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TNR – The Humane Alternative

Karen Commings

Ask different animal organizations how many feral cats roam the streets of the United States, and you’ll get different answers. Alley Cat Allies (ACA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates nonlethal feral cat control, estimates the number to be in the tens of millions. “We base our estimates on how many cats are brought into shelters and how many calls come into facilities,” says Becky Robinson, ACA national director and cofounder. Although no one is entirely sure how many feral cats there are, the consensus is ‘lots.'”

To stabilize and ultimately reduce the feral cat population, many animal and governmental organizations are turning to trap, neuter and return (TNR), a method of managing cat colonies that involves trapping the animals, spaying or neutering them, vaccinating them (ideally), and returning them to where they were found. “I want to emphasize that the ‘R’ is for ‘return,'” says Robinson. “The cats are not simply released anywhere in the wild.” Fundamental to the success of TNR is continued care of the feral cats by colony caretakers, who feed them and monitor their health. TNR offers a morally acceptable alternative to killing healthy animals and helps placate neighbors who object to the spraying, howling and fighting of sexually intact cats.

A Brief History
Although individual cat lovers had been practicing trap/neuter/return for years, the TNR movement in the United States formally began in 1980, when AnnaBell Washburn established an animal shelter on Martha’s Vineyard. “People would adopt animals for the summer then leave them behind, so we were getting colonies of cats,” says Washburn. To help build a shelter for the disposable pets, Washburn became a fundraiser and attended a conference in Boston held by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. At the conference, Washburn heard Dr. Peter Neville, veterinarian and author, give a presentation on TNR efforts in Britain. Inspired, Washburn formed PAWS (Pet Adoption and Welfare Service) of the Vineyard. After Washburn’s successful TNR efforts on Martha’s Vineyard and in the British Virgin Islands in the mid ’80s, she received a call from author Ellen Perry Berkeley (see “Resources”), who was writing an article for a national cat magazine. “After the article appeared, I got calls from people all over the United States saying they were doing TNR on a private basis,” says Washburn.

In 1989, The Stanford Cat Network formed to manage cats abandoned by students on the Stanford University campus. The group, founded on the belief that all life should be valued and treated with respect, continues to provide a viable alternative to euthanasia through spay/neuter, vaccination, return and feeding of feral cats, and adoption of tame cats and kittens.

A formal network for managing feral cats was created in 1990 when Becky Robinson and Louise Holton formed Alley Cat Allies. “It was clear when we opened our doors and phone lines that people all over the country wanted this information,” says Robinson. “There was a huge interest among people wanting to help these cats.”

Cats Defined
Free-roaming: a cat not confined to a house or other enclosure.
Feral: a cat too poorly socialized to be handled and who cannot be placed into a typical pet home; a subpopulation of free-roaming cats.
Abandoned: a free-roaming cat who may be tame but does not currently have an owner.
Stray:a currently or recently owned cat who may be lost; usually well-socialized but may become wary over time. A stray’s kittens may be feral.Adapted from Community Approaches to Feral Cats: Problems, Alternatives & Recommendations by Margaret Slater, p. 2.

Basics and Beyond
The components of TNR vary depending on the sponsoring group. The Feral Cat Coalition in San Diego, California, founded in 1991, holds a monthly clinic at participating veterinary practices where each cat, while anesthetized for surgery, receives treatment for worms, fleas, ear mites and other health problems. “We offer antibiotics, stitch wounds, or remove seriously damaged eyes,” says Carol Ameer, FCC president.

Veterinary students at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine perform spay/neuter and microchipping via the Aggie Feral Cat Alliance of Texas. “Cats are sutured subcutaneously,” notes Margaret Slater, D.V.M., Ph.D., the author of Community Approaches to Feral Cats (see “Resources,” p. 27), “so they don’t have to be returned for suture removal.” In addition, sterilized cats are “ear-tipped,” which involves the surgical removal of the extreme tip of one ear. “An ear-tip shows you a feral has been fixed,” says Slater.

Operation Catnip at the University of Florida has altered 15,000 cats since its inception in 1998. Part of a nonprofit organization that includes chapters at the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and in Richmond, Virginia, Operation Catnip/Florida runs a monthly clinic at the student surgery laboratory at the veterinary school. “Typically 150 cats go through each clinic, but we’ve had up to 194,” says Julie Levy, D.V.M., Ph.D., OC president.

