Trap, Neuter, Return Plans Provide a Practical Solution to Feral Cat Population Growth

Trap, Neuter, Return Plans Provide a Practical Solution to Feral Cat Population Growth

By: Bryan Kortis  Date: 01/11/2012 Category: | Feline Issues |

The growing population of feral cats is fast becoming one of the top issues today in animal control and welfare. Estimates on their numbers run into the tens of millions in the US alone, and community after community now has to grapple with this staggering problem. One innovative solution gaining in prominence is trap-neuter-return, commonly known as TNR.

Feral cats tend to live in colonies. First introduced on a large scale in this country in the early 1990s, TNR involves trapping these cats, neutering them, and then returning them to their original territory. Caretakers monitor the colony for newcomers and provide regular food and shelter. Kittens and adoptable cats are removed for placement.

TNR has many advantages over more traditional methods of animal control, including lower euthanasia rates in local shelters, cost savings for animal control, the ability to mobilize large numbers of volunteers, an improved quality of life for the animals and their human neighbors, and the gradual reduction of feral population levels. Yet, for all its good features, TNR has become shrouded in controversy as wildlife and avian organizations mount national campaigns against feral cats(1). These organizations argue that cats are decimating songbirds and wildlife and should be trapped and removed from their outdoor territories. This movement reached a peak in the May 30 decision by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission to eradicate feral cats and ban TNR programs on all public lands where the cats might threaten wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy is hailing this as a landmark decision that should serve as a model for all communities.

Neighborhood Cats is a New York City-based nonprofit that works exclusively with feral cats and promotes TNR. As executive director, I’ve glanced over the studies about the impact of ferals on wildlife and birds and it seems far from clear that cats have much of an effect compared to habitat destruction and pollution by humans. It also seems like a pipe dream to think anyone can just decide to remove all feral cats from an area, as we’ll see when we discuss past failed attempts in this regard. But I’m not an expert on the wildlife issue and don’t plan on becoming one any time soon. From where I sit high up in my 15-story apartment building in the middle of a dense urban area, the “cats vs. birds” controversy has little relevance. There are no endangered species in Manhattan to the best of my knowledge, unless we’re talking about polite taxi drivers. In my view, making the cats’ impact on wildlife the pivotal issue in determining whether TNR should be broadly embraced is a gross distortion of the reality most communities face.

We introduced TNR to New York City almost four years ago when a couple of neighbors and I discovered a colony of 30 cats living in the inner courtyards of a nearby block. We wanted to help the cats, so the first thing we did was what most people do – call someone else! We soon learned no one else was there.

There are at least tens of thousands of feral cats throughout the city, so the Center for Animal Care and Control, the city’s official animal control agency, wasn’t about to drop everything and come running to catch ours. Even if they had, that would have meant almost certain death for the cats as the city’s shelters suffer from severe overcrowding with close to 40,000 cats and dogs euthanized yearly. We wanted to help the cats, not get them killed. The larger animal welfare organizations had no programs in place for situations like ours, which were repeated in countless backyards, courtyards, parks, abandoned buildings, basements, warehouses and parking lots throughout the five boroughs. Not even private rescue groups would assist – they too, were overcrowded and wanted no part in taking in more cats too wild to be easily adopted. We didn’t want to flood our own apartments with the cats, so we had to find another way.

A friend introduced us to the concept of TNR and then we learned the basics from Alley Cat Allies, the leading national feral cat advocacy group. We had to trap one cat at a time because there were no low-cost or free spay/neuter services available on an organized level at the time and few veterinarians wanted to work with ferals. We kept at it, and within several months, the colony was neutered. Through placing kittens and cats young enough to socialize with some work, we reduced the number of cats in the territory to 10. Today, three years later, the population stands at seven.

The effect of properly-implemented TNR in creating a stable and then gradually declining population was demonstrated in a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. An 11-year study by Dr. Julie Levy, DVM, of a TNR program conducted on a Florida campus found that a population of 68 feral cats dropped to 23, a 66 percent decline.(2)

For New York City, TNR was not only the best solution available for coming to grips with the feral cat overpopulation crisis, it was the only one. Neighborhood Cats was formed to teach TNR to the many others in New York who were facing what we had come up against. It caught on like wildfire and there are now hundreds of people throughout the city trapping and neutering feral cats and setting up managed colonies. TNR here has the backing of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of New York, both of whom now offer free spay/neuter services for ferals. The Center for Animal Care and Control also actively supports TNR, has engaged in a successful pilot program and other TNR projects, and has adopted feral-friendly policies. We have worked with several city agencies and organizations to trap, neuter, and return feral cats on Rikers Island.(3) There is still a long way to go, but for the first time, real progress is being made.

Programs implemented in other cities also demonstrate the benefits of TNR. San Diego launched a countywide TNR program in 1992 and saw euthanasia rates for feral and domestic cats drop by 40 percent in the first two years. In San Francisco, in a program headed by the SFSPCA, feline euthanasia dropped by over 70 percent after six years of citywide TNR. Trap-neuter-return lowers euthanasia rates by reducing the flow of cats into shelters and by making it easier to place cats already in the system because they no longer have to compete with endless litters of cute kittens for spots in homes. By giving animal control an image of trying to help cats rather than end their lives, TNR boosts public confidence in the agency and opens a path to improved adoption rates.

