Cats Versus Birds

Preface:  This series of articles related to TNR (Trap Neuter Return) are compiled by and are the opinion of the author, and do not necessarily reflect nor are intended to represent the opinions of this site's membership.  This information has been compiled specifically to provide resources to communities dealing with a proposed TNR implementation.  My experience in this matter is a culmination of almost a decade of professional experience, to include acting as a consultant for a large open access animal shelter, over 20 years of active volunteer service as a state and federally permitted rehabilitator (receiving hundreds of wildlife annually), having rescued and homed my fair share of stray cats, and my recent participation in municipality committee discussions related to the possible implementation of TNR which included a presentation by the legal representative from Alley Cat Allies.  The purpose of this (admittedly lengthy) information is to hopefully provide a more full some perspective for consideration. 

Cats Versus Birds

The very first thing I noticed in open discussions regarding TNR is that the conversations quickly disintegrated to "cats versus birds".  TNR proponents dismissed any concept that cats harmed birds, insisting that cats are part of nature and contributed to the ecosystem.  Wildlife supporters were characterized as extremists who preferred to kill all cats. 

Wildlife proponents also rejected any discussion that entertained the presence of cats outdoors, and provided no alternative solution.

The unfortunate fact is that there is a ridiculous number of discarded cats out there due to irresponsible pet ownership, with or without TNR. It is our obligation (I believe) to make that right; for the cats and for our wildlife. The problem won't go away if we continue status quo.  These outdoor cats are also causing significant damage to our wildlife.  You can feed cats all you want.  They will still hunt wildlife.  Their instinct to hunt is separate from their hunger drive.  In fact, a recent study showed that they only eat 30% of what they catch.  Wildlife rehabilitators see this first hand; 60% of the live birds I receive are victims of cats, which is disproportionately high to other reasons for intake.  And the majority of those are so badly injured that they must be euthanized.  But we can't change that until we address the feral cat issue.

Accountability

The problem is that any real improvement would require a modification in human behavior.  People are still abandoning cats, not adopting from shelters, not altering their pets, etc.  Unless they're living under a rock, they know it's wrong but they still do it.

Wildlife are managed and regulated by state and federal governments.  Wildlife rehabilitators go through a fairly intensive local, state and federal process to apply for and maintain their permits for special permission to provide temporary care to orphaned, injured and displaced wildlife.   Inspections, annual reporting and continuing education requirements are in place in hopes of ensuring that rehabilitators remain in compliance with laws/regulations and that standards of care for wildlife are maintained.  Even though we are volunteers and spend tens of thousands of dollars and volunteer hours to help wildlife, that does not exempt us.  We care for individual animals but are responsible for maintaining perspective on the big picture; the overall health of the population.  Releasing an animal into the wrong environment, or too many predators to one location, or potentially a sick animal could have devastating results to the existing population.  We often have to make difficult decisions related to an individual animal in which we've invested a lot of time, money and emotion.  Recognizing that human nature/emotions may skew decisions related to care and legalities is one of the reasons state and federal agencies regulate rehabilitators.

Feral cats have no legal owner and are usually managed by municipalities.  Caretakers are opposed to being classified as the cats owners, primarily because of the legal implications (abandonment, licensing, veterinary care, etc).  Many cat colony caretakers said that they started by feeding a few strays.  Dropping off food once a day was convenient and rewarding.  Up to 25% of US households indicated they have fed stray cats.   A survey of 300 caretakers revealed that 94% believed that feral cats do not carry diseases, 91% do not believe that cats harm wildlife, and 79% believe that cats should be treated as protected wildlife. Many of these caretakers represented organizations.  This leads me to believe that they have not be appropriately trained.  Without regulation, oversight and training, the likelihood that a caretaker might place the perceived needs of one cat over the colony, the community, or the environment is significant.  Colony caretakers must be held to the same level of accountability/licensing/regulation as wildlife rehabilitators. 

Public Perception

No one wants to kill cats.  Most American households would rather have cats live outside than be euthanized.  I haven't seen the survey, but I doubt the respondents were told about the impact on wildlife or the sheer number of feral cats in our country (almost 90 million).  Unfortunately I don't think those facts would sway their opinions.  None of us wants to kill cats.

Equally important is that everyone wants shelter euthanasia rates to decrease.  It's all about percentages.  The no kill movement says that shelters should have a less than 10% euthanasia rate and they demonize open access shelters (kill shelters, as they call them).  No kill shelters achieve this low ratio by pre-screening pets (and turning away the undesirables - including ferals), limiting the number of animals they accept, some stack and pack the unadoptables for years, transfer animals to other organizations, and anything else to keep their numbers below 10%.  An open access shelter or public municipality that accepts all animals regardless of age, disposition, and medical health (including the ones turned away by no kills) doesn't stand a chance unless they too begin turning away feral cats.  The no kill movement has convinced the public that every shelter should have a less than 10% euthanasia ratio, and those that don't aren't doing enough.

Public perception is such a significant factor and should not be overlooked.  They want ticker tape information:  short, sweet, quick sound bites which they'll use to form their opinion.  Public perception has fueled the TNR movement (as well as the no kill movement) and should be a significant factor throughout any process.

What The Municipality Wants

Public perception leads us to what municipalities want.  They know the public wants them to lower their euthanasia rates, and they are pressured to lower their euthanasia rates.

They want to alleviate the pressure on their already overburdened animal control facilities and budgets.  The impact of outdoor cats on wildlife is not the predominant issue.  The proponents of TNR know this, and present a plan that on the surface appears to give municipalities everything they want.