Altering feral cats in the state of Oregon became easier when the 24-foot mobile hospital operated by the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon (FCCO) hit the road in 1998. The mobile unit holds 36 clinics a year. Clinics take place on Sundays, when volunteer veterinarians and caretakers are available. “People contact a clinic close to where they live and get a reservation,” says Karen Krause, the executive director. The mobile hospital pulls up to a place with heat, running water and enough space to separate 81 to 100 cats into males, females, kittens and pregnant females, and to return them for post-operative care. “We’ve used retail stores, schools, auto repair shops, armories, airplane hangers and any place else volunteered as a staging area.” FCCO has altered more than 15,000 cats since its inception in 1995.

The ASPCA Cares program, launched in 2001, operates a mobile spay/neuter van that serves pet owners, shelters, and rescuers in New York City’s five boroughs. The van operates on a first come, first served basis for pet owners, and makes appointments on prescheduled days for cat rescuers. “We provided service to more than 400 cats in 2002,” says Gail Buchwald, the Cares program manager. “We expect to exceed that this year.”

In its Position on Abandoned and Feral Cats, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends universally vaccinating each cat in the feral colony in accordance with state and local ordinances. Which vaccinations are given depends on colony caretakers and the programs in which they participate. Operation Catnip at the University of Florida vaccinates for FVRCP, rabies and feline leukemia, although it does not test for leukemia before vaccinating. Neighborhood Cats, an organization founded in 1999 to serve the five boroughs of New York City, follows local and state ordinances, which require rabies shots. “We vaccinate for rabies because it’s the law,” says Bryan Kortis, NC’s executive director. “But the rest is up to the caretaker. We have only one crack at some of these cats and can’t follow up for boosters

Grassroots Efforts
Neighborhood Cats promotes TNR with hands-on assistance and high-profile projects such as the 2002 effort to trap and neuter the 250 cats living at the city’s correctional facility on Rikers Island. “If TNR is done on a large enough scale, the outdoor population will stabilize,” says Kortis. With the help of the ASPCA and the Humane Society of New York, Neighborhood Cats and Feline Rescue of Staten Island recently trapped 39 of the 43 cats known to be living at Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill.

The San Francisco SPCA offers “Feral Fix,” a program that provides spay/neuter surgery and vaccinations to feral cats at no charge to caregivers. So-called Cat Assistance Teams trap ferals and transport them to the Feral Fix clinic, then provide post-operative recovery care and socialization of feral kittens prior to placing them for adoption. Since the program’s inception in 1993, the SF/SPCA has altered more than 13,000 cats.

The Utah Feral Fix program, a part of Utah’s No More Homeless Pets campaign, began in spring 2002 and enabled state residents to have a feral cat altered for $10. “We felt that in order to take full advantage of this opportunity, we needed a statewide network to provide traps and other resources to feral cat caregivers,” says Holly Sizemore, feral cat program director for Best Friends Animal Society, who administers the program. “More than 50 veterinarians participate statewide, and we’ve established about a dozen Trap Trading Posts,” says Sizemore. “If you think big, big things happen.” The program has altered more than 5,000 cats in one year.

ASPCA Policy on Cats vs. Wildlife
There is no denying that free-roaming cats, including feral cats, kill large numbers of birds and other wild animals, including endangered ones. For this reason, among others, the ASPCA is strongly in favor of keeping all pet cats indoors or in escape-proof enclosures. The ASPCA supports TNR as the most humane strategy for managing feral cats but does not support colonies in areas where the cats themselves are endangered or where their presence presents a threat to endangered populations of wildlife.

In Texas, the Aggie Feral Cat Alliance microchips every feral cat and maintains a database of health information on cats coming from the campus colony. “We want to know if anything adopted from us shows up at a shelter,” says Slater.

Feral Friends Network is an Alley Cat Allies-run database of more than 1,000 names of experienced caretakers in 47 states, Puerto Rico, and eight countries who are willing to share their knowledge, experience and resources. FFN is available on the Alley Cat Allies website (see “Resources”). ACA also provides fact sheets, videos and/or DVDs that are targeted toward government officials.

