Humane Treatment of Outdoor Cats is the American Way
Written by Becky Robinson, Co-founder and President of Alley Cat Allies, the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats.
After decades of a cruel war on cats, there is evidence that America’s policymakers are finally shifting into humane gear.
For nearly a century now, the default system at most animal pounds and shelters has been to catch and kill feral cats—cats who genetically are no different from pet cats, but who call the outdoors their home. This cruel and archaic system of “controlling” the cat population has failed spectacularly because when one set of cats is removed from an area, another set moves in and breeds. It’s called the “vacuum effect.” And yet “catch and kill” has persisted, draining millions of taxpayer dollars each year to kill millions of animals — an act Americans do not want to pay for.
But the past decade has seen an exponential growth in localities embracing a more humane approach where feral cats are trapped, neutered and vaccinated, and then returned back to their outdoor homes where they live out the rest of their lives. It’s called Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR. TNR is highly effective because it immediately stabilizes the size of a cat colony and because there is no more breeding, the colony size reduces over the years.
Alley Cat Allies, the organization I co-founded 23 years ago, recently researched counties and cities all across the United States to find out how they were treating outdoor or feral cats in their communities. We were pleasantly surprised to find a more than 10-fold increase in the number of local governments that have officially adopted TNR, compared to just a decade ago. More than 240 local governments now have ordinances on their books that permit TNR for outdoor cats, and nearly 90 more support or endorse TNR.
The trend toward TNR is even more striking in view of the recent ado over a study that declared war against outdoor cats by mischaracterizing them as the culprit behind bird species decline, and that sought to portray TNR as “ineffective.” The study got all the more play in the media because it came from the Smithsonian, an institution held in high esteem by most Americans. Never mind that it was full of flaws — a fact pointed out by a handful of reporters and a respected researcher, Gregory J. Matthews of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who highlighted questionable statistical methods employed by the researchers to come up with the number of wildlife killed by cats.
But to me, the best evidence that the Smithsonian researchers got it wrong comes from the local governments who are adopting TNR. They have done so because they see evidence in other localities that TNR works. They have also realized that this is a program in which they can easily involve the community — hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country already willingly participate in TNR, providing spay and neuter, and food and water for outdoor cats. And finally, they see that this is an easy program to implement in a locality of any size or political stripe. In fact, TNR has been embraced by the conservative Colorado Springs in Colorado and the liberal bastion of Berkeley, Calif. By New York City in the north to Oklahoma City in the south. By San Francisco, home to nearly a million residents, to Elko, New Market, Minnesota, home to fewer than 1,500.
Even two states, Illinois and Utah, along with the District of Columbia, have laws endorsing TNR on their books.
When I first started TNR in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood with nothing more than a trap in hand and a will to help outdoor cats escape an undeserved death sentence, the very idea of TNR was strange and even unwelcome to the powers-that-be. But over time, that group of neighbors and myself has expanded to an army of millions of community caregivers and hundreds of organizations across the country who are making TNR work.
Millions of cats still face certain death in the United States as the vestiges of “catch and kill” slowly disappear. But with 330 localities and counting—and the 42 percent of Americans who have provided care for outdoor cats on their own—I think we can safely say that we are making progress.
Photo: Ken Clare/flickr