Municipalities will make their decision first by crunching numbers.  What is the economic impact on their budget if they implement a TNR program?  According to TNR proponents, there are endless grants to fund the program, and by redirecting cats away from shelters there will be significant savings.  My suggestion to municipalities is to actually follow up with every agency that TNR proponents referenced as a "success story" in reducing cat numbers and saving taxpayer dollars.  Kind of a "where are they now" enquiry to see if they were able to maintain that "success". 

Everyone seems to skip the most important step.  They should first identify the scope of the problem.  How many total feral cats are actually out there in the community?  How many of these will actually be managed by TNR?  How many will NOT be managed?  If there are (for example) 20,000 ferals in the community but only 4 caretakers representing 80 cats that are willing to register/comply with the program, is it really worth all the taxpayer time, money, and effort to change ordinances, and establish and monitor a program? So, the first question should be, exactly how many cats are out there that won't be managed through TNR and what will be done to address the unmanaged cats?  It is critical to remember that the other 19,920 feral cats will still be out there breeding and wreaking havoc on the environment.

I've created a worksheet that hope will help identify needs, goals and outcomes.  Please email if you would like a copy.

The Alley Cat Allies Presentation

My disappointment with the ACA presentation was its vagueness on the issues/benefits/facts.  It was significantly more subdued in tone than the information and literature on their website.  I realize the presentation was an overview, and that most of the panel wouldn't be interested in minute details, but many issues warranted more details because crucial decisions could be made purely from this single presentation.  There was also frequent dismissal of relevant issues that didn't support TNR. (more on those later).

Having worked with an animal shelter, I was also offended that they repeatedly said that shelters kill cats.  Does anyone truly believe that shelter workers enjoy euthanizing animals or that they do it because it's easier than trying to adopt them?  Apparently the theory is that the more cats that are on the street, the fewer will be in shelters where they can be "killed".  They also touted that more people adopt strays that they find (32%) than adopt cats from shelters (17%).  I guess the rationale is that a cat is more likely to be adopted if it's turned outside, so we should all just be abandoning the cats we don't want?  They also spoke about a drastic reduction in relinquishment of owned cats after TNR.  I interpreted this to mean that owners were more comfortable in abandoning their pets when a known TNR program was in place (which occurred at a Florida TNR program).  It just makes sense that when people know that stray cats won't be euthanized because of TNR and that food and shelter is also provided, abandoning their cat doesn't seem all that bad.

The Vacuum Effect...can I just say I'm offended that this topic was even brought up by ACA?  You can't remove the cats because more will come.  You can't euthanize the cats because more will come.  You can't relocate the cats because more will come.  According to them you can't do anything except TNR because no matter what, more cats will come. Really?   Gosh, could that be because you're providing food and shelter?  So naturally, cats will keep coming!  And people know you're maintaining a colony so they'll keep dumping them there. And doesn't that also mean that any TNR claims of reducing and/or eventually eliminating a colony through attrition are false because the cats will keep coming? Does TNR provide some invisible barrier that prevents new cats from entering when colony cats are adopted or die?   The only proven way to stop the vacuum effect is to stop providing the resources that draw the cats in the first place...food and shelter.

The Legalities

What state and local regulations are in place that govern domestic and feral cats?  Some have enacted restrictions against feeding wildlife and stray animals.  There are ordinances against abandoning animals.  Is someone that manages a colony the owner of those cats?  Are the rights of property owners being violated by maintaining a colony on their land without their permission?  Can the property owner potentially be held liable for the activity, nuisance complaints or possible rabies exposure of others?  After all, 50% of TNR activities occur on the "property of others".  Will ordinances need to be changed?  These legalities should be identified before TNR is considered.

Enacting a TNR program also comes with its own set of legal liabilities.  A property owner recently had to sue a municipality in order to get a managed colony the district approved off the property owner's land.  Alley Cat Allies has supported lawsuits against municipalities that modified TNR programs and held protests against property owners that wanted cats removed.  With the rise in rabies exposures, including an adopted feral kitten that later tested positive, municipalities that approve and participate in these programs may be held culpable.

Conclusion?

Admittedly, I'm not going to solve this issue anymore than I can bring peace to the middle east.  But it would be my preference that any decision be made based on facts and outcomes rather than emotions, selective facts and superficial promises.  I'm not anti-cat; I'm pro wildlife.  The number of feral cats euthanized each year is substantially less than the number of wildlife that are killed by cats (in the hundreds of millions) or due to public complaints (almost 4 million wildlife by APHIS alone).  Wildlife control operators remain busy responding to all the public calls to have native squirrels, rabbits, raccoon and foxes removed from their property.  And those animals aren't being taken to some special wildlife sanctuary nor are they afforded a humane death.  I'm saddened that irresponsible pet ownership have brought about 90 million unwanted, feral cats and that the majority of people believe they are fine out in the wild (but aren't okay with an opossum in their yard).   If cats are left out in the wild and have no legal owner accountable for them (and colony caretakers disavow ownership and accountability), they should be managed in the same way as other ferals (hogs, etc) and wildlife are managed. 

If any TNR program is put in place, it should have clearly, clearly defined goals with timelines and its participants must be regulated just as wildlife rehabilitators are regulated.  Could I live with a structured program with substantial oversight that aims to eliminate a colony through TNR in 5 years?  Maybe...  But the program would have to have specific courses of action if those goals weren't reached within that timeframe or if a 75% monthly sterilization rate wasn't maintained.  There would have to be a formal method to regularly monitor the program.  I would oppose any program that provides supplemental food and shelter.  Sorry, providing food and shelter to a cat colony is just plain outdoor cat hoarding.  I would not support any program located near sensitive wildlife areas or on private property without the permission of the property owner.  And I would vehemently oppose any program that would create new colonies or transfer unadoptable cats already in shelters or owner relinquished cats outdoors (such as the Barn Cat Initiative) which don't do anything other than add more feral cats to the environment. 

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