Episode 12 – Tina Hoskins

12 Tina Hoskins_FB

 

Tina Hoskins is the Director of TNR operations for the rescue organization Dallas Pets Alive, located in Dallas, Texas. Even though she is new to animal rescue, Tina has had amazing results with her TNR efforts on the Katy Trail which is an abandoned railroad track that had once divided the downtown Dallas core.  The Katy trail is now a popular, active path that runs through the Uptown and Oak Lawn areas of Dallas, Texas, following the path of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad and has long been a home to several growing community cat colonies. Tina has spearheaded the TNR efforts along the trail and has made a significant impact on the lives of the resident community cats. Listen to her experiences since she got started and what TNR involves. To learn more about Tina and Dallas Pets Alive you can visit their website, http://dallaspetsalive.org/ or you can find them on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/DallasPetsAlive/.

Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now on with our show.

Today, we’re speaking to Tina Hoskins. Tina is the director of TNR operations for the rescue organization Dallas Pets Alive, located in Dallas, Texas. Despite being relatively new to animal rescue, Tina’s had amazing results with her TNR efforts on the Katy Trail, which is an abandoned railroad track that had once divided the downtown Dallas core. The Katy Trail is now a popular jogging, walking, inline skating, and bicycling path that runs through the Uptown and Oak Lawn areas of Dallas, Texas, following the path of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. It’s long been home to several growing community cat colonies. Tina has spearheaded the TNR efforts along the Trail and has made a significant impact on the lives of the resident community cats.

Hey, Tina, welcome to the program. Hi, Chris. So tell us a little bit about you.

I am the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) director for Dallas Pets Alive, a rescue group here in Dallas, Texas. I somehow stumbled upon feral cats three years ago. So, three years ago, I was running on the Katy Trail, an outdoor running Trail here in Dallas. I’m walking with my girlfriend and I saw a cat run across the Trail. Immediately, of course, being an animal lover, I stopped and I went, “That cat’s lost”. There was a woman walking next to us and she said, “Oh, honey, there are hundreds of them” and I said, “No, that can’t be true” and she said, “No, really, there are hundreds of them” I said, “That’s bizarre”. I sort of shrugged it off and we walked home. I got some cat food and when I came back, sure enough, she was right. I came back to that same area, and that one cat came out of the bush and so did nine of its friends.

I was completely and totally, utterly amazed that there were this family of cats, two of which, by the way, were massively pregnant, that just hang out. They were just there, living, and people were running by and cyclists. I said to myself, “How can this be? They must be lost”. I ended up picking up the phone. I called my pet sitter, and my pet sitter said, “You have no idea what you just stumbled upon”. He already knew what was going on in the community. He knew what it would take. I said, “Well, what do I do? Do I call the police? What do I do?” He said, “Trap them” and I said, “What do you mean trap   them?” So, then it started. A passerby went home and got a big dog crate. I took this and some of the food into my walk. I took this massively pregnant Siamese cat. She was starving. I picked her up by the scruff, put her into a crate, and closed the door. It was like 92 degrees outside. It was so hot. I met my pet sitter and I said, “What do I do with her?” and he goes, “I’m going to sneak her home. We’re going to let her give birth. We’re going to fix her so she can’t have any more babies, and then we’ll put her back”. I said, “Okay, but what do I do about the other nine?” He said, “You get them, you lend them to me, and then you return them.” I went, “Oh, it’s not just a thing.

Being from up north, we don’t generally have this problem. So when I was a kid, we found a stray kitten. At the bus stop, we found a little baby kitten. He was clearly injured. The doctor thinks he was thrown from a car window. We didn’t have dozens and dozens of cats running around our neighborhood. We can go to the grocery store and in the side of the alley there weren’t like a family of cats living there. Yes, okay there are stray cats. There stray cats everywhere but we didn’t have the massive overpopulation like we do in Dallas. This whole thing is new for me. When my pet sitter said to me, “They’re feral” I literally went to him, “What’s a feral cat?” He said they live in the – He looked at me like, “How do you not know?” I said, “I don’t know. I just I don’t” and he said “You probably lived a very sheltered life when you were a kid.” I said not actually no. My parents were working class. I went to a public school. I’m just like everyone else.” He said, “Well, where did you move from?” I said, “Connecticut” and he said, “Ah, that’s why”.

So in combination with the weather down here, and how hot it is, I guess the general public isn’t educated about neuter and spay like we are north. We don’t have the same laws. We don’t have the same – just growing up in the same expectations. We’re not taught this as I guess we were taught it up north. Down here it’s less common, probably because of the farming community and just how things work here. You have large farms and animals just roam. So I was stunned and literally, I said “I just pulled that one bush. What happens if I start to go pull back other bushes?” He says, “You’ve stumbled upon one of the largest colonies in Dallas.” Sure enough, every day I went out with food. I started calling, “Here, kitty, kitty. Here, kitty, kitty.” I would put food every couple of feet, and sure enough, the one cat turned into nine that I found, nine turned into 20, 20 turned into 40, and 40 turn into almost 90 cats.