Like many TNR operations that start small and grow, both the Aggie Feral Cat Alliance and Operation Catnip have become involved in the feral cat problem outside the universities where they originated. “We expanded our efforts and helped form the Brazos [County] Feral Cat Allies in the spring of 2000,” says Slater. In Florida, Operation Catnip began paying local veterinarians to sterilize feral cats in their practices and provides each with two traps and a binder of procedures. “It’s working very well,” says Levy, “because the caretakers work directly with the clinics and don’t have to go through a middle man.”

In addition to handling feral cats, TNR groups involve themselves in a variety of related projects. Having hard data about cat colonies helps proponents show the success of TNR. Neighborhood Cats, for example, has developed a registration system for gathering data and providing a statistical basis for evaluating the impact of TNR. “We encourage people who manage feral colonies to send us their names confidentially, the names of their cats, and whether the cats are neutered,” says Kortis. “Eventually the database will be Internet-based so caretakers can update their information online.”

To determine the effectiveness of its program, the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon stays in contact with local shelters and animal control agencies to determine the best strategy for reducing the feral population. “In 2001, Portland Animal Control saw a 35 percent decrease in incoming cats because of our TNR program,” says Krause. An upcoming project that Maddie’s Fund, the California-based animal-welfare funding foundation, will underwrite is a pilot feral cat study. “We want to see the effectiveness of a particular model,” says Lynn Spivak, the Maddie’s Fund’s director of communications.


Alley Cat Allies
1801 Belmont Road NW, Ste. 201
Washington, D.C. 20019
(202) 667-3630
www.alleycat.orgBest Friends Animal Society
5001 Angel Canyon Road
Kanab, UT 84741
(435) 644-2001
www.bestfriends.orgNeighborhood Cats
2565 Broadway, #555
New York, NY 10025
(212) 662-5761
www.neighborhoodcats.orgSan Francisco SPCA
2500 Sixteenth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 554-3000
www.sfspca.orgBooks and Guides
Berkeley, Ellen Perry, Maverick Cats: Encounters with Feral Cats, Second Edition (Shelburn, VT: New England Press, 2001).Feral Cat Factsheets, including one on handling neighbor conflicts, are available on the San Francisco SPCA’s website at, Ann K., Living in Shadows: How to Help the Stray Cat In Your Life Without Adding to the Problem (Los Angeles: Amythyst Publishing, 2002).How to Create a Grass-Roots Community Program to Help Feral Cats, a 60-page guide, is available for $12.00 from the Neponset Valley Humane Society, P.O. Box 544, Norwood, MA, 02062.Jensen, Janet, Shadow Cats: Tales From New York City’s Animal Underground (Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 2002).Slater, Margaret R., Community Approaches to Feral Cats: Problems, Alternatives & Recommendations (Washington, DC.: Humane Society Press, 2002).

Friends of the Friendless. Send a check for $15 to Feral Cat Coalition, P.M.B. 160, 9528 Miramar Road, San Diego, CA, 92126. Include your address and telephone number.

9-Lives® Humane Feral Cat Management is available from the San Francisco SPCA at Single tapes are $9.95 plus $3.00 s&h; the nine-tape set is $79.95 plus $20.00 s&h. To order by mail, send a check to SF/SPCA, 2500 Sixteenth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103

On the Road to End the Feral Cat Population in Oregon. Send $15 to The Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, P.O. Box 82734, Portland, Oregon, 97282.

Online Course
“ Trap/Neuter/Return: Managing Feral Cat Colonies,” a live, interactive, online seminar offered periodically by Neighborhood Cats is available at for $19.95. (The next course runs from October 6 through November 7, 2003. From the homepage, select the Pets and Animals School link.) The written content of the course is available at any time for $14.95.

Broad Shoulders, Deep Pockets
A great deal of TNR is accomplished through the efforts of individuals who use their own funds and juggle the care of ferals along with other responsibilities. In Queens, New York, Patti Kline and Linda Bryant teamed up to form Kitty Caretakers of Queens. “Our mission is to stop the birth of kittens and the suffering of cats on the streets,” says Bryant, who cares for a colony of 12 cats. Bryant spends about $100 a month of her own money on cat food and veterinary care and works a full-time job as well. “I spend most of my free time running the group and trapping ferals,” she says.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Stray Cat Alliance was formed to bring attention to the plight of feral cats. “We noticed that euthanasia rates in area shelters weren’t declining,” says Anita Frullani, SCA president, “and that most of the unadoptable cats were ferals.” In addition to holding a full-time job and caring for several feral cats in her neighborhood, Frullani conducts TNR training at area shelters and helps area residents trap ferals. She is also heading an effort with a local veterinarian to establish a feral cat spay/neuter clinic.

