Humane Society of the U.S.
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Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders is in most respects the endorsement of neuter/return feral cat control that those of us who introduced the method to the U.S. circa 25 years ago wish the Humane Society of the U.S. had issued then.
Instead, when several of us demonstrated the efficacy of neuter/return as part of a rabies control strategy in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut in 1991-1992, representatives of HSUS alleged to media that we were spreading rabies, never mind that what we had actually done was create a barrier of vaccinated feral cats between the abundant rabid raccoons in the vicinity and the free-roaming pet cat population. We had also ensured that the feral cat population would no longer be producing unvaccinated offspring to become a potential rabies vector. Sterilizing and vaccinating 320 cats in seven months, we reduced all eight feral cat colonies in our prototype project to zero within five years; seven of the eight were zeroed out within three years.
The HSUS representatives also alleged that we were “rescuing” cats suffering from disease and starvation, only to abandon them to further misery.
Mentions Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders, “Data from clinics that sterilized more than 100,000 cats nationwide revealed that they are generally fit and healthy, with less than one percent requiring euthanasia to end suffering.”
Our experience was that about 6% of the feral cats we handled required euthanasia, as we reported in detail.
There is no mention in Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders of any of the individuals and organizations who developed, tested, popularized, and defended neuter/return for more than two decades, while HSUS sat on the fence testing which way the wind blew: not a word about Becky Robinson and Alley Cat Allies, Louise Holton and Alley Cat Rescue, Friends of Animals’ role in funding much of the early neuter/return work. Neither does Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders add any new tactics, techniques, arguments, or ecological insights to the “book” on neuter/return as it had already evolved by 1994. Some of the data has been updated by more recent studies than those I cited in several dozen articles for leading humane media in the 1992-2003 time frame, but none of the newer data significantly differs from the older findings.
What differs is that from the title forward, Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders conflates feral cats with free-roaming pet cats. The difference is both immense in terms of cat behavior and critical to understand to effectively address the ecologically and culturally controversial aspects of neuter/return.
Feral cats live as wildlife, mostly hunt rodents for a living at night, and neither seek nor want human contact. Because feral cats are dependent upon the abundance of prey, their numbers are limited to the carrying capacity of the habitat. Neuter/return works to suppress feral cat populations by removing their ability to breed back up to the carrying capacity after attrition leaves habitat vacancies.
Free-roaming pet cats get their meals at home, whether “home” is inside a human household, or in the vicinity of a feeding station. Because free-roaming pet cats do not have to hunt for a living, they often hunt birds by daytime, for sport––an inefficient pastime that authentic feral cats avoid, since it often does not produce as many calories as it costs. Further, because free-roaming pet cats are fed, their population––if they are not sterilized––is limited only by the abundance of food that humans give them.
The conflation begins with the use of the term “community cats,” a nebulous concept popularized since 2009 by the Best Friends Animal Society in the demonstrably erroneous belief that programs promoted to benefit “community cats” might meet less opposition than programs for feral cats. The Best Friends Animal Society blithely ignored that the term “community” when used as an adjective in connection with the name of an animal tends to mean “disease vector” to the public health section, and that birder opposition to feral cat programs centers on the fear that free-roaming cats will come to be ubiquitous in human communities.
Neuter/return, as we demonstrated it in Connecticut, is first and foremost a vector control method, which in effect not only vaccinates free-roaming cats against the most dangerous contagious diseases they might carry, but also “vaccinates” them against reproduction. As of 2009, there was no noteworthy opposition to neuter/return from the public health sector. The July 2013 edition of the journalZoonoses & Public Health illustrated the extent to which that has changed, publishing a denunciation of neuter/return by five representatives of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, including oral rabies vaccine developer Charles Rupprecht, a representative of the USDA, and American Bird Conservancy founder George Fenwick. Rupprecht recently left the CDCP to take a university teaching position, but his influence in opposition to neuter/return will continue to reverberate among the public health sector for years.
Neuter/return, also as we demonstrated it in Connecticut, is a feral cat population control method which can all but preclude harm to any birds who have not already been felled by disease or injury, so as to remain on the ground and vulnerable to cats after sunset, when the feral cats come out.
