Court case hinges on the difference between a truly feral cat and a tame, friendly cat found at large
SAN DIEGO, California—A lawsuit brought against the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA by the Southern California animal rescue charities Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors seeks to establish, for the first time, a clear legal distinction between the neuter/return and return-to-field approaches to cat population control.
The San Diego Humane Society & SPCA resumed providing shelter service for the San Diego city and county animal control agencies in 2018, after a 43-year hiatus beginning in 1975.
Almost immediately the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA announced that it would pursue a neuter/return policy in response to calls about feral cats, a term usually meaning hostile cats who cannot be handled easily and appear to have lived outdoors, independent of human help, all of their lives.
Feral cats were, and are, to be sterilized, vaccinated, and released where they were found, to live out the balance of their natural lives as the self-sufficient wild animals they had apparently always been.
Two years later, in 2020, the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA expanded the feral cat program into a “Community Cats” program, along lines that society president Gary Weitzman told KPBS-TV investigative reporter Claire Trageser are recommended by “Alley Cat Allies, American Pets Alive, the ASPCA, Best Friends and the Humane Society of the United States.”
The “Community Cats” program differs from a neuter/return program in adding the practice of return-to-field.
Return-to-field means that any tame cats picked up by animal control, or brought to shelters by individuals, who are not identified by microchip, and therefore cannot be taken directly home, are sterilized and vaccinated if necessary, then released where captured, to either find their own way back home or try to survive as ferals.
Return-to-field as a method of reducing animal shelter intakes and killing in some ways resembles the practice of dumping cats to “give them a chance,” as practiced by many people instead of taking cats to shelters during most of the 20th century, when shelter killing rates for cats often ran upward of 95%.
Return-to-field accommodates the behavior of people who keep cats as outdoor pets, or otherwise let them roam.
But return-to-field does not respond to the concerns of people, especially birders, who prefer not to have free-roaming cats in their yards and neighborhoods, and are typically much more concerned about hunting by the wandering pet cats they see in daylight than by the mostly nocturnal feral cats they seldom see and may not know exist.
The principal behavioral difference between a feral cat and a fed, socialized pet cat outdoors is that the feral cat mostly sleeps by day, and efficiently hunts rodents for a living by night, when few healthy birds are on the ground or otherwise accessible.
The fed, socialized cat tends to hunt by day, when most rodents are in hiding but most birds are out and about. Having no need of calories from hunting, the fed, socialized cat often hunts birds for sport, typically with a low rate of success relative to time and energy expended.
That cat often goes home at night to sleep indoors.
Plaintiffs & defendants
The typical differences between authentic feral and roaming pet cat behavior underlie the essential differences between neuter/return and return-to-field programs, one of which is that neuter/return work is of necessity usually done at night, by volunteers usually operating with their own funds and contributions from a small circle of donors, while return-to-field work can be done by animal control personnel during normal business hours.
These program differences are, indirectly, the focus of the lawsuit against the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA, filed in February 2021 by San Diego lawyers Bryan W. Pease and Pamela Harris, of San Diego, and Beverly Hills lawyer David Tenenbaum.
Co-plaintiffs, in addition to the Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, include private citizens Terrence Higgins and B.J. Withall.
Also named as a defendant is San Diego Humane Society & SPCA president Gary Weitzman. The real target of the lawsuit, however, is the return-to-field approach itself, as advocated by Alley Cat Allies, American Pets Alive, the ASPCA, Best Friends and the Humane Society of the United States.
“Unlawful business practice”
The longterm goal appears to be to oblige the retraction or amendment of return-to-field practices to prevent cats from being released who have little or no chance of survival as feral, and not all that much chance of returning to a home, amid a variety of hazards and possibly having been dumped, rather than just becoming lost after running away.
Opens the lawsuit by the Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, et al, “San Diego Humane Society & SPCA is engaged in the unlawful business practice of abandoning social, adoptable, domestic cats onto the streets.”
The lawsuit argues that the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA “is obligated as stated in California Civil Code 1815(c) and 1816(c) to receive and hold for the required holding period all stray cats brought to them by the public, but is instead advising citizens to leave stray cats where they are.”
The San Diego Humane Society & SPCA “seems to use the terms ‘Return to Field,’ ‘Return to Habitat,’ ‘Shelter/Neuter/Return,’ and ‘Wild at Heart’ interchangeably,” the lawsuit continues. “One of the differences between these programs and the traditional ‘Trap/Neuter/Return’ (TNR) is that these new programs include any and all stray cats that are brought into the shelter even if they are friendly, domesticated cats who would qualify for the adoption program.
“TNR is for feral cats”
“The traditional ‘Trap/Neuter/Return’ model is for feral cats who are unsocialized and who would not be able to become a pet, the lawsuit emphasizes.
“Switching around of these titles and their similarity to the term ‘Trap/Neuter/Return’ is intentional,” the lawsuit alleges, “in order to confuse the public. Defendants/respondents are releasing friendly adoptable cats in the same way they would release a feral cat, and that is not only against the law, but not in the best interest of a social, adoptable cat.”
