What Conservation Biologists Can Do Regarding Trap-Neuter-Return

What Conservation Biologists Can Do Regarding Trap-Neuter-Return
A Response to Longcore et al. In Press

Center for Wildlife Health Research
Center for Wildlife Health Research

Pownal, ME –-(AmmoLand.com)-We applaud the recent essay by Longcore et al. (In Press) in raising the awareness about trap-neuter-return (TNR) to the conservation community. TNR has gained a great deal of traction in recent years as an accepted form of feral cat management, but it has not lived up to the ideal it proffers. We concur with the authors’ thoughts and findings on TNR, but we also believe that there are several additional points that need to be highlighted concerning feral cat management and TNR in regards to environmental conservation.

First, TNR is often presented to policymakers and the public as a scientifically valid and humane way of controlling and managing homeless and unwanted cats that are typically found in colonies. Proponents of TNR are well organized and push for TNR-friendly policies in communities and shelters around the US, often with little opposition from the conservation and wildlife communities. It is imperative that we now begin speaking out.

By way of example, those of us who are conservation biologists should look to the evolutionary biology community. When local policies or regulations are put forth that promote the teaching of creationism or intelligent design, the evolutionary biologists have responded in force from across the nation and world. Such responses have been successful in defeating attempts to favor the teaching of creationism or intelligent design, and serve to remind the public that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution. We the conservation community should consider the issue of TNR in the same light, and challenge such propositions when they are raised. Without such challenges by those who are knowledgeable about the subject, we simply allow the use of TNR to grow, and thereby gain further acceptance.

Second, the conservation biology and wildlife ecology communities need to build bridges with the animal welfare, veterinary, and public health communities. Many organizations within these communities oppose TNR, cat colonies, and outdoor cats in general, since cats living in these conditions tend to have shorter lives, higher levels of parasites and disease, and generally poorer health.

In fact, in Maine, cats are the leading domestic rabies vector. While proponents of TNR assert that they are providing services that allow cats to live full and healthy lives, the facts show that free-roaming and feral cats are often in very poor condition (Jessup 2004). The animal welfare community opposes ‘cat hoarding’ whereby people care for more pets than they can adequately support, because it is considered inhumane. TNR is essentially cat hoarding without walls. Considering that most communities have laws banning animal hoarding, we should consider the same standard for outdoor cats as those that are in a person’s home.

What then to do about the problems of outdoor cats, cat colonies, and unwanted cats?
The owned cat population is growing and likely mirrored by a growing population of feral cats (Schmidt et al. 2007). This problem almost certainly has been exacerbated by the current economic recession, whereby increasing numbers of pets are being abandoned or surrendered to shelters (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 2009).

Concurrently, there are increasing efforts to convert animal shelters into “no kill” facilities. As a result, we face the conundrum of how to humanely deal with more and more feral cats. There is no simple answer that will please all parties, in large part because we now find ourselves in the unpleasant position of having far too many feral cats in the environment with no single solution that is acceptable to all.

Ultimately, the issue of feral cats is a social problem and one that many find uncomfortable due to the highly charged emotions associated with it. No one wants to euthanize animals and no one likes to see them suffer. But unfortunately, the consequences of allowing cats to roam wild or live in colonies with extremely poor health conditions are less humane than euthanasia.

We as a society do not allow dogs, ferrets, livestock or other domestic animals to roam free or live in the wild in colonies, and the same should be true for cats. Cats deserve the same humane treatment and legal regard as dogs and other pets.

We suggest that the following actions should be encouraged.

  • First, conservation biologists, wildlife ecologists, and the like should have open dialogues with the animal welfare, sheltering, veterinary, and public health communities. These communities are generally on the same ultimate page of desiring to promote animal welfare and reducing cat overpopulation. If we do not begin to work together, we will face strong obstacles in reducing the numbers of feral cats present on our landscapes. Second, the wildlife and conservation communities need to challenge policies that are put forth to allow and/or promote feral cat colonies and TNR. Conservation biologists have just as much opportunity to make their points at local meetings, through the news media, and at outreach events as do TNR proponents.
  • Second, although feral cats may not be the issue we are most interested in or want to pursue with our time, we should remind ourselves of our responsibility to provide scientific information to the public with regard to the environment.
  • Third, the wildlife and conservation communities should advocate for policies that encourage responsible pet ownership as well as for the enforcement of existing policies. This includes requiring licenses for cats, substantially decreasing unwanted breeding of pet cats through mandatory and/or subsidized spaying and neutering, and requiring cats to be kept under their owners’ control at all times when outdoors. In many cases, local ordinances requiring owners to keep their domestic animals under control are enforced for dogs, but not for cats. In these cases, such policies are already in place but require increased enforcement in order to be effective.
  • Fourth, “releasing cats into the wild and supporting feral cat colonies is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as laws prohibiting animal abandonment (Winter 2003).” Thus, it may become incumbent upon us to take legal action against colonies and/or colony managers, particularly in areas that provide habitat for migratory birds or endangered species.
  • Fifth, we should seek laws making it illegal to maintain cat colonies on public lands.
  • Finally, we need to increase public awareness about being a responsible pet owner, not just for the benefit of cats (and other domestic animals as well), but also for the environment. The issue of feral cats is not going away any time soon, and no matter what options are utilized, it may well be a generation or more before we can expect changes in human actions regarding outdoor cats.

Further delays will amplify the problems. The sooner we take action, the better.

We thank Steve Hess for fruitful discussions on the draft manuscript.

Click Here to Read Complete Draft

The Center for Wildlife Health Research was created to help engage citizens in stewardship of wildlife through choices they make in their daily lives. We strive to empower people by showing the direct connections between individual action in ways that help them appreciate the interconnectedness between our actions and those of the wild animals around us.