Paying for sterilization and other veterinary costs associated with TNR requires financial support from animal rescue groups, government agencies, profit-making institutions, the veterinary community and the public. Obtaining funds often requires as much time and effort as performing TNR. Neighborhood Cats’ annual budget of $110,000 covers veterinary expenses, food, mailings, traps, and educational materials. “We do direct mailings and fundraising events,” says Kortis. The group also approaches small, family foundations and local pet stores for support.

Through an alliance with Fresh Step¨ cat litter, the ASPCA offers grants through its Safe Steps Home program, about one-third of which involve feral cats. “We want to improve the lives of homeless cats,” says Julie Morris, National Shelter Outreach senior vice president. Recent recipients include Neighborhood Cats, the San Francisco SPCA, Operation Catnip, and Alley Cat Allies.

Partial funding of the Aggie Feral Cat Alliance comes from local grants and individuals, some of whom work at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine. Initial funding was provided by the Summerlee Foundation, a Texas organization that funds programs to relieve cruelty to animals.

Maddie’s Fund awarded $340,000 to the Utah Veterinary Medical Association in January 2002 to administer a one-year program to alter feral cats and assist low-income pet owners to obtain spay/neuter surgery. By the end of 2002, more than 170,000 feral cats were altered through the California Veterinary Medical Association’s Feral Cat Altering Program, also underwritten by Maddie’s Fund. “The grant for the program was $9.5 million,” says Spivak.

Looking Forward
To help with the increasing need for information about TNR and how to do it effectively, Neighborhood Cats offers a course on TNR, held at ASPCA headquarters in Manhattan. Topics covered include how to trap the cats, colony management, and even how to talk to neighbors. In 2002, Neighborhood Cats was approached by Joy Butler, dean of the Pets and Animals School for the Internet’s “Suite University” to offer the TNR course online (see “Resources”). “I saw the Neighborhood Cats workshop listed as an upcoming event, and it struck me that this would be a good course to offer at SuiteU,” says Butler. And she was right. On the first day the course was offered, 100 people signed up.

In October 2001, Alley Cat Allies introduced the first annual Feral Cat Day. “We’d celebrated our tenth anniversary,” says Robinson, “so we wanted to give people who are concerned about feral and stray cats a day to launch new programs, educate their communities and focus attention on this national issue.” In 2002, ACA distributed 3,000 packets of information, and Sopranos star Edie Falco made public service announcements that aired on more than 300 television and radio stations. The next Feral Cat Day is October 16, 2003.

Whatever the total number of ferals in the United States actually is, bringing that number under control is a daunting task. TNR is the one program to date that offers a solution without sacrificing healthy cats and the humanity of those who care for them. “TNR is part of the no-kill movement,” says Slater, “and represents a fundamental shift in the way we view animals: they feel pain, and it’s no longer appropriate to kill them.”

In Maricopa County, Arizona, “catch and kill” was practiced for 20 years. “It wasn’t making a difference in terms of the numbers of cats coming in,” says Ed Boks, executive director of Maricopa County Animal Control (and, beginning July 1, 2003, the part-time head of New York City’s Center for Animal Care and Control). Maricopa County was taking in about 20,000 cats per year, half of whom were feral. In 2002, the county developed Operation FELIX (Feral Education & Love Instead of Extermination), which employs TNR as a humane response to the massive problem. As a result of its success, the county board of supervisors issued a resolution proclaiming TNR as the preferred method of dealing with feral cats. “We hope it’s a real example to the rest of the nation,” says Boks. Operation Catnip’s Levy puts it another way: “I’d like to be so successful that we put ourselves out of business.”

Karen Commings is a freelance writer and feral colony caretaker in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Reprinted from ASPCA Animal Watch, Fall 2003, Vol. 23, No. 3, with permission from The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804

Courtesy of
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700

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