by Merritt Clifton
Part 1 of a four-part series. See also: “Vagrant” or “feral” cats; Feral cats & street dogs; and “Community cats” vs. community health.
Some of the hottest discussion at the upcoming AR 2016 national animal rights conference in Los Angeles, coming up July 7-10, is expected to pertain to neuter/return of feral cats, with good reason.
I’ll be co-presenting on Saturday morning, July 9, with “kitten lady” Hannah Shaw. Regardless of anything either of us says, we can bet that some of the audience will have strong contrary opinions.
Los Angeles verdict
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew on December 4, 2009 ruled on behalf of five organizations representing birders that California municipal governments may not assist or promote neuter/return of feral cats without first completing an environmental impact report.
Los Angeles Department of Animal Care & Control director Brenda Barnette is reportedly now trying to allocate funds to get the necessary impact study done, but meanwhile her agency has been enjoined from encouraging neuter/return for nearly seven years, during which feral cat populations may have increased in several sensitive areas despite the best efforts of neuter/return practitioners working without official help and supervision.
While the McKnew ruling was not binding on animal control agencies in other California jurisdictions, agencies hoping to avoid litigation have tended to observe it.
Effective but misunderstood & misrepresented
Neuter/return is simultaneously the most effective technique for reducing and eventually extirpating genuinely feral cats from sensitive habitat; the most misunderstood technique in the entire animal care-and-control field; and the most often misused technique––or perhaps just the technique whose name is most often used to describe doing something entirely different from neuter/return as it was introduced to the U.S., developed, and promoted more than 25 years ago.
Back then, in the early 1990s, neuter/return was often used specifically to protect wildlife. Neuter/return practitioners tended to value the value of fully feral cats, hunting for a living instead of depending on human handouts, in controlling the rodents who prey upon birds’ nests, and recognized the importance of keeping vaccinated feral cats as a barrier to the spread of rabies from rabid raccoons and foxes to the domestic pet population.
Neuter/return done to protect wildlife
Neuter/return was seen as a method of reducing the numbers of cats who might prey upon birds, while temporarily maintaining a furtive, noctural cat population as a stop-gap measure. Within a few years at most, serious neuter/return practitioners understood, native predators such as foxes, fishers, weasels, and coyotes would move in to take over the rodent-hunting role, as the numbers of cats declined and the raccoon and fox rabies outbreaks then afflicting much of the Northeast subsided.
Today neuter/return is used primarily to keep outdoor cats from being impounded and taken to animal shelters, where they might be killed as unadoptable.
Many of the cats in neuter/return programs today are to some extent dependent upon human feeders, and are therefore not authentically feral.
Neither are many of the neuter/return locations likely to be without cats in the near future, since the practice of translocating outdoor cats to new colonies––not part of neuter/return 25 years ago and longer––has become widely accepted, even encouraged by some national advocacy organizations.
Evolution of terms
Along with erosion of the original intent of neuter/return, the terms used to describe the neuter/return feral cat control technique have evolved considerably over the years.
First came the abbreviation TNR, for trap/neuter/return, followed by TNVR, used to clarify that vaccinating the cats against rabies is part of the standard procedure.
There are now many other variations and acronyms used to describe the specific approaches of specific organizations, some of which are no longer practicing actual neuter/return in any recognizable form.
Translocating bona fide feral cats for example, would mean moving sterilized, vaccinated, but completely unsocialized cats from the habitat the cats know and have survived in, knowing where to find food and cover and what predators to avoid, to habitat they have never before experienced. Those cats, based on field studies, would have only about a 25% chance of surviving at least two weeks.
But translocated fed sterilized, vaccinated outdoor pet cats might have a short-term success rate of 50%, 75%, or more, if the cats continue to be fed, and are not exposed to traffic, disease, and predation. This would be essentially the same practice as animal shelters rehoming cats as outdoor pets––a practice most abandoned decades ago, but now making a comeback among shelters desperate to reduce the numbers of animals they kill, under political pressure from no-kill advocates.
This sort of translocation may be called a lot of things, but one thing it is not is neuter/return, which by definition requires that the cats who are trapped, sterilized, and vaccinated must be returned to the same habitat where they were found.
Nuisance wildlife trappers
In truth translocating cats, feral or otherwsie, is usually just changing the identity of those who will eventually kill them and also changing the mode of their killing. Instead of being eventually killed as unadoptable, to make more cage space available in an open-admission shelter or animal control facility, about 75% of the time the translocated cat will be killed by a wild predator, by disease, by a car, or––most dismayingly––by a “nuisance wildlife” trapper, who will often dispatch the trapped cat on the spot with a blunt instrument.
The best available data indicates that “nuisance wildlife” trappers may now be killing as many as a million cats a year, mostly taken from commercial properties, gated communities, and condominiums. This is a dramatic change from around a decade ago, when feral cats were not yet a significant “profit center” for most of the “nuisance wildlife” control industry, and when the goal of neuter/return was still seen as reducing the feral cat population to zero, not enabling shelters to boost their so-called “live release” rates at the expense of human considerations.
“Giving them a chance”
Perhaps most insidious is that despite the low survival rate of translocated feral cats, shelter personnel desperate for their organizations to achieve “no kill” status are now describing inappropriate releases as a procedure undertaken to “give them a chance”––exactly the same rationale that was widely used decades ago to describe abandoning cats and dogs in public places, rather than surrendering them to shelters where, at that time, their chance of adoption was usually 10% or less.
On August 2, 2015, I was asked by an AR 2015 attendee who had heard my talk whether I believe the evolution of the term “feral cat,” popularized by organizations including Alley Cat Allies and Alley Cat Rescue, to “community cat,” pushed since 2009 by the Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, and the Humane Society of the U.S., has an influence on the growing acceptance of feral cat translocation, instead of strictly practiced neuter/return.
Indeed I do. The next installments of this four-part series will explain why, and what effects this may have on public policy.