those workers have brought in their resident barn cats for treatment.

Analyte Peraza, 34, who works as a horse walker, dropped off a second cat Wednesday afternoon. She said the orange tabby appeared recently in the stable where she works, hungry for companionship. Soon, he became known as Buddy.

"He's so friendly. I think he's a house cat and somebody threw him away," she said. "We try to feed them every day, but we worry about their health."


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

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