Those of us who are involved in animal welfare tend to assume that people have the same body of knowledge we take for granted. This was brought to my attention again recently when someone asked me if I knew anything about this TNR thing, and how did I feel about it?
In general, I know a lot more about dogs than cats, but it just so happens that I am quite familiar with TNR. It stands for Trap, Neuter, Release. The theory behind it is that many feral cats simply cannot adapt to a home environment and will never be safe to handle for the average lay person. This drastically limits the options for what to do with these animals, and for many years, shelters found themselves with no real option other than euthanasia for feral cats.
Certainly there are those who oppose the existence of feral cat colonies. Wildlife people, especially birders, object to outdoor cats because they hunt. Some homeowners and business people object to feral cats because they may mark their territory or relieve themselves in flowerbeds. Some believe (erroneously, in my opinion) that cats are dirty and carry disease that may affect their more domesticated pets. And some object (more understandably) to the feral cats interacting and fighting with their domestic pets.
For me, the benefits of feral colonies far outweigh the disadvantages.
Here’s how it works. In theory, the feral cat will be caught in a humane trap, spayed or neutered, and ear tipped or notched. The idea behind clipping the cat’s ear is to make it possible to identify the cat as a neutered feral at a distance. On a personal level, I admit that clipping the cat’s ear bothers me; I don’t like the disfigurement, and I always wonder about the pain level in such a sensitive location. But I can’t think of a better idea. Altering the cat makes sure that he or she won’t be increasing the feral population in the colony, and studies show that altered ferals are usually much healthier than their intact counterparts. Ideally the programs should also vaccinate and microchip the cats. They obviously won’t be vaccinated every year, but that one round of shots can offer substantial protection, as vaccinations often last far beyond the annual regimen we’re accustomed to.
The benefits to the cat are obvious. The cat is healthier, not subject to reproduction or reproductive diseases, less hormonally volatile, and free to live in his or her accustomed environment. The benefits to the community are often not as well understood. Communities with feral colonies have fewer problems with rodents, and often the ferals will control the snake population as well. An established colony means healthier cats, which reduces the risk of any problems.
People often call animal control to complain about nasty, yowling, spraying feral cats hanging around their homes and businesses. Or they ignore the feral cats until the kittens start arriving, and then they panic in the face of population growth as they visualize an onslaught of shrieking feral cats having ever larger litters of kittens. TNR provides the opportunity for managed colonies with steadily diminishing reproduction rates, and the general public seems to respond positively to the knowledge that the cats are being managed in some way. Established colonies tend to be numerically stable, and studies show that the lifespan of a feral cat in a colony is, on average, only slightly less than that of an indoor only owned cat.
Here’s the catch. It has to be done right.
First, how is the cat being designated as feral? Plenty of non-feral indoor/outdoor cats will revert to apparently feral behavior if they’re caught in a trap or stuck in a cage at the shelter. Shelters need employees or volunteers who are trained in how to assess a cat correctly. We can’t just assume that any cat who is hissy and cranky in confinement is feral. Nor can we assume that any cat in poor physical condition must be a feral.
Second, the community has to be educated about TNR. TNR does not work if local authorities simply start altering animals and “freeing” them where they were found. That inevitably leads to angry residents demanding to know why the same cat is back again after they just had someone pick him up the week before. If there is no education or explanation, residents and business owners are more likely to take matters into their own hands and resort to more permanent methods of getting rid of the cats. Like antifreeze, or commercial trappers, or shooting them. The fact is that some people view feral cats as no more desirable than rodents or bugs, and treat them accordingly.
On the other hand, if the institution in charge of TNR takes the time to run an informational publicity campaign, more people will understand what’s happening. If neighborhoods ask for volunteers to help feed and monitor the cats in designated locations, some residents will welcome the chance to be involved. If people understand clearly that the goal is to prevent reproduction and stabilize the population, they may be less panicky when cats show up. Some people will always object; there is no way to make everyone happy. But there is a right and responsible way to do TNR. It requires community buy-in and participation, which requires communication and education.
Done right, TNR is a humane and responsible option. So let’s do it right.