Ellen Perry Berkeley is a writer and editor who has written numerous articles for Cat Fancy, and is the author of Maverick Cats: Encounters with Feral Cats and TNR Past, Present, and Future: A History of the Trap-Neuter-Return Movement.
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For those who’ve not read your books and articles, can you talk a little bit about how you first became involved with feral cats and TNR?
I hadn’t grown up with cats. In the late 1960s, my husband and I bought a lovely bit of acreage in Shaftsbury, Vermont; I thought it would be just a vacation spot. But after the recession of the early 1970s, when the architectural magazine where I was a senior editor had failed, we moved out of NYC and fully into Vermont, into the tiny house (of my design) that we had a builder put up for us. (Subsequently, we had the house enlarged four times!)
Many of our freelance days were quiet in the late 1970s, especially so after I contracted hepatitis from a hospital, and thus we had few visitors coming up our long driveway—and few times when our own car went down the driveway. Understandably, a curious cat came by one day, and Roy spoke soothingly to it. Upon Roy’s request, in the same soothing voice, I came out with a plate of hastily shredded pot roast. And thus the first of our feral visitors, Honey Puss, was ours, briefly. (Other visitors, later, came inside to share fully our food, our shelter, our lives.)
I began writing their stories, and digging into the literature about these domestic cats gone wild. When I was trying to get a publisher—and the agent, publisher, and I were sitting down to a liquid lunch in NYC—the publisher asked, “But aren’t these just regular cats?” No, I replied; genetically they’re like the domestic cats in our homes, but in their real lives, everything is different: their social behavior, their territorial behavior, their predatory behavior.” Ah, said the publisher, “there’s your book!” And that was Maverick Cats: Encounters with Feral Cats, the encounters being ours, in Vermont, and those of researchers and observers around the world. This was the first comprehensive book on feral cats. It went into a paperback edition in 1987, and I did an “expanded and updated” edition in 2001. It is now considered “a classic.” I knew little about TNR in the original edition (1982)—only enough to mention it briefly—but I was an enthusiastic supporter by 2001.
What prompted you to write TNR Past, Present, and Future: A History of the Trap-Neuter-Return Movement?
I have been on the Board of Advisors of Alley Cat Allies since that energetic organization was launched in 1990. Louise Holton, one of the co-founders, was doing a book on TNR, and asked me for a chapter on its history. But then Louise left ACA in 2000. In 2001, I wrote to Becky Robinson (the remaining co-founder), asking when and how we might revive the TNR history. We did revive it, and it became a much larger work than anticipated, especially with my 270 endnotes (designed to bring full information to any readers who wanted to pursue things). It was published by ACA in 2004. The book is comprehensive, but written in an accessible style, allowing readers to take it to their local officials, their media, their shelters, and anyone else (at work, at school, at golf course, at hospital, etc.) who might not yet be “aboard” about TNR.
If I have this right, TNR goes back to at least the 1950s, in Britain. When did it begin to become popular in the U.S.? What was the turning point?
Denmark was right in there, in the 1970s, with Britain, in terms of the interest and action by major animal welfare organizations. But individuals in these (and other) countries had been doing “neutering and returning to site” on their own much earlier, many of these people convinced that they were the only ones doing this, and perhaps even the ones who had invented this method of controlling feral cat numbers. TNR didn’t really take off in the U.S. until perhaps the early 1990s. Maybe my book made a difference, or my articles for Cat Fancy (in 1984, I wrote the first article in the American feline press on what we weren’t even calling TNR at the time). But the creation of Alley Cat Allies, and its growth during the 1990s, was certainly a major factor. And the 1990s generally were a time for other organizations to recognize the problem and this solution. The Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine held a one-day workshop on feral cats in 1992; the Doris Day Animal League held a roundtable in 1994; the American Humane Association and Cat Fanciers’ Association held a “scientific workshop” in 1996. And in 1995, the American Veterinary Medical Association brought Jenny Remfry over from England for a presentation; she had been key to the change of attitude in England, through the 1980 symposium on feral cats organized by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (by Remfry, actually, who was UFAW’s assistant director).
How have you seen TNR change over the years? What predictions do you have for the future of TNR (your book is quite optimistic, but as you know, the TNR “landscape” has changed over the past couple of years)?
Proponents are getting quite specific in answering the opponents. And Alley Cat Allies is always sending out e-mails urging individuals to contact municipalities and other decision-makers regarding an agency’s wrong-doing about feral cats, or its hesitation about TNR. A new ploy is to work with those who care about the environment. The goal, after all, is to have fewer feral cats “out there,” and to do so humanely and inexpensively.
I am still optimistic, thinking that the more the word gets out about the impact of TNR, and its humanitarian and financial benefits, the more people will be doing TNR—or at least approving of TNR. I don’t know how long it will take a group like PETA to come on board. But PETA’s image is being repeatedly attacked on various other issues, it would seem (like the American Bird Conservancy’s image), and they may not be able to hold their ground on this issue, in years to come. I’m amused to see long press releases from the ABC that don’t even mention feral cats.
I know some of the major animal welfare organizations in this country (e.g., AVMA, WSPA, and HSUS) were reluctant to support TNR in the early days. Why do you think that was? What eventually brought them around?
Their reluctance may have been from not knowing the facts, or not crediting the TNR supporters with enough smarts to be taken seriously, or not having thought of all this themselves. I’m not sure that these groups have wholly been brought around, at this time; one of the leading opponents of TNR, for instance (Dr. Jessup), is at AVMA.
In your book, you argue that TNR is not necessarily appropriate for all contexts (e.g., the canyons of San Diego, where Crooks and Soule began cat predation research in the 1990s, for example). So where do you think TNR does make good sense?
It makes good sense over larger and larger areas, and I salute Julie Levy for (among many other things) studying TNR over a full postal code. Alley Cat Allies has, for many years, encouraged people to seek out others in their area. This will help, in bringing people together to win over the governmental decision-makers—and to expand TNR to a more inclusive area. A difference can be made at one factory, one hospital, one college campus, but a bigger difference can be made when these areas are larger and are joined together.
Is there anything I missed that you think Moderncat readers should know about TNR—its history, current practice, or future?
We’re getting closer to a non-surgical neutering, and this may make things easier, and cheaper. Also, in the future, it may be easier to raise funds and gather caretakers when further word gets out. (I’m excited to see numerous positive articles in Cat Fancy, for instance, over the past couple of years.)
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Signed copies of Maverick Cats: Encounters with Feral Cats can be purchased directly from Ellen at the reduced price of $12.50, including shipping (regular price $14.95). Please send a check for $12.50 per book to Ellen Perry Berkeley, 265 Village Lane, Bennington, VT 05201.
TNR Past, Present, and Future: A History of the Trap-Neuter-Return Movement can be purchased from Alley Cat Allies for $7.99.