"Trap, Neuter, Return," Cat Lovers Urge

Photo courtesy of Alley Cat Allies


Photo courtesy of Alley Cat Allies


Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn


Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn


Photo by Chief Petty Officer Kaylee Eger, U.S.N.


Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn


A grass-roots movement of rescue leagues, foster care and adoption agencies is working to care for the nation's lost, abandoned and feral felines. Alley Cat Allies, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, is helping other nonprofits across the country practice the "trap, neuter, return" approach to controlling free-roaming cats. This approach is mentioned as an option in the Armed Forces Pest Control Management Board's guidelines for reducing stray cat populations on military installations.
Photo by Linda Kozaryn


Photo by Linda Kozaryn

(Editor's Note: The purpose of this story is to discuss the trap, neuter and release program backed by some people as a control for stray and feral cat populations. The story constitutes neither a Department of Defense endorsement of the method nor permission to implement such a program on department property.)

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON -- Ten years ago, Louise Holton and Becky Robinson worked alone to save the nation's homeless cats. Today, they head Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit organization with 65,000 members.

Holton, Robinson and more than a dozen Alley Cat Allies staff members here are determined to change the nation's perception of stray and feral cats. "SomeEuropean countries consider them part of the urban wildlife, but here they're treated like vermin and pests," group president Holton said.

Alley Cat Allies, Operation Catnip in Raleigh, N.C., the San Diego Feral Cat Coalition and many other nonprofit animal welfare organizations are part of a grass-roots movement that advocates "trap, neuter and return," or TNR.

"Our mission," said Donna Wilcox, Alley Cat Allies executive director, "is to get people and organizations -- cities, counties, states -- to use TNR as the preferred method of managing feral cats, instead of trapping and killing or removing them."

Robinson, national director, said the group wants to spread the word and change public policy. "We're dealing with millions of cats," she said. "If you kill them, others will fill that void."

In the TNR method, volunteers trap free-roaming felines. They separate kittens and domestic cats and put them up for adoption. Sick or diseased animals are taken to veterinarians and euthanized. Feral cats -- those born in the wild -- are taken to free or low-cost clinics for medical testing, vaccinations and neutering or spaying. The vets notch the cats' ears for future identification.

Volunteers then return the feral cats to their home turf, which becomes a
"managed-care colony." Volunteers continue to feed and care for the returned cats, and veterinarians provide periodic health checks.

Killing a colony or moving it to a sanctuary does not eliminate the problem of loose cats, Wilcox stressed. All that does is allow a new colony to homestead.

"If there is a food source, stray or feral cats will find it. They will start breeding and you have the same problem all over again," she said. She recalled a fast-food restaurateur who tried repeatedly for three years to remove five to 10 feral cats living nearby. No matter how many cats animal control officials carted off, there were always more.

"A volunteer discovered the colony," Wilcox said. "She trapped the cats, got them spayed and neutered so there were no more kittens, and the colony was stabilized.
They kept other cats from moving in."

Left untended, stray and feral cats can live to around five years, compared to domestic cats' 12 to 15 years. Feral cats succumb to predators, humans, dogs and other cats, and to disease and motor vehicles.

Cats in managed colonies tend to live longer, perhaps 8 to 10 years if they're spayed or neutered, Wilcox said. "If the females aren't having two litters a year, they're going to have healthier lives. If the males are neutered, they aren't going to be transmitting some of the diseases through fighting and mating.

Alley Cat Allies is now concentrating on changing public policy so the feral cats can live out their lives in managed care colonies. In some cases now, people set up managed care colonies only to have local officials order the cats removed because someone complains, Wilcox said. "There's always going to be that risk until policies are changed and TNR becomes the preferred method," she noted.

Each day Alley Cat Allies gets calls from people at military installations from Norfolk, Va., to Okinawa, Japan, as well as from private citizens and community officials throughout the United States. The group provides all the information requesters need to humanely manage feral cats, Wilcox said.

"We have fact sheets that cover where to get traps, how to trap and where to take the cats," she said. "They also cover what vet procedures are necessary, follow-up care and how to build shelters. We also publish a quarterly newsletter and hold conferences."