How did it go? Over what period of time did you find these 90 cats?

I think I started hitting the pavement every day for the first few months. I initially just started with the nine. I was operating under the radar because when I did pick up that first Siamese cat, I did, I took it.  There are people who are lovely. They ran home, they didn’t know me but they gave me that crate, fine. But there are also people who are running by, going “Eww, gross, that’s dirty.” I knew instinctively that what I was doing wasn’t really accepted by everyone, at least. I started with the nine. I just started conditioning them naturally, trying to get them on a schedule. I would say, over the period of three months, I started uncovering more and more and more. It wasn’t until – I would say it was over the period of six months, that I really uncovered the full problem, I should say.

At the six-month mark, Philip and I have gone out of the country. I got an email from one of those patrons because – I have to remember I was on the Trail every day for six months. I fed those cats every day. Those nine cats I fed every day for six months. When I went out of town, I hired someone to feed because I knew that I didn’t want to lose momentum. Over that six months, I had literally taken a crate, put them in, took them to my vet, and paid the 300 and something dollars. I had no idea what grants were. I had no idea what publicly funded programs were. My pet sitter gave me a trap. He taught me how to trap, and I borrowed more traps. I put a deposit down and I borrowed more traps.

When the six-month mark came around, that’s when I started to create enough – Enough feathers were ruffled that people started to call the Trail and say, “Who is this woman? What is she doing?” That same time, when I was out of the country, the news had done a really negative segment painting the cats as vermin and dirty. I got a new email from one of the ladies, the elderly ladies who walks the Trail every day. She saw me at the same time, she would say hi to me, and she said “Something’s going on. There are signs all over the Trail that says “Don’t feed the cats. You’ll get fined.” She said, “I want to make sure they’re okay and happy. I said, “Well, I’m out of town. Let me come back.” Meanwhile I was gone, my pet sitter who hired to feed these cats, started doing some digging. Sure enough, she uncovered people who were doing things like me who are feeding and who are trying to trap. I then approached the Katy Trail and I said, “Listen, I can fix this.” The idea is not to threaten. It’s a no-feeding-no-you-can’t-cats-are-vermin. The idea is to bridge the gap between the haters and the lovers. That was really the-I’m either going to jump all in moment or I’m going to just be an individual contributor, fighting against the uphill battle.

So I started. It was a moment of panic for me really because I said there’s so much to do. Your mind starts snowballing with, “Well, what about other people? What about other cats? There’s this many here. There could be dozens more down the street and you go, but I’m just one person.” So I said, “Okay, take a step back.” I’m going to just start this little area, and then I’ll grow and expand. Meanwhile, the Trail people had been incredibly supportive and they said, “If you believe this is the way we will work with you to support you.” Without their support, I wouldn’t be able to do what I have done. I wouldn’t have been able to get done as much as I did on the Trail because they were the authorities. What was I going to do if they didn’t support me? Trapping in the dark of night? Which is, by the way, something we do. Even then, you are fighting a force that is so much stronger than you. You really need to – I saw immediately what having a calm, rational approach and trying to mediate it because – Even though most people were defensive, if I stopped and listened to their complaints, if I respectfully listen to what they had to say, and if I respectfully responded to them with what the little study I’ve been doing on these nine cats, maybe I could just at least get them to give me a break. Just this once. If they could just give me a break this one day, I could work around that.

So anyway, this is a very long story, but it was that moment when I approached the Katy Trail and I said, “I could help fix this. I can try and fix this.” They had said, “Other people have tried before you and there’s just not been enough momentum.” They said, “Listen, we don’t want to harm the cats, but we also don’t want to encourage them to keep procreating.” I said, “Well, I understand that feeding them does that if you don’t match feeding with trapping.” The problem exacerbates. It grows and exacerbates the problem. I said, “If you let me feed, what if I promise to trap aggressively?” and they said, “You can feed, but we have a problem with feeding, too.” I said, “What are the problems?” and they said, “There’s food all over the Trail. It’s horrific. Piles of food every two feet.” When the joggers are jogging and if they have a dog, the dog’s jerking them off to the side. It disrupts the flow. If any of the cats went across the Trail, the bikers were swerving and they said it’s dangerous. I said, “Fix it, we’ll fix it. We’ll move the feeding stations.” I didn’t know what they were and I just came up with that term on the spot like it was. They’re like, “What are feeding stations like?” Well, yes. So the other biggest complaint was litter.

