Guest post by Peter J. Wolf
For many of us, spoiling our cats is something we’ve raised to an art form—an inalienable right, even. From gourmet organic foods to luxurious memory-foam beds, our feline friends seem to be living the easy life. And, as Moderncat readers know all too well, many of them are.
Feral cats, on the other hand, don’t have it so good. These cats are generally unsocialized, and afraid of people—having grown up with little or no human contact. Many are the offspring of unsterilized stray and abandoned house cats. And, unlike their spoiled relatives, feral cats too often find themselves ignored, neglected, and reviled. Or worse. Because many of these cats lack the social skills that would make them easy adoption candidates, they are routinely killed if brought to a shelter. In his book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, Nathan Winograd, Director of the No Kill Advocacy Center, writes, “there is no other animal entering a shelter whose prospects are so grim and outcome so certain.”
Estimates of the number of feral cats vary widely. Some suggest that there are nearly as many unowned cats as there are owned cats in the U.S.—which would put the figure at about 90 million. But Merritt Clifton, of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, estimates the population of feral cats in this country at no more than a quarter of that. Either way, the numbers are considerable.
Thankfully, these cats have their supporters. Surveys indicate that 8–12% of Americans—about half of whom don’t even own pets—regularly feed stray or feral cats. But unfortunately, their commitment to the cats’ welfare often ends there: at the food bowl. Feeding them is only the first step! In order to reduce the number of homeless cats, it’s absolutely essential that we break the breeding cycle. This is where TNR comes in.
Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR, is an approach for compassionately reducing the feral cat population. TNR begins with the humane trapping of the cats, after which they are sterilized and given a general health check-up (and in some cases, vaccinations) by a local veterinarian participating in low-cost spay/neuter services. In addition, each cat has its left ear “tipped” (removal of about 3/8 of an inch from the tip, done under general anesthesia) so that he/she can be easily recognized as sterilized. The cats are then returned to the area where they were trapped, and cared for by “colony caretakers”— volunteers who agree to provide the cats with food and water.
Caretakers keep a close eye on their colonies, monitoring for new arrivals, or “trap-shy” cats who still require sterilization. And they also watch for kittens, an all-too-common occurrence in the early days of a TNR program. Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, one of the country’s top researchers on feral cats, estimates that 82% of the kittens born each year are born to feral cats.  The lucky ones—Clifton figures perhaps as many as 28 million of them—are snapped up by caretakers while they are young enough to be socialized, and eventually become part of the pet cat population by way of adoptions. (Who knows, maybe that spoiled house cat of yours has a more interesting history than you thought!)
If cats are simply removed from a particular location, it’s likely others will take their place—this is called “the vacuum effect.” Managed colonies, on the other hand, are generally stable, and—with vigilant monitoring and care—will gradually decline in size. Done properly, TNR can be very effective at reducing the population of homeless cats.
This week we will feature videos and other useful resources from Alley Cat Allies, the leading cat advocacy organization in the US. This video from Alley Cat Allies gives a brief overview of TNR (if you can’t see the video below in your email, please click here to watch it on the site):
1. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354-1360.
Feral cat photography by Troy Snow.