PETA’s recent E-News mailing urges readers to “Protect Cats!” No clear guidelines (aside from keeping cats indoors or “closely supervised” when outdoors), however, follow this imperative, which is linked to an article that begins by condemning “animal shelters [who] manipulate their euthanasia statistics by instituting policies that leave animals to struggle for survival and die painfully on the streets.” The only policy identified is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), which, in PETA’s estimation, “may allow shelters to spin intake and euthanasia numbers, but…do almost nothing to protect cats from the horrors that befall them when left outdoors to battle harsh surroundings, sickness, and sadistic people.”
For readers unfamiliar with TNR and community cats, the context should be accurately defined and described. The conditions and makeup of populations of outdoors cats is complex. Not all feral and free-roaming cats are part of TNR programs. Not all outdoor cats are feral or free-roaming. Cats who are outside may be stray or abandoned; they may also be your neighbors’ cats. The listed news stories bear out this fact: the victims of the crimes were pets, stray cats, homeless cats, and members of feral cat colonies.
Trap-Neuter-Return programs have caretakers who provide food, water, and shelter in managed colonies or in less structured settings (e.g., neighbors who open garage space for cats and take turns feeding them). Cats are sterilized, vaccinated for rabies, and ear-tipped (a small portion of the left ear is removed or notched in order to identify a cat as part of a managed colony). Interestingly, TNR controls population growth via sterilization and thus reduces the number of outdoors cats vulnerable to “harsh surroundings, sickness, and sadistic people.” And, the more people and communities engaged in TNR, the greater the effect of that spaying and neutering. People who practice TNR, too, often foster and socialize feral kittens and find homes for community cats who have been domesticated before being abandoned or stray. Just as populations of outdoor cats are multifaceted, so are the people who care for and about them.
TNR is a tool, not a single solution. It is also not a single issue but connected to larger community concerns, including animal welfare legislation. Many municipalities have laws to protect animals from the types of crimes detailed in PETA’s article. Those laws could be enforced more regularly and more strongly, as could municipal codes regarding abandonment, which is how community cats enter the environment. Municipal support for low-cost and free spay/neuter also moves communities closer to reducing the population of outdoor cats.
Unfortunately, cruelty is a fact of life, and “sadistic people” will find their victims wherever they can. Focusing on worst case scenarios overlooks the many compassionate caregivers and community members who step up to take responsibility where others have not. It also assumes that people are bad, with only a small segment of the population being kind to animals. In contrast, the very essence of TNR, as well as other life-affirming animal welfare programs, is that people are good, with only a small segment of the population being cruel to animals. This has certainly been our experience in Norfolk, where Spay Hampton Roads (SpayHR) has worked to help residents find free and low-cost spay/neuter services for more than three years.
SpayHR’s Norfolk Pet Project originally had two main goals: to promote spay/neuter and to provide continuing spay/neuter financial assistance for low-income families. Through outreach and simply talking with residents, we learned that many people using our program for cats are caring for stray, abandoned, and other kinds of community cats. They frequently begin by feeding, without necessarily planning beyond that, and in some cases seem hesitant to do more, fearing they will get in trouble by identifying themselves as the (default) caretakers. They want to help but are not sure what to do.
So how do we protect cats? We can advocate for stronger enforcement of laws already in place. We can keep our cats safe indoors or supervised outdoors. We can educate ourselves with accurate information, promote open, honest communication, and encourage citizens to take fuller responsibility for the animals in their care. We can believe people are inherently good, and we can work together to save lives.