There were, like in many neighborhoods, very concerned citizens who care about the animals and they think they’re doing a good thing. They leave their leftover chicken from the restaurant. They would leave a can of cat food, and that cat food stayed for days and days and days. I think I have photos of this too, which obviously is irrelevant because this is a podcast. There’s litter like hundreds of plastic containers down a hill, and I said, “Okay, we’re going to fix this. If litter’s the complaint, well litter.” So I bought one of those poker tools. I got myself a garbage bag, and every day I went out and did research, I pick a piece of trash, or a bagful of trash. Soon enough I started to gain respect from the people who thought I was a trash collector, literally, literally.

People who didn’t know what I was doing with the cats were thanking me for my service. I thought, they think I’m picking up trash because I’m picking up trash and I want to pick up trash because it’s trash. But really, in this moment, I’m picking up trash to help the cats. Why can’t I just gain their support for both? I stopped saying to people “Thank you, but I’m feeding the cats”. Soon I said, “You’re welcome”. It was amazing. The positive effect had snowballed. The people would ride into the Trail and say, “We saw the lady picking up trash. Thank you so much. We want to contribute to be a member of the Trail.”  Whatever it was, it had a positive effect. The Trail then thanked me for picking up the trash, and it sort of created this mutual relationship where they became my ally. When there was a complaint that came in, they bought me that extra time. They stood up for me. They said, “Listen, she’s doing a good thing. She’s only improving the Trail.” This partnership really grew and it solidified. Now, we’re to the point where, when someone complains about the cats on the Trail, it’s forwarded to me and they trust me enough to handle it. So in a way, I know it sounds really like I have a huge ego, but in a way I created this position for myself. Begging for someone’s trust and respect, and then following through, showing them that it can work, has enabled me to create a position for myself that had never existed before. It was that position that was attractive to Dallas Pets Alive. When they approached me to start the cat program for them, the first thing they said was, “We’ve heard what you’ve done on the Katy Trail. I said, “What do you mean?” and they said, “We’ve heard what you’ve done.”

Just to give you a frame of reference, I found my first cat, I think, in March four years ago. It was in August, four years ago that the negative news piece ran about cats. I approached Katy Trail that August or September, and from that August or September, we aggressively trapped, probably every weekend until June. That’s how we got most of the project done. We did probably 90% of the trapping then. Now over the four years I still have 10 loose cats running around. We’ve had kittens, one litter, but instead of nine litters of kittens, we have one litter of kittens. The colonies stabilized but the amount of time and emotional energy that took is immense. Would I go back and do it all over again? Probably not. I would demand some. I’d recruit and pay my mom to come down here with me. I would not do it myself again. I know better now, but it was worth every emotional night, every emotional day, and every sweaty trip to Crandall to hike out there. It was worth every cry of every cat in the backseat of my car crying, moaning, and groaning. It was totally worth it because not only are these cats healthier, they’re stable. We don’t have very many new cats coming in. It was the shining example of what all feral communities should be. If you ask me if it’s the perfect example, no, but it’s Dallas’ perfect example because we have so much work to do here.

How has that evolved? That’s a wonderful story, Tina. Over the three years, though, now you’re with Dallas Pets Alive, you started out, you stumbled into this. How has that evolved to your role with being the TNR director for Dallas Pets Alive?

It was a do or die moment. When a group with credibility is behind me – Dallas Pets Alive is known in Dallas. They’re not just a small little mom and pop rescue group. They had structure when they approached me. They had three years of solid rescue group service behind them. They were a powerhouse in rescuing dogs from Dallas Animal Services. It was, “Can I do this?” I have no background. I have no experience. The experience I have is what I taught myself, but like they say, “Fake it till you make it.” I had enough people around me, enough mentors and enough support for what I was doing that everyone said to me, “If you don’t do this, there’s a chance that all the work you’ve done could go to waste.” I said, “No, I will not let that happen.” With the success of trapping, 90% of the Trail cats, you need to keep the momentum going. I found myself educating people on the Trail. I thought, if I spend half an hour talking to just one person on the Trail, then they walk away going, “Wow, that’s fascinating. I had no idea”, why can’t I speed up that process and get a group to help me do that on a larger scale? Also, I thought to myself, when I weighed the pros and cons – pro, obviously, I could get people to help trap in other communities, in other feral cat communities. Pro, I could have a team of people to help me spread the word. It’s like all the pros, there were really no cons. The cons was I’ve got to start from scratch. I don’t know that many people. I don’t know who wants to go outside in 110-degree weather and hunt for cats.