Cost savings to animal control are also documented. Orange County, Florida, implemented a TNR program for two and a half years from 1995 through 1998. Previously, when they received a feral cat complaint, they sent an officer to trap the cats, held the animals for the mandatory waiting period, then euthanized them. This cost $105 per cat. By contrast, allowing volunteers to trap the cats and then providing free spay/neuter and vaccination services cost $56 per cat, a savings of $109,172 over the length of the study (2228 cats). TNR has the ability to mobilize large numbers of volunteers to do the trapping and caretaking because it is life-affirming and so people tend to be more willing to give their time.



Trap and kill programs

TNR is also attractive because other alternatives have proven ineffective.

Traditionally, animal control has dealt with feral cats by trapping and then invariably euthanizing them, a method known as “trap and kill.” Trap and kill fails for a number of reasons. In New York City, as in many communities, the sheer number of feral cats makes this kind of approach totally impractical. Trying to eliminate tens of thousands of feral cats with the 14 animal control officers available would be like trying to drain New York Harbor with a tea cup.

Even when the numbers are not so overwhelming, trap and kill fails because of the basic mechanics of feral population growth. I have repeatedly observed how feral colonies will grow up to the size their food source will support. Once that level is reached, kittens die, adults are displaced, and so on. If animal control does not trap all the cats in a colony, which is a very difficult thing to accomplish, then the cats left behind overbreed until the population again reaches its natural cap.

Even if the trapping does succeed in removing 100 percent of the colony, a phenomenon known as the "vacuum effect" will kick in. No feral colony is an island. Once the members of one colony are removed, members of adjoining colonies or newly abandoned domestics will quickly move in to take advantage of the food source if it still remains, beginning the cycle of breeding anew as one set of cats replaces another. By contrast, TNR leaves a neutered colony in place and the cats, being very territorial, tend to exclude newcomers, thereby breaking the breeding cycle. The vacuum effect was first observed by Roger Tabor in The Wild Life of Domestic Cats, a book which chronicles his observations of London street cats.

The dedication of the caretakers is another reason for the difficulty in completely and permanently eliminating feral cats from an area. In my experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more committed group of people than the ones who feed the cats on a daily basis. I know one caretaker whose colony was stuck on the second floor of an abandoned building due to construction. She took ground meat, packed it into balls about the size of baseballs, and put them in the freezer to harden. When feeding time came, she threw the balls up to the scaffolding on the building’s second floor. Trap and kill turns caretakers like her into enemies of animal control and they will do what they can to thwart the trapping. In comparison, TNR mobilizes caretakers and turns them into a powerful allies for population control.

Another advantage to TNR is that once they are neutered, much of the nuisance behavior associated with feral cats is dramatically reduced. The noise from mating and fighting largely ceases as does the spraying by males to mark territory, an activity with a particularly noxious odor when the cat is unneutered. The cats’ natural rodent control remains with TNR, a significant factor in many urban and rural areas. The cats roam less and while they may still intrude into backyards where they’re not wanted, there are simple ways to deter this, such as motion-activated sprinklers, ultrasonic devices, scent repellents and the like.

In sum, feral cats are now just about everywhere. In most communities, as in New York City, their impact on wildlife is going to be minimal at most and should not be considered a significant factor in deciding how to deal with them. The focus should be instead on what will be the most humane and effective means of permanently lowering the cats’ population levels. On this point, TNR has a promising track record; the added benefits of lower euthanasia rates, cost savings and reduced nuisance behavior make it all the more worth trying, especially when there are no other practical alternatives available.

Community TNR Program - Recommended Elements

To implement a community-wide TNR program, we recommend the following elements:

  1. Coordinating Agency – this agency can be private or governmental, but should be approved by municipal authorities for legitimacy purposes. Its function will be to supervise the TNR program, mediate between caretakers and other authorities, and identify feral cat colonies in the area.
  2. Spay/neuter and veterinary services – the closer you can get to offering no cost spay/neuter, the more effective the program will be. Even small fees are a burden on a caretaker when large numbers of cats are involved. Here in NYC, the basic veterinary package includes spay/neuter, rabies vaccine and eartipping. FIV/FeLV testing is considered a waste of funds (that’s another article) and flea, worm and ear mite medication is provided by one of the agencies.
  3. Trap bank – require refundable deposits. Use 36-inch-long traps with rear doors which can double as cages. Provide trap dividers too, for safe cleaning and feeding of the cats while they’re confined in the traps.
  4. Holding space – a space is needed for holding the cats during trapping and for 48 hours after surgery. Often, for reasons of liability and lack of shelter space, it’s better to caretakers and trappers to provide a holding space in a garage, basement, spare room, etc., that is warm, dry and secure.
  5. Adoption and socialization network – for placing kittens and abandoned domestics.
  6. Colony registration system – for tracking population growth, colony locations and caretaker information.
  7. Ordinance or caretaker contract – this creates a legal basis whereby funds, veterinary services and sanctioning of a TNR colony is provided in exchange for the caretaker meeting certain requirements, such as getting the cats neutered and rabies vaccinated, providing regular food and shelter, keeping the site clean, etc.
  8. Educational programs – to teach basic feral colony care.
  9. Food drives – providing free food creates a strong incentive for caretaker cooperation.
  10. Public announcement of municipal support – this is important for gaining trust and cooperation, especially if there is any history of trap and kill.



About The Author

Bryan Kortis's photo
Bryan Kortis - Executive director, Neighborhood Cats, Inc.

Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Bryan Kortis |




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