Reflections on “Rethinking the Cat” Symposium

The good news is major national animal welfare organizations (Humane Society of the United States and ASPCA) are now on board with TNR (Trap Neuter Return) and similar programs for outdoor (community) cats. After a period of healthy skepticism, the research is in, and TNR programs are the only known approach to reducing (and eliminating) unwanted cat colonies in a given community that actually works. All other attempts, from trap and kill, to banning feeding sites make no difference in the population of a given colony. This Cat Symposium, held recently in Lynnwood, Washington, even described a case where “the last cat” in a specific colony was documented to have quietly passed away, leaving the outdoor cat population at zero in a specific community as a result of sustained TNR efforts. This achievement of course was a long, focused effort over years, but it worked.

Other points of interest we learned in the symposium:

  1. Every location has its “carrying capacity” of outdoor (community) cats. Regardless if we as humans doing anything or not, there are a certain number of cats a geographical location will hold, and populations will grow no further-replacing intact cats with altered within that location, not only begins the process of controlling population further, but reduces public nuisance complaints (famous male cat caterwauling and spraying).
  2. Community cats are generally healthy and thriving in their environment.
  3. Majority of people are for humane solutions for controlling cats, they are not for lethal solutions.
  4. In addition to TNR, shelters are starting SNR (Shelter, Neuter, and Return) where “lost” cats that have been brought in by the public are vaccinated, altered, and returned where they were found rather than euthanized if they are not adoptable.
  5. TNR works best when it is strategic and focused community wide (rather than one colony only or one neighborhood only) with dedicated volunteer help over the long-term.
  6. Most cats captured and brought into shelters are not owned. They are not lost cats. If they are owned, we do them a disservice, as cats will usually return to their domicile on their own if they can. This explains the gulf between dogs returned to owner (22% by national research) and cats returned to owner (2%). Here at WAIF, our experience has been 66% of lost dogs returned to owner (three times national average), and 4% of lost cats returned to owner.

On Whidbey Island, we are in a unique setting. Being a location that has a finite space, we probably have a fairly limited “carrying capacity” for outdoor cats. Natural hazards of coyotes, eagles, etc. take their toll. But WAIF still has more cats than dogs to deal with on the island, the vast majority brought in by concerned citizens (animal control generally does not pick up outdoor/community cats). But are these cats lost? Or are they just part of a colony that inhabits our landscape? Outdoor cats are only a problem if and when enough humans say they are a problem. In rural areas of the island, we are used to seeing barn cats and field cats, and do not often think of such being a problem to other wildlife. Here in Coupeville, in an admittedly amateur survey, I regularly see three deer to every one outdoor cat as I do my morning walk around town. (Community deer is a separate issue.)

But in more densely populated or highly mobile areas, apartment buildings, trailer parks, rental neighborhoods, outdoor cat populations can be perceived as a problem as there are always new cats being introduced into the population as people abandon them when they move. So, TNR programming may be a useful response in those areas.

WAIF has been in discussions with NOAH and other individuals about what we can do together to possibly help reduce the number of cats coming into shelter on the island. Transport, increased value of coupons, future possibilities of our own spay/neuter clinic, all are currently on the table. In addition to TNR, we advocate that owned cats stay indoors whenever possible rather than allow cats to claim outside territory. Microchipping your cats will also indicate that a cat coming into shelter is owned (many cats have difficulty with collars). And of course, we most certainly encourage all owned cats be spayed or neutered to eliminate unwanted litters.

WAIF has been successful in saving all healthy cats for years (last year alone, the Live Release Rate for cats was 91%). But sheltering all that are brought to us by the public (either as owner surrender or found) is an ongoing challenge. It may be useful to consider alternatives as we move forward, to ensure that all healthy cats remain alive and thriving in their own communities if not in their own homes.

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