I think to answer your question, we started small. I said, “Listen, I can’t promise you that this is going to work, but I know it’s worked for what I have done.” If it’s worked on this large of a scale in this Trail in Dallas, why can’t it work for other communities, other feral cat communities, and other neighborhoods in Dallas? I basically said I found a successful model that will work if all the pieces lined up. You have to understand that it wasn’t just me. People say, “Oh, you’ve done an amazing thing.” It’s not just me. It’s the vet who gave me free neuter/spay for any feral cat in the Katy Trail. That’s a $300 service that you and I would pay as an average customer, for free. I could travel up to five cats a week, and I’d come in. I didn’t have to make the drive to Crandall, which was 45 minutes. It dramatically reduced – I should say it sped up the process for me. So there’s that. Then there are the people who help me trap, who were out there from 8 to 11 at night, helping me trap and transport. It was my very understanding husband who supported this passion of mine. It was the Trail who stood behind me and said, “She’s allowed to do what she’s doing. Don’t bother her. She’s cleared by us.” It was the city who gave me the benefit of the doubt and didn’t find me – whatever. It was so many people. If those things don’t line up, not only is your ability to successfully TNR hindered, but you have that much more of a hurdle to climb.

I have to say, it wasn’t hard convincing people. It wasn’t hard because people before me had laid the groundwork. Big groups like Alley Cat Allies, I think they laid the groundwork nationally. I went to a seminar and they have it all up in their pamphlets. My eyes were like, “Oh, my God” because all this stuff I was thinking in my head, what I had to do is already done for me. So when I went to Dallas Pets Alive, I said, “Listen, I can’t promise you that this is going to work. All I can tell you is that it worked for the 90-something cats on the Trail. With the right group of people, the right support, and the right backing, it can work for others.” They drank the water. As I always say, that’s what I do on a daily basis. I get people to join, get them to drink our water because it works. Now with Dallas Pets Alive’s backing, I’m that much more legitimate, if that makes sense.

For somebody that’s listening to this that is new to TNR, how do you shorten the learning curve for them? What would you recommend that they do to get started successfully?

I would recommend that people contact us. We need to shorten it even more. So there could be days that was like training or service that was provided where you could – or we host two classes to do a mass group training. Some sort of just do it in bulk, but have a conversation with me. Do your research online. You google feral cats and Alley Cat Allies has an entire tool book. I have it actually sitting right in front of me. Pamphlets, literally. Just pamphlet after pamphlet after pamphlet of just how to live with cats in your neighborhood, and how to trap 101. It’s very straightforward. Now, because TNR is catching on in cities around the country, you can most likely even call your local animal shelter. They will be able to explain, they’ll be able to loan you a trap, and will explain to you how to do it. It’s not going to be as refined of a process as ours because I’ve done a lot of trial and error. Our systems specifically is quite, we’re quality over quantity right now. We have that luxury to do that. On a smaller scale, for the average person going, “How do I start trapping?” have a conversation with me or with another TNR volunteer. The easiest way to do it is to literally go online and go to YouTube. I’m not even kidding. YouTube 10-minute video and you’re done.

That’s great. That’s great advice. It does sound like that there are lots of other things out there that people can tap into. So when you think back on this now Tina, was there a particular person or a particular group that really inspired you?

Initially, I didn’t know about Alley Cat Allies until after Feral Friends. Feral Friends Community Cat Alliance was one of the contacts that I was given through this small number of people when I initially got started. There was a woman specifically named Pam, who runs the TNR part of Feral Friends. She believed in what I was doing. She looked at me and she said, “You are the new energy. I will support whatever you want to do because you’re taking it and you’re running with it.” So I would say Feral Friends is really – They are the people who didn’t know me from Jane Smith next door. They believed in everything. They believed in my passion. They believed in my energy. They encouraged me to keep going and be doing what I’m doing. I think, that was really the boost I needed because, as I said, had I met with five or six hurdles as a person who had no experience, I don’t think not any of this would have happened. I think I would have said to myself, like many people do, “It’s easier to just do it on my own, do it all alone, I’m one person, and I’ll contribute what I can contribute. It’s just easier that way.”  But because I had the support of Feral Friends, the Katy Trail, the anonymous vet who donated the services, and my husband, I was empowered to keep going. That is really what I think what has driven me to be where I am today. As you said, the positive curve, it just keeps getting better.

That’s really inspiring such a great story. Is there anything else you want to share with our listeners before we wrap it up?

I would say, this is going to sound very educational. I would say, if you see a cat on the street, there’s this saying in TNR that we have, “Where there’s one, there’s some.” When you see one, it’s not just the one fluffy, adorable kitten. The chances of being the one fluffy, adorable kitten are like 0.0001. There’s always more. It’s pulling back the layers of that onion to get to the core issue that we need people to embrace and be a part of the solution.

Well, thank you, Tina. We appreciate you coming on and sharing your story with us. Thank you.

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