Becky Robinson is president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, the nation’s leading advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats. Based in Bethesda, Maryland, the mission of Alley Cat Allies is to end the killing of cats and lead the movement for their humane care.
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If I understand correctly, you began doing Trap-Neuter-Return when you encountered feral cats in an alley near your home, right? That was 1991 or 1992? Can you talk a little bit about how you began with, I presume, no resources to which you could turn for help?
I’m one of those people who is a magnet for animals—they just find me. One evening, twenty years ago this summer, I was on my way to dinner and I discovered a colony of beautiful black and white tuxedo feral cats living in an alley.
At that point, Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) was not well known, or widely practiced, in the United States. With TNR, healthy feral cats are neutered, vaccinated and returned to their original location, or what we refer to as their outdoor home. Neutering improves the cats’ lives, because they no longer experience the stresses, or the behaviors, associated with mating and pregnancy. With TNR, volunteer caregivers often feed and provide shelter for the cats—which, I learned, that DC neighborhood was already doing for the cats in the alley. And so I rolled up my sleeves, and with the help of a few friends, we started to educate ourselves about TNR.
We used a humane box-trap right from the start to safely capture the cats and transport them to an animal hospital, but we didn’t have more than one trap in the beginning. It was extremely difficult to find a veterinarian to work with us. Back then, most veterinarians had no idea how to handle feral cats and many refused to be involved—which is something Alley Cat Allies has changed over the years, with our Veterinary Awareness Campaign. When we did eventually find a veterinarian, neither the veterinarian nor the hospital staff knew how to anesthetize feral cats, so there were several “incidents” with feral cats loose in the clinic. But we figured it out, and along the way we established best practices for veterinary care of feral cats.
With no previous training—there was no training available on TNR at that point, which is another thing Alley Cat Allies has changed—we were able to humanely trap all 54 cats and kittens in that alley over the course of a year, and get them spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Today, Alley Cat Allies provides education and resources for veterinarians and caregivers to make the process much easier and faster for everyone else!
What prompted you to start Alley Cat Allies?
As I learned in that DC alley, people cared about the cats, but were not equipped to advocate on their behalf. No one was advocating for feral cats back then—we’re talking about cats that even the animal rights movement was ignoring.
Alley Cat Allies started as a handful of volunteers working out of my house sharing information about feral cats and Trap-Neuter-Return with anyone who would listen. We didn’t advertise, but people were seeking us out. Soon, we started to get calls from around the country. That’s when it became crystal clear to me that there was an enormous need for information about TNR on a national level.
In 1991, Alley Cat Allies was incorporated with a strong mission and vision to go forth and educate caregivers and convince public officials to embrace spay and neuter for feral and outdoor cats, in place of catch-and-kill. Over the past two decades, tens of thousands of people have trapped the cats they feed, and have seen that they are spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
Sometimes I look back at how this whole thing started and I am overwhelmed with the impact we’ve had.
How has Alley Cat Allies changed over the years? How many people work for the organization and at what capacity?
Twenty years after finding that first colony, Alley Cat Allies has grown from four volunteers doing Trap-Neuter-Return in DC to a national advocacy organization with 23 employees headquartered in Bethesda, MD—and we’re still growing! Readers can check our website regularly for new job postings.
Today, Alley Cat Allies serves as a resource for caregivers and feral cat groups across the country. We run national education campaigns, we monitor and work on legislation that affects cats, we track and conduct research on cat issues, and we assist scores of grassroots activists to mobilize on a local level to reform their city’s animal control policies.
Veterinarians, wildlife biologists, humane organizations, local governments, animal control agencies, and animal shelters all turn to ACA for guidance and information about how to develop humane programs and policies for cats.
Alley Cat Allies has earned the support of nearly 250,000 supporters, caregivers, and activists who share our mission to protect all cats—feral, stray, and companion. Our growth reflects the national desire to protect these cats and the need to reform current animal care policies that are killing them.
I see the LOL Cats pictures posted on the Alley Cat Allies Facebook page every Friday. Obviously, you and the others there have a good time, but I’m sure it’s not always that way. Can you describe a typical day at the office?