Frank DeGiacomo, Alley Cat Allies' campaign director, has been promoting TNR with DoD officials and various military installations. In some instances, he said, base commanders and local pest control officials have resisted people who want to try TNR in their communities. He said some people who've called him admit they're doing TNR without permission.

DoD has no formal policy regarding stray and feral cats, although the Armed Forces Pest Management Board has issued guidelines for humane treatment in Technical Information Memorandum 37. TIM 37 acknowledges that some groups advocate TNR and mentions it as a possible option if the cats are at industrial sites, shipyards or other areas away from base personnel -- and only if no endangered species or other environmental sensitivities are present.

Military officials at Florida's Naval Station Mayport, for example, have used TNR since February 1998 and estimate half the station's 300 free-roaming cats have gone through the program.

Mayport and other bases are setting up mandatory microchip identification program that will help return lost pets to their owners. In the program, a scanner is used to read a chip the size of a grain of rice embedded between the pet's shoulders. The program became mandatory at Fort Lee, Va., in January.

Alley Cat Allies realized early on that there was "an army of activists out there, an army of compassionate, humane people wanting to do the right thing," national director Robinson said. "They needed help and they needed resources."

Private citizens are feeding and tending cats on their own when their city or county has no support structure, she said. "They pay for it themselves unless their local humane society has funds to do that. These people are doing the hard labor of actually going out there every day and caring for those animals."

In Atlantic City, for example, people have been feeding feral cats for more than 15 years. "With the boardwalk being a mile or two miles long, we suspect there could be as many as 1,000 to 2,000 cats there," she said. Some residents have started trapping cats so they can be adopted or neutered and returned to the boardwalk, she noted.

"Problems come up when some new animal control officer or a policeman discovers the cats and says they've got to go," Robinson said. "So we step in and try to get everybody talking and learning and educating those who are new to the whole concept of trap, neuter, return."

Alley Cat Allies and Atlantic City and county officials recently met to discuss a formal TNR program. Robinson said the officials issued a moratorium on the trapping and removal of boardwalk cats pending their decision.

TNR is not only more humane, Robinson said, it's more effective in controlling the numbers. She cited Orange County, Fla., as a case in point. Animal control officials there found TNR was more effective and less costly than euthanizing thousands of cats each year. They found it cost about $105 to shelter and euthanize one cat, but only $56 to sterilize it, thereby eliminating future litters, she said.

People who care for cat colonies on their own often avoid seeking help from local authorities because they don't want the cats killed. They may call many different agencies seeking nonlethal help, Robinson said.

"When we first started and reached out to the public nationwide, some of the people indicated that they had made 30 or 40 phone calls for help and had gotten nowhere before they finally found us. We still get a few calls like that, but now the people who find us have made five or 10 calls before tracking down some help."

Holton, who first practiced TNR in South Africa, said the method has been used in Great Britain for almost 30 years. Based on her work in South Africa, she concluded that nonlethal control methods successfully reduce overpopulation. "Our plan -- nonlethal control -- is a better ecological plan," she stressed. "It eliminates cat colonies slowly, over time."

She said she was surprised to encounter opposition to the humane method of dealing with feral cats when she arrived in the United States. She said it seemed to her animal welfare either ignored the whole issue or they routinely killed the cats they did go trap.

Alley Cat Allies works to counter misinformation about feral cats, Holton said, particularly the myth that they're ferocious predators that kill birds and other wildlife. Cats eat what's most easily available, she said. "They're scavengers. Only 4 percent of their diet is birds, the majority is rodents or human garbage.

"It's much easier for them to catch rodents than birds," she added. "Imagine the problem we'd have in this country with rodents, and possibly with the plague, if we did eliminate every single cat immediately."

Holton set out to get all the information that she knew existed in England and bring it to the United States. "We are now sharing this information with anyone who needs it or who wants to listen." Millions of Americans feed feral and stray cats, she noted. "The public does not want the cats killed."

"We've come a long way in 10 years," she said. "Things are looking better overall, but we still have a long way to go."

For more information on Alley Cat Allies, go to www.alleycat.org.