According to the lawsuit, “Plaintiffs obtained 75 individual records of cats whose outcome was ‘Return to Habitat’ between July and December 2019. Approximately 30% of those cats had been brought to the shelter in an ordinary pet carrier and/or had behavior notes indicating that they were friendly and able to be handled and petted.”
The San Diego Humane Society & SPCA return-to-field program “has been going on since at least the spring of 2019,” the lawsuit charges, “with perhaps the exception of a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Illegal to abandon”
“It is illegal in California to purposefully abandon an animal,” the lawsuit continues. “It is also illegal to leave an animal in any building, enclosure, lane, street, square, or lot of any city, county, city and county, or judicial district without proper care and attention.
“Defendants/respondents claim that because the friendly, domestic cats whom they dump back onto the street are healthy and look well cared for on the day that they are brought in, the cats are therefore ‘thriving’ living on their own and should return to where they were found.
“This claim is an attempt to deny any responsibility,” the lawsuit alleges, “that defendants/respondents have to abandoned and homeless animals who are brought to them.”
This, the lawsuit charges, amounts to the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA “denying their primary duty to animals they are supposed to be protecting. Just because a cat looks healthy on the day he or she was brought in does not mean that he or she will not be attacked by a predator or hit by a car the next day, or starve in a month because no one is caring for the cat because the cat has been abandoned.”
Feral cats run & hide; pet cats run to their bowl
Perhaps even more of relevance, but not mentioned in the lawsuit, is that neighbors annoyed by the presence of a wandering pet cat may trap and surrender the cat to the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA once––and then shoot or poison the cat, should the cat reappear, for instance trying to ambush birds at a backyard feeder.
The cat may be healthy and look well cared for, yet that scarcely means the cat is not in jeopardy, especially if the cat is not returned directly to a home where a person self-identified as responsible for the cat can be told what has happened, and be warned against letting the cat roam in the future.
Another behavioral difference of relevance between genuinely feral cats and tame pet cats is that upon release, the genuinely feral cat will run to a hiding place; the tame pet cat will often run to a bowl, indoors or out, and/or meow at a door or window for attention.
“Genuine ‘Trap/Neuter/Release’ (TNR) programs should be continued and enhanced in order to curb feral cat population,” the lawsuit by the Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, et al, argues. “Such programs should include the presence of a colony caregiver who feeds and monitors the feral cats. This is not the same thing as what Defendants/respondents are doing, which is dumping friendly, adoptable cats on the streets.”
“The Proposed Project Does Not Encourage Feeding”
Note that the Citywide Cat Program approved by the Los Angeles City Council on December 10, 2020, operating just two hour’s drive north, specifically states that, “The Proposed Project Does Not Encourage Feeding.”
Nor does ANIMALS 24-7 encourage feeding, since the most authentic difference between a feral cat and a pet cat is that the feral cat hunts for a living, the feral cat would not be present without the presence of a rodent prey base, and the feral cat neither wants nor needs a human feeder, whose activity is sometimes as likely to bait cat predators such as coyotes and foxes into a habitat as to actually help bona fide feral cats to survive.
Success, failure, & definition
Resumes the Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, et al lawsuit, “Defendant claims that past practices in San Diego where shelters took in cats found by the public were not successful. According to the Humane Society of the United States, the average ‘save rate’ for cats in shelters in the U.S. is about 30%, meaning only 30% of cats entering shelters make it out alive,” a rate which is in itself triple the rate of circa 1990 and earlier.
The San Diego Humane Society & SPCA “states in its 2018-2019 impact report,” says the lawsuit, “that it took in over 15,000 cats brought in by the public as both stray and owner surrender, and its save rate was 86.7% . This indicates that prior to starting the ‘community cat’ program where cats were returned to where they were found,” the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA “had an incredibly successful cat program when it provided shelter and the possibility of adoption for all cats who were brought in.”
The Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, et al lawsuit reminds judge and jury, if a jury is ever empaneled to hear the case, that “A ‘feral’ cat is defined” by California Food & Agriculture Code § 31752.5, as “a cat without owner identification of any kind whose usual and consistent temperament is extreme fear and resistance to contact with people. A feral cat is totally unsocialized to people.
Coyotes & freeways
“There are many rescue groups in San Diego County who ‘manage’ colonies of feral cats,” the lawsuit explains. “Each colony has a caregiver who traps each cat, has each cat spayed or neutered, provides food for, and traps any cat who appears to be sick or injured, and provides medical attention. Plaintiffs believe that these programs, for truly unadoptable feral cats, are beneficial and should not only be continued, but should be the focus of defendants’ program for spaying or neutering and releasing cats as long as the cat has a caregiver.”
The legal crux of the Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, et al lawsuit appears to be that, “Defendants claim that cats will not be released into dangerous conditions,” but “deny that obviously dangerous areas pose a threat to the well-being of a cat who is dumped in such an area.
“Asked about this at a January 20, 2021 volunteer meeting,” the lawsuit alleges, San Diego Humane Society & SPCA chief veterinarian Zarah Hedge stated that “since coyotes are all over San Diego and plenty of cats live near busy highways,” neither of these factors are considered ‘dangerous’ when deciding whether or not to release a found cat.”
