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


Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright4 years ago

Alley Cats is a marvelous organization doing amazing work on behalf of community cats. These cats did not ask to be feral, it is a result of humans and now humans must figure out humane ways to deal with them. TNR works and is the best and most humane way of reducing the number of cats and increasing the quality of life for the ones being cared for.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Waheeda S.
Waheeda E4 years ago

TNR is definitely the more humane option over catch and kill.

Edgar Zuim
Edgar Zuim4 years ago

Beautiful work. This shows that to control the population of wild cat, it is not necessary to kill them.

Carolanne Powell
Carolanne Powell4 years ago

Leave the feral cats live life outside. TNR sounds the most appropriate way to control over breeding. Ovarid, a feline contraceptive could be placed in food or the she cats captured, injected/implanted through the cage, then released immediately.

Kathy K.
Kathy K4 years ago

Yay! Alley Cat Allies is a great organization and I'm proud to be a member.

Irene S.
Irene S4 years ago

It´s a shame, there are stray cats at all!

Desiree Ponton
Desiree P4 years ago

Thanks for all that you've done and continue to do to help cats Becky! Ally Cat Allies is a wonderful organization! Thanks for being a force for good. :)

Pat L.
Patricia L4 years ago

We had a feral cat living under our front deck. When we first saw him, it was autumn in our cold part of the country. Neighbors said people regularly fed him, but we didn't know how he would survive winter. My husband built a winter home with a heat lamp aimed at the bed and entrance. He moved right in and we fed him all winter and talked to him. In the spring when we were moving we borrowed a trap and he easily walked in.We took him to our vet, he had to be shaved because of urine sores on his legs and rear; he was filthy and no longer groomed. After shots and a healing bath we brought him to our new home and tried to gentle him; he was miserable inside with our 2 dogs, hissed for months and hid from us. We lived in the woods with coyotes so he could not go outside. After months of watching his misery, we took him to a shelter and explained his special circumstances. We hope he was adopted by a special family; otherwise, he's still there.

Cheryl F.
Cheryl F4 years ago

I've got four rescued cats living in my house and five or six regularly coming around to get fed. The TNR in my town wants you to make an appt to bring them in, but I'm wondering how to do that when it is impossible to know when you'll be able to catch them. Of course I understand their point, but there needs to be a better approach.