Guest post by Peter J. Wolf
Over the past week, we’ve touched on the origins and history of TNR, explained a bit about how it works, showcased some success stories, and much more. We would be remiss, though, if we ended TNR Week without at least mentioning the controversy surrounding TNR.
It’s not difficult to imagine some of the parties that might oppose Trap-Neuter-Return. Neighbors that don’t like cats, for example, would probably not take kindly to your feeding a colony on your patio or in your backyard. Facilities and property management personnel will sometimes object to TNR colonies, as will some parks officials (though there are numerous cases of successful, cooperative endeavors, too). Even the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is ambivalent on the subject of TNR, adopting a policy, that “neither endorses nor opposes appropriately managed cat colony programs.”
But the greatest objections to TNR come from the wildlife conservation community. The Wildlife Society’s policy on feral and free-roaming cats, for example, makes clear the organization’s commitment to “strongly support and encourage the humane elimination of feral cat colonies,” as well as “the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the public feeding of feral cats, especially on public lands, and release of unwanted pet or feral cats into the wild.”
Various bird advocacy groups have created similar position statements. Audubon New York, for instance, in its 2010 Resolution Protecting Wildlife and Public Health from Feral and Free-Roaming Cats:
“…opposes the feeding and maintenance of feral cat colonies in or near places where native wildlife may be impacted including state and local parks, wildlife refuges, and other natural areas… and that Audubon New York and local Audubon chapters support reasonable measures, including legislative and regulatory initiatives as, and if, needed to require parks staff, other public land managers, and municipalities to remove feral cat feeding stations and shelters on park property in or near Important Bird Areas or other wildlife-sensitive habitats, and measures that will restrict and regulate the maintenance and movement of feral and free-roaming domestic cats out-of-doors…”
The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), however, is perhaps the most outspoken in its criticism of TNR. As the ABC’s Resolution on Free-Roaming Cats states, the organization “strongly opposes managed free-roaming cat colonies.” The resolution continues, noting that the ABC:
“…urges local, state, and federal wildlife agencies, public health organizations, legislative bodies and the public to… ban and eliminate free-roaming cat colonies through humane capture by animal care and control facilities.”
What happens after their “humane capture”? The ABC doesn’t say, but it’s well understood that virtually all unsocialized cats are killed.
Now, some (PETA, for example) would argue that death by lethal injection is more humane than leaving a cat to live out its life on the street/in the woods/at the mall/etc. To be sure, feral cats survive under less-than-ideal circumstances — sometimes, much less. This, I would argue, is a debate worth having. The trouble is, there’s so much that gets in the way of any kind of honest, productive discussion — beginning with a dizzying assortment of contradictory scientific claims about TNR.
Blinded by Science
Among the numerous assertions made by TNR opponents, many have to do with diseases potentially spread by feral cats — to other cats, other animals, or to people. But again, most focus on the threat posed by feral cats to wildlife in general, and to birds in particular. Published in well-regarded scientific journals, these claims frequently hold sway with decision makers — “the voice of reason” prevailing over the pleas of TNR supporters, who are all too often portrayed as well-intentioned but largely naïve. Earlier this year, for example, the City of Los Angeles was forced to suspend its official promotion of TNR pending an environmental review.
But a closer look at many of these scientific papers reveals an abundance not of reason, but of misrepresentations, errors, and bias. Consider the now-classic Wisconsin Study, for example. This was a series of studies conducted in the mid-1990s that culminated in several papers — the key finding being that “free-ranging rural cats may be killing up to 219 million birds in the state.”
This figure has been quoted repeatedly since its publication in 1996, garnering the Wisconsin Study near-mythical status among TNR opponents. Careful examination of the work, however, reveals numerous flaws (download “Addressing the Wisconsin Study” for an extensive critique), thereby casting serious doubt on the researchers’ estimates. In fact, one of the study’s authors later admitted to the press that their figures were quite speculative: “They aren’t actual data; that was just our projection to show how bad it might be.” 
Nevertheless, the myth persists — and the estimates that “aren’t actual data” continue to be published in scientific journals and picked up by the mainstream media.
The Wisconsin Study is perhaps the best-known example of scientific “evidence” that TNR opponents use to shape both public opinion and public policy regarding feral cat management. But there is much more — and as the controversy grows, so does the body of research.
So, to untangle the pseudoscience generated and promoted by feral cat/TNR opponents, I created the blog Vox Felina. As I write on the About page:
There are legitimate issues to be debated regarding the efficacy, environmental impact, and morality of TNR. But attempts at an honest, productive debate are hampered — if not derailed entirely — by the dubious claims so often put forward by TNR opponents. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m very interested in asking better questions—the sort of questions that might stimulate a more conscientious debate of this important issue.
No doubt many readers new to TNR will have by now noticed something often forgotten by those closer to the issue: both sides are interested in reducing the population of feral cats. Unfortunately, the polarizing nature of the debate has made such common ground elusive. As a result, those of us interested in an honest discussion of the issues are often marginalized. But the ones to suffer the most, of course, are the creatures we all claim to want to protect. And I worry that it will be — once again — the cats that bear the brunt of it.
1. Elliott, J., The Accused, in The Sonoma County Independent. 1994. p. 1, 10.