Each day starts and ends with helping people help cats—transforming and educating communities, helping spay/neuter and Trap-Neuter-Return programs take form. As far as what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, we respond to current events, continually produce new educational materials, and respond to requests from advocates who contact us for help. We have a relaxed environment in the office because we focus so hard on our work. The formalities of suits and ties don’t fit the dynamic of the staff and what we do. We work as a team, and at any given part of the day, you’ll see two or three people huddled around a desk or in a room working on a plan—whether it’s for a program we’re helping to develop, or a campaign working to change policy.
There are great days and there are hard days—but we’re always ready for the next opportunity to protect and make positive change for cats.
I’m sure people unfamiliar with Trap-Neuter-Return approach you and the others at Alley Cat Allies all the time. What’s the best way for newcomers to get involved?
I always say the best way to get involved is to educate yourself, start advocating, and pass your knowledge on to others—our website is a great resource.
That’s how we have spread and expanded Trap-Neuter-Return in this country over the past 20 years—by word of mouth and advocacy. People from all over the country constantly tell me how they were able to do TNR on their own with the help of our educational materials. So, ordering our brochures, posters, truth cards, and educational materials online is a great way to learn more about TNR.
You can also sign up online to receive our e-action alerts, FeralPower!, which keep our supporters up-to-date on urgent issues facing cats.
Another cool campaign that we launched this year is the “I’m an Alley Cat Ally” Campaign. Celebrities, including Portia de Rossi and Paula Poundstone, have signed on to help us raise awareness about the millions of Americans who care for stray and feral cats. But this campaign isn’t reserved for celebrities. Everyone can take our online photo pledge and declare themselves alley cat allies!
If you already know how to do TNR, we need your expertise! Share your knowledge by holding a workshop—you can find resources like videos and a script at our website. And please consider joining the Feral Friends Network, our group of organizations and individuals that serves as a resource on feral cats and TNR for people in communities nationwide.
How extensive is Trap-Neuter-Return in the U.S. these days? How does the program compare with the ones that are utilized in Western Europe and other parts of the world?
Since Alley Cat Allies was founded, over 250 new, local, nonprofit organizations have formed with the mission of stray and feral cat care and/or Trap-Neuter-Return. A growing number of animal shelters and municipalities—including Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington DC—are embracing TNR as policy and law, and many cities are subsidizing spay/neuter funding. Millions of Americans care for stray and feral cats, but this national movement to protect and improve outdoor cats’ lives is decades behind the global movement.
TNR has been practiced in Europe for over 30 years and is widely accepted as the most humane method of care for outdoor cats. In England—often considered the birthplace of TNR—the practice is commonplace and is often offered as a free service to local residents. My goal is to one day see such universal acceptance and endorsement of TNR in the United States.
I know you’re aware of the recent decision in Los Angeles that’s put a stop to publicly supported Trap-Neuter-Return. Was Alley Cat Allies involved in the court case? What’s your reaction to the judge’s decision?
First, let me clear a few things up. The judge’s decision in Los Angeles did not put a stop to publicly supported Trap-Neuter-Return. TNR is still very much supported and practiced by residents and local organizations—the spay/neuter clinics are still open and the programs are still running—albeit with no promotion from the city. What the ruling stopped was the municipal shelter’s ability to promote these valuable, humane public services. It also temporarily stopped the city of Los Angeles from providing spay/neuter vouchers for the city’s feral cats. But TNR and feral cat spay/neuter programs are still alive and well in Los Angeles.
As for our involvement in the case, our work in LA focused on education and advocacy, such as supporting caregivers and concerned residents, promoting resources for TNR, advocating for the return of spay/neuter funding, and clearing up the many misconceptions about the ruling. Your readers can find more information about the ruling and our involvement at here.
Something else I know you’re aware of: a recent high-profile comment by 10 conservation biologists and wildlife ecologists that condemns Trap-Neuter-Return as cat hoarding without walls. What’s your reaction to that?
Equating Trap-Neuter-Return with hoarding is absolute nonsense. Hoarders confine cats and create conditions that are unhealthy for the cats or the community, often as the result of a serious mental illness. TNR programs do the exact opposite—they improve the lives of existing cat populations. Neutered cats no longer undergo the stresses and strains associated with mating, and their population stabilizes because there are no new kittens. The cats are vaccinated and continue to live in their outdoor home. Feral cats have lived outdoors for thousands of years, most subsisting off food sources that are a natural byproduct of people. TNR manages their feeding and care and makes them better neighbors. TNR is a community service. To equate it with hoarding is completely ludicrous and breeds misinformation.