“Managing” feral cat colonies: kindness or cruelty?

Bart, a former stray that rules our house

At left is Bart, Prince Among Cats. Ordinarily my husband and I adopt from shelters, but Bart found us first.

He showed up in our driveway one scorching June afternoon in 2004 to scrounge from our garbage. When I arrived home and let our dog out of the car, she made a beeline for the trash cans and stuck her nose between them. A high-pitched keening rippled through the air like an audible heat wave. Pulling Josie back, I peered into the shadows to find the source of the noise: a tiny, terrified brown and white kitten.

After a brief struggle I managed to get the little guy inside, locked up Josie and our other cat, put out some water and food, and left him alone. Within 30 minutes he’d refreshed himself, taken a short tour of the kitchen and living room, and curled up to sleep atop the couch cushion behind my head. When Tom came home, he rolled his eyes at my foundling, but within 24 hours we both had abandoned any thought of sending the little stray to the shelter and an uncertain fate.

Bart will never know how lucky he is. Though still in the prime of his life, he’s already outlived the average homeless cat. He’ll never be ripped to shreds by dogs, eaten by a coyote or bobcat, shot, hung, set on fire, or skinned alive by a sadistic teenager, or crushed under the wheels of a car. He’ll never again go hungry, nor will he ever suffer from malnutrition, parasites, communicable diseases, insect or scorpion stings, snakebite, or abscessed wounds from fighting. I expect to have another eight to ten years to enjoy his company and cater to his whims. If the consequences of quantity of life diminish his quality of life beyond reasonable limits, we’ll do the responsible thing and allow our vet to put a quick, humane end to his suffering.

Millions of other cats die each year simply because there are too many pets and not enough caring, responsible homes. The lucky ones are euthanized at shelters or veterinary clinics. The unlucky may spend weeks, months or years scrounging on the streets or in the wild before dying from disease, starvation, predation, accident, or malicious acts. Thousands of self-identified cat lovers compound this cruelty by supporting programs to “manage” colonies of free-ranging homeless cats, which only prolongs these animals’ misery, jeopardizes the health of people and pets, and results in the needless deaths of neighboring wildlife.

I give most feral cat defenders the benefit of the doubt for good intentions, even though an obsession with prolonging the lives of as many cats as possible even at the cost of millions of other animals’ lives seems more like hoarding than humanitarianism. I’m equally certain that some leaders of this movement manipulate big-hearted but naive or emotionally vulnerable people into doing their dirty work: wasting their own time and money subsidizing feral cat colonies, badgering humane organizations and animal control agencies into promoting and conducting in situ feral cat “management,” agitating against cat-control ordinances, etc.

Rather than plow into the growing mountain of evidence demonstrating the damage free-roaming cats do to wildlife, their threats to human health, and the ineffectiveness of TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release, also known as Trap-Test-Vaccinate-Alter-Release) in controlling, much less eliminating, populations of feral cats, I’ll refer you to the excellent resources compiled by the American Bird Conservancy:

“Managed” Cat Colonies: The Wrong Solution to a Tragic Problem

Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife

Impacts of free-ranging domestic cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: a review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations

Cats, Birds, & You (PDF brochure, excellent for handing out to people who let their pets roam)

There’s more on this issue at Making Tracks, the blog of The Wildlife Society.

This scientific study debunked some of the common claims of TNR advocates.

Another summary site that includes critiques of TNR-biased research studies: TNR Reality Check

I’d also like to send a National Feral Cat Day message to the ostensibly respectable “humane” organizations that support TNR:

If you really care about feral cats, the only truly humane, ethical, and environmentally responsible alternative to euthanasia is TAPPIES:  Trap, Alter, and Permanently Place In Enclosed Sanctuaries.

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7 thoughts on ““Managing” feral cat colonies: kindness or cruelty?

  1. “I’d also like to send a National Feral Cat Day message to the ostensibly respectable “humane” organizations that support TNR: If you really care about feral cats, the only truly humane, ethical, and environmentally responsible alternative to euthanasia is TAPPIES: Trap, Alter, and Permanently Place In Enclosed Sanctuaries.”

    Here’s my message to you Sheri: You more than welcome to take all my ferals to her enclosed sanctuaries. Just let me know the details. And yes, they are all fixed and vaccinated.

    • You more than welcome to take all my ferals to her enclosed sanctuaries.

      Whose sanctuaries are you referring to? Certainly not mine. I’m no hoarder – one cat is my limit. If another stray cat shows up in my yard and I can catch it, it’s going to the nearest shelter that will either rehome it or euthanize it.

      I guess I didn’t make my position clear enough, so I’ll restate it: If “humane” organizations insist on taking euthanasia off the table as an option for dealing with cat overpopulation, they need to take complete responsibility for the cats whose lives they “save,” not just leave them out to continue suffering and causing problems.

      The only problems that TTVAR addresses are reproduction and the limited number of diseases the cats are vaccinated for (and only for the duration of the vaccine’s effectiveness). Neutered and vaccinated cats still live dangerous lives, spread diseases and parasites, kill wildlife, and die horrible deaths. “Managed” colonies attract stray cats and people looking for places to dump unwanted pets, and feeding attracts other potential problem animals (rats, raccoons, skunks, foxes – you gonna TTVAR all of them, too?). They also need constant maintenance: feeding, recapturing, and revaccinating residents, monitoring for disease, injuries, and immigration, and capturing newcomers for TTVAR. “Managing” feral cats in situ is a more expensive alternative than proponents will admit, but humane organizations like it because it reduces the number of cats they have to kill (which looks better to their members and donors), puts the responsibility for these cats on other people (usually volunteers who have a a high burnout rate – sounds like you might be one of those burnouts), and gives them a fundraising hook.

      I don’t know about where you live, but the no-kill shelters here in southern Arizona seem to be chronically overcrowded. Therefore, the organizations in question need to either build enough new shelters to house all unadoptable cats or go back to dealing with them the same way they do other unadoptable animals: euthanasia. It’s not a happy solution, but it’s a more humane, responsible, and effective approach than TNR/TTVAR.

  2. Sherry,
    We here on the east coast have the same problem. I live on a barrier island on the coast of Georgia. The feral cat population has exploded on our island. These cats did not migrate across the extensive salt marshes to the island. They were left there by people. In trying to address the issue in a sane and rational manner with the local cat supporters, the island authority called a meeting. The cat supporters came to the meeting with a passionate message that feral cats have just as many rights on the island because the cats are here. These are not prides of loins of Africa. These are abandoned pets. I have tried to address the feral cat issue in my birding column, in the local paper. I approached it much as you do here. I gave a couple of example of cats that were rescued and now have decent homes. It was unbelievable the comments I received. Just yesterday I watched this dreaded cat issue flare up in our Audubon group. Amazing! Keep putting out the word.

    • So sorry you’re having to deal with this, Lydia, but I appreciate you taking a firm, sensible stand against the de facto hoarders and hope your community can come to grips with this issue before it gets so bad that people start taking matters into their own hands.

  3. You note a Single “scientific study” which concludes that TNR Does reduce colony populations, but the continued dumping of strays offsets the gains made in reducing those populations. Thsi study advocates for a method by which the irresponsible dumping can be linmited, but does not in any way deny that TNR is ineffective. Did you bother to read this “study”?

    MOST who tend to colonies are not hoarders, in fact the managment of feral colonies stated goal is to eliminate the colony. The point of managing colonies is to provide a place where the populations will remain for the specific goal of erradication by spay/neuter.

    I find your anecdotal commentary to specious and incredibly shallow in it’s research.

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