The past couple of weeks brought two pieces of upsetting news, and their convergence prompted this blog. You see, a new report on the impact of cats upon wildlife extrapolated old statistics mixed with new suppositions to paint felines as the devil incarnate–not a new situation by any means (witness the dark ages of black-cat-witchery). Many of my cat writers colleagues and blogpaws friends have addressed these concerns in well written posts, and frankly, I wouldn’t have felt the need.
Except that I also learned that Cat Fancy magazine, first published in 1965, has been sold.
My earliest bylines as a “pet journalist” were with Cat Fancy. I got my first book contract because an editor read and liked a couple of my Cat Fancy articles. The magazine gave me my first “assignment” (rather than me submitting a query)–I really thought I’d arrived as a writer! But now Bow Tie is poised for change and Cat Fancy readers and contributors together hope this next “cat life” will be even better for all involved.
Sadly, at the moment things aren’t looking so good for the current Cat Fancy (and other Bow Tie) contributors. Many of them are owed a boat load of money for completed and published work, but since the new owner didn’t purchase the debt, chances are my colleagues won’t ever get paid. That’s suck-isity on a huge scale. Right up there with the sucky attacks on cats.
The last article I wrote for Cat Fancy (below) concerned feral cats. In the olden days (dang, that was 9 lives ago!) I was proud to be a contributor and wish only good things for the current editors and contributors now in furry limbo. I pray the TNR program also continues to thrive.
The un-owned cats of America caterwaul from alleyways, give birth in woodpiles, and slink beneath dumpsters eking out a meager existence on the scraps of civilization. Nobody knows how many live homeless and unloved, but wherever cats gather, controversy soon follows.
Many “solutions” have been tried, and opinions abound regarding the best way to deal with un-owned and feral felines. In the last decade, a small army of dedicated and caring cat advocates including the Feral Cat Project (which lists several success stories!) has come to believe that TNR is a viable and ethical answer.
TNR stands for “trap-neuter-return,” a program designed to control and decrease the numbers of roaming felines. Trapped cats receive a health exam to identify very sick cats, which are euthanized. Healthy kitties are sterilized and vaccinated, to prevent reproduction or illnesses such as rabies.
Friendly adult cats and tame-able kittens are adopted while the feral (wild) adults live out their lives–sometimes a decade or longer–in the managed colony. The removal of one ear tip identifies these cats as managed. The caregiver(s) monitor the colony and provides food and shelter.
In The Beginning…
TNR first appeared in Europe, and became better known once animal welfare societies in Great Britain began advocating the approach more than 30 years ago. Louise Holton, an early proponent, first learned of TNR in the mid-1970s while living in South Africa. “I fed colonies of cats in Johannesburg,” she says. “As soon as they started talking about TNR it just made sense to me, and I trapped my colonies and fixed them through the Johannesburg SPCA.”
It took longer for the idea to reach America. While working in animal protection, Becky Robinson noticed feral cats in downtown Washington, DC at around the same time that Holton relocated to the area. Animal welfare organizations offered no help. “I was pretty shocked when they said I should bring cats in for euthanasia,” says Holton, now with Alley Cat Rescue.
“We intended to spay and neuter,” says Robinson, “but we ran into all kinds of roadblocks. It was crystal clear that this had to be addressed.”
Believing education was the key, Holton founded Alley Cat Allies (ACA) in 1990 as an educational resource for humane methods of feral cat control. Today, Robinson is the National Director of ACA.
The TNR concept gained national attention in 1995 when Joan Miller of the Cat Fanciers Associationpresented a talk on cat lifestyle diversity at the AVMA Animal Welfare Forum. The next year she and Dr. Patricia Olson (then affiliated with the American Humane Association) co-coordinated the first National Conference On Feral Cats in Denver. Presenters offered a variety of views, and came to the conclusion that national coordination was necessary. “Alley Cat Allies began to grow more rapidly after that,” says Miller.
Hisses And Purrs
Not everyone supports TNR. “Pro and con is an easy way to categorize,” says Dr. Margaret Slater, a veterinary epidemiologist from Texas A&M University and author of Community Approaches to Feral Cats. “But almost everybody has a gradation of views. Nothing is black and white.”
The most common objections focus on protection of the cats themselves. People argue that as a domestic species, it’s our responsibility to keep cats safely confined. But feral cats can rarely be tamed or easily contained.
Relocating them becomes difficult when sanctuaries fill up. When cats are removed from an area that offers shelter and food, others quickly move into that niche–a “vacuum effect” that argues for maintaining the colony in its original location. Even if trap and kill programs weren’t expensive and ineffective, most Americans dislike the notion of treating cats as vermin.
As an introduced or “exotic” species, critics such as the American Bird Conservancy argue cats should be removed from the environment to protect native wildlife, particularly endangered species. Cats cause the most problems where ecosystems are already in the most trouble such as on island ecosystems where any predator is a problem. TNR is not a good choice in these fragile environments.
But proponents argue that for the most part, cats hunt more rodents than birds, and usually only catch sick, old, or very young birds. “Cats get blamed for a lot of things, but it’s almost never just cats,” says Dr. Slater. For instance, rats also are an introduced species, and quite good predators of many birds. Robinson adds, “A bulldozer on a spring day probably does more damage [to the ecosystem than a feral cat in his entire life.” Even critics of TNR often support the programs in situations such as barn or city cat colonies since no endangered species are at risk.
Looking for Common Ground
Alley Cat Allies and other educational resources have made great strides in educating the public about feral cat solutions. How much TNR has grown isn’t easy to determine, though, because most programs involve volunteers and little tracking information is available. “The really big comprehensive and oldest programs are primarily in the Northeast and West Coast,” says Dr. Slater, “but it’s pretty spotty. You can make any statement you like because there’s no data to support or refute it.”
There is common ground. People on both sides of the TNR fence agree that owned cats should be sterilized and identified, and safely confined in some way. “Rather than fighting over TNR, we need to think about how to turn off the source of cats,” says Dr. Slater. “There’s always going to be more cats if we can’t turn that faucet off.”
Feral cat programs have impacted our world in an intangible but perhaps even more important way. TNR demonstrates that all cats have a value, even those that can’t be touched. We as human beings now recognized our ethical responsibility toward these community cats and that they should be cared for and treated humanely.
“TNR changes public attitudes about the value of cats,” says Miller. “That message is enormous.”
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