Are trap-neuter-return programs an effective and humane way to deal with stray and feral cats?
Show respect for animals by keeping cats indoors
Cutler is a former president of Defenders of Wildlife.
No question, the human-animal bond is a force to be respected. But what’s the best way to show respect for the animals we love? Not through trap-neuter-return programs, but by keeping cats indoors.
Cats make great companions. Cats followed me home when I delivered papers as a kid in Detroit and were welcomed by my family. But my bond with birds is stronger. It began as a member of the Audubon Youth of Detroit and became my vocation. My degree in wildlife biology led to career employment by wildlife conservation agencies. Today, my human-animal bond is reinforced when I look for birds along the Lick Run Greenway. Often, I am accompanied by a cat whose bird-stalking ability exceeds mine. Seeing those stealthy cats reminds me of the feathers we found under our bird feeders when we lived in South Roanoke. Birds and cats do not mix.
Wildlife biologists and many veterinarians agree on the severity of this problem and on the solution. The answer of The Wildlife Society, the organization of professional wildlife managers, to today’s question is an emphatic no. Feral cats, offspring of abandoned household pets, revert to a wild state and form colonies wherever food and shelter are available. They reduce bird populations and threaten public health.
Cats in the U.S. kill a million birds and many small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks every day. Wildlife professionals believe pet cats should be kept indoors, and feral cats should be removed from the environment to protect wildlife from cat predation.
How do veterinarians feel about this question? I asked a vet friend who has participated in the TNR program at the Angels of Assisi clinic here. She says the wildlife vet in her was always at odds with returning the neutered cats to the out-of-doors. She has worked with wildlife rehabilitators over many years and has seen the impact outdoor cats have on songbirds and native mammals. Her conclusion: “Cats should be kept indoors. The feral cat problem is man-made. It is up to each community to handle this problem through education and euthanasia when necessary. Letting cats fend for themselves is not humane. It is more humane to put them down than to have them hit by cars or starving and freezing to death.”
Some communities have extended responsible pet requirements to cover cats as well as dogs. Licensing, control and restraint ordinances help ensure that cats receive the care and protection they deserve. While it may be easier for communities to pretend the feral cat problem doesn’t exist, the responsible course is to make the decision to trap and euthanize them, to end the cats’ suffering as well as save our wildlife.
Feral cat populations can be controlled through neutering
Tipps, a Roanoke Times page designer, lives on a farm with feral cats in Bedford County and has worked at animal shelters in Martinsville and Virginia Beach.
The small farm my husband and I own in Bedford County is home to five semi-feral cats. We feed them twice a day, and in exchange, they hunt the moles, voles and other garden-damaging pests that proliferated across our property when we moved in six years ago.
One family of feral cats — Mama Cat and three kittens — arrived about a year after we did, and we soon realized we had a major problem. Mama Cat had at least two litters per year. By the time we heard of the feral cat spay/neuter/release program at Angels of Assisi in Roanoke, we had about a dozen ferals. With the help of two live traps, we inched our way toward getting them sterilized, one by one.
Mama Cat proved impossible to catch until one day she disappeared. She had given birth to about two dozen kittens over a span of three years. Those that survived to adolescence were neutered at Angels of Assisi.
Feral cats often have a hard life, but it’s a rare feral that can be tamed and brought indoors. Most ferals simply wouldn’t adjust to a life of “luxury.” According to Alley Cat Allies in Bethesda, Md., “setting a standard of well-being for the species based on the life of an indoor cat ignores the true habitat and natural history of the species.”
Feral cats are not candidates for adoption. Animal shelters have no choice but to turn them away or euthanize them. Neighborhood cats that are euthanized will be quickly replaced by other feral cats looking for a place to live.
A trap-neuter-return program keeps the population in check and prevents the noisy yowling of toms and queens looking to mate.
While neutering feral cats doesn’t tame them, it does make them more docile, as we’ve found on our farm. They’re content to be near us as long as we don’t try to pet them. We often see them hunting and snacking on some type of rodent. Because of them, we don’t have many rodents.
We raised our first flock of chickens in 2011 and, at first, worried that the cats would feast on the hens. We were in for a shock. The feral cats were terrified of the chickens!
The two species now live in a wary harmony, but we’re careful to keep the hens in their coop while we feed the cats to prevent the chickens from bullying the cats away from the cat food.
Managing feral cat populations is incredibly easy once the trapping and neutering is done. They simply need a daily meal to keep their hunger at bay (otherwise, you might discover them preying on songbirds). They need access to fresh water. They typically find their own shelter. I can’t imagine our farm without them.