Exhibits attached to Pet Assistance Foundation and Paw Protectors, et al lawsuit describe several instances in which San Diego Humane Society & SPCA allegedly inappropriately “returned” cats “to the field,” sometimes purportedly contrary to promises made to the people who brought those cats to the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA in expectation that the cats would receive necessary health care and be rehomed via shelter adoption.
“Someone takes responsibility”
Explained Pet Assistance Foundation director of communications and special projects Betsy Denhart, to ANIMALS 24-7, “Pet Assistance Foundation is concerned that the public understand the difference between return-to-field and traditional TNR [trap-neuter-release]. Traditional TNR calls for colony maintenance and care. Cats are monitored. Someone takes responsibility for their well-being. By not requiring caregivers, or even ensuring release sites are safe, return-to-field is just one more way humans fail cats.
“While some cats have acquired the skills to survive in some settings,” Denhart said, “it is incorrect to extrapolate that any cat can survive in any setting. Seeing an organization like the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA choose to perpetuate the myth that cats can take care of themselves and implement a policy of animal abandonment is heartbreaking.”
Agreed Dawn Danielson, former San Diego County Department Director of Animal Services, “The thought of putting healthy, friendly cats on the street breaks my heart. It troubles me greatly that there are actually people that think this is a humane alternative. There is no way to know if these cats have any experience on how to survive. When I was director of county animal services, for thirteen years we never turned away any cats brought to us. They were given a safe place, and by working with many rescues and the community, we were able to have one of the highest save rates for a municipal shelter our size in the country.”
“Answers don’t hold up to reality”
Resumed Denhart, “We’ve spent hours listening to representatives from Best Friends, Anna Wong of Stray Cat Alliance, [University of California at Davis shelter medicine professor] Kate Hurley, and the shelter director from Long Beach Animal Care preach about how great return-to-field is. We’ve read the propaganda, and are currently analyzing their statistics. They’ve got answers for everything, but they don’t all hold up to reality.
“Specifically,” Denhart emphasized, “we are opposed to releasing cats without known, accountable care givers; releasing cats into hostile or dangerous environments; and releasing friendly cats, period. We know the arguments about many of them having owners who would never think to look for their cats at a shelter, and that these cats don’t do well in shelters, but feel there are still better solutions than abandoning them and hoping they find their way home and that their owner is still around.
“Best Friends will not control the narrative forever”
“We’re aware of the pressure from the large no kill groups for every shelter to adopt this practice,” Denhart continued. “San Diego Humane is big enough, and respected enough, to stand up to them and choose not to go along with it. Other animal advocacy organizations and individuals are doing just that. Watchdog groups are forming. The public is becoming aware. Best Friends [the Best Friends Animal Society] will not be able to control the narrative forever.
“I know that at this moment shelters are often judged by a single statistic, the live release rate,” Denhart finished. “But one day, the public will realize what an incomplete picture that number provides. One day, they will wake up and judge shelters by how they treat animals and serve communities, by their success in addressing the source of animal suffering and finding real solutions, not just reducing services and manipulating numbers.”
(See Dallas: dog attacks soar as “live release rate” climbs, Should giving shelter dogs & cats to university labs count as “live release”?, and “No-kill” debacle: will Pueblo bring “responsible sheltering” into vogue?)
“That’s the hard part for people to accept”
Reported Claire Trageser for KPBS on May 19, 2021, “The San Diego Humane Society & SPCA has ramped up its controversial policy of releasing cats back to the streets, despite a lawsuit from animal rights activists challenging the practice.
“In the city of San Diego between July 2019 and December 2020, the San Diego Humane Society released more than 1,300 cats,” Trageser said. “In the first 16 months of the program, from July 2018 to October 2019, the nonprofit also released more than 700 cats,” for a total of 2,000.
“In March 2021, the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA launched an expansion of that practice, which it’s calling the ‘Community Cat program.’ It means that not just feral cats who can’t live with humans will be released, but also some friendly cats.”
Responded San Diego Humane Society & SPCA chief executive Gary Weitzman, “That’s the hard part for people to accept, that those cats may be doing very well in their neighborhood outdoors. They may have multiple caretakers, and they may be thriving. Those cats are held here for medical exams, in holding cages. They are stressed to the max. So we have to consider, those cats that did really well outdoors, that were enjoying the environment, why don’t we just spay and neuter them and release them?”
“Best Friends is just as bad as PETA”
But how does the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA deduce that a fat, friendly cat “did really well outdoors,” as opposed to being a household pet who escaped from indoors, or was trapped by a neighbor for bird-hunting, and will be killed upon reappearance?
Said Paw Protectors president Sharon Logan to ANIMALS 24-7, “There are no science-based or humane arguments for abandoning friendly, healthy, adoptable, non-feral domesticated cats on the streets to suffer and die. A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right, and evil doesn’t become good just because it’s currently an accepted practice by Best Friends and other ‘big box’ organizations.
“Best Friends,” Logan charged, “is just as bad as PETA,” the one national animal advocacy organization which continues to oppose neuter/return in almost every circumstance and practice high-volume shelter killing.