Neuter/return, properly practiced, does not create “community cats.” Rather, it keeps feral cats from becoming visible to communities in a manner producing demands for their extermination.
Properly practiced, neuter/return does not provide a socially acceptable pretext for people who allow their pet cats to roam, or leave them outdoors at night, or feed cats in a manner causing them to congregate in problematic places, such as multiple-use public parks.
Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders makes the point that, “Properly managed TNR programs do not create cat overpopulation—the cats are already there. Your community must choose,” the handbook explains, “between progress or an unmanaged, ever-growing problem. Well-designed and well-implemented programs that focus on non-lethal control and involve all community stakeholders…can mobilize an army of compassionate, dedicated people who care about the cats, wildlife, and their communities.”
But Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders also muddles the relevant numbers and arguments. On the one hand, the anonymous authors accurately cite research showing that about 85% of pet cats have been sterilized, though some have had litters first. They also acknowledge––albeit not very clearly––that the number of feral cats in the U.S. may be below 10 million on year-round average. Then they lump the feral and free-roaming pet cat populations together to get a “community cat” population “in the 30-40 million range,” and in the very next sentence assert that “The real problem is that only about 2% of them are spayed or neutered.” This is simply not possible: for such a low figure to apply to free-roaming pet cats as well as feral cats, the sterilization rate among non-roaming pet cats would have to be in the vicinity of 150%.
Conflating feral cats with free-roaming pet cats in this context contributes to the fallacy inherent in the brief Managing Community Cats discussion of bans on feeding cats outdoors.
“The logic behind banning the feeding of outdoor cats,” the handbook summarizes, “is that if no one feeds them, they will go away. However, this doesn’t work because cats are strongly bonded to their home territories and will not easily or quickly leave familiar surroundings to search for new food sources. Instead, they tend to move closer to homes and businesses as they grow hungrier, leading to more nuisance complaint calls, greater public concern for the cats’ welfare, and underground feeding by residents. People who feed cats will ignore the ban, even at great personal risk, and enforcement is extremely difficult, resource intensive, and unpopular.”
Little if any of this actually applies to authentic feral cats, who are much more “bonded” to the rodents inhabiting yards, sheds, crawl spaces, and refuse heaps than to feeders. These arguments pertain most accurately to the activities of people who feed outdoor pets, whether or not those people take responsibility for the cats in any other respect. Omitted is that there is a middle path between feeding bans and introducing sensible restrictions against feeding cats on public property, on private property without the owners’ permission, and in a manner tending to manufacture conflict with neighbors and wildlife.
Omitted also is any discussion of the rapidly expanding role of private nuisance wildlife trappers in capturing and killing cats where agencies accountable to the public have relinquished responsibility, in the name of reducing shelter killing by cooperating with “neuter/return programs” conducted by individual citizens who often do much more feeding than actual neutering. Nationwide, nuisance wildlife trappers hired by gated communities and other private property owners may now be killing as many as a million cats per year, about five times as many as a decade ago––but because nuisance wildlife trappers are not accountable to any public agency for the numbers of cats they kill, or for how they kill them, the toll can be estimated only from industry income receipts.
Despite my disagreements with how Managing Community Cats frames the use of neuter/return, I agree with the authors––and have been arguing for decades––that “Neither cats nor wild animals are well served by a polarized, divisive, and expensive ‘cats vs. wildlife’ controversy.” I strongly agree that, “Practical solutions include humanely reducing cat populations using TNR and managing cats (individuals and colonies) so they do not impinge on designated wildlife areas and at-risk wildlife populations.”
And I have always emphasized that, “Not all cat colony situations are the same. For example, cats may need to be removed when they congregate in or near a sensitive wildlife habitat, whereas they could be effectively managed behind a shopping center in a suburban town.”
Managing Community Cats: A Guide for Municipal Leaders may, on the whole, do much more good than harm, by helping to introduce neuter/return to municipal leaders who have had little or no prior awareness of feral cats and the issues associated with them. But it may also misguide in several ways that don’t do cats any favors.
(See also What to call cats & why their name matters.)