Homeless-cat study sets off firestorm

In some circles, Trap-Neuter-Return is controversial, even though it’s endorsed by the Humane Society, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon and many other animal protection organizations.

Homeless cat

Photo by Tracie Hornung

Trap-Neuter-Return is the method of humanely trapping free-roaming cats, spaying/neutering them, vaccinating them for rabies and returning them to their colony to live out their lives. TNR also includes a colony caretaker who provides food and shelter, and monitors the cats’ health. The cats’ lives are improved, and without the ability to reproduce, colonies die out from natural attrition.

The Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs estimates 145 million feral kittens are born each year in the U.S.

While supporters of TNR believe it’s the most humane way to deal with the millions of homeless cats in the nation, some people concerned about declines in indigenous birds, rodents, reptiles and amphibians believe feral cats should simply be killed off.

The American Bird Conservancy is one organization that for years has opposed TNR. And now an article in the journal Nature Communications has created the most recent firestorm.

It states that billions of small wildlife are killed in the U.S. by homeless housecats. It also says TNR is not effective and implies that feral cat colonies should be exterminated. The Smithsonian Institution publicized the study through its blog.

Alley Cat Allies, a national nonprofit organization that advocates protection and humane treatment of feral and homeless cats, calls the study “bogus” and is garnering support to tell the Smithsonian to “stop spreading junk science” that it fears will result in more cats being killed. You can read its press release.

Since I haven’t read the full Nature Communications study (which isn’t available online) I’m not sure it’s based on “junk” science, but I signed Alley Cat Allies’ online petition because I support TNR. The petition allowed no way for the signer to add his or her own comments, but if it had, here’s what I would have said:

TNR may not be the fastest way to achieve substantial reductions in the feral cat population, but for now it is the only way because the cost, the inevitable public outcry, and the danger to cats with homes make “culling” a very hard sell.

The effectiveness of such an action is also questionable. Many TNR advocates believe that exterminating cat colonies creates a void that is quickly filled by more homeless cats.

Other solutions suggested over the years are that cats be licensed as dogs are (with lower fees offered for those cats that have been spayed or neutered; see this American Bird Conservancy document on creating licensing laws) and that cat owners keep their cats inside.

I don’t have much hope for a long-term solution using the latter idea. In some situations keeping cats inside all their lives can work, but for many cats it won’t — and their humans will be unwilling to allow them to be miserable. Over time, I believe widespread licensing in tandem with TNR would make a serious dent in cat-overpopulation.

But our best hope lies in chemical sterilization.

The Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs, based in Portland, Oregon, has been working on that goal for several years. Its mission is “to expedite the successful introduction of methods to non-surgically sterilize dogs and cats and to support the distribution and promotion of these products to humanely control cat and dog populations worldwide.”

The scientists, veterinarians and others involved in this research are making headway, but a permanent and safe contraception for dogs and cats has yet to be created. To spur research, the ACC&D is offering the Michelson Prize in Reproductive Biology which will award $25 million to the first researcher who creates an easy, affordable means of sterilizing animals. Up to $50 million more will be available to support the research of one or several individuals who come forward with plausible approaches. To find out more, read this 2008 article from USA Today.

You  might also want to check out this balanced brief about cat overpopulation and possible solutions from my alma mater, Michigan State University.

Homeless-cat overpopulation is yet another environmental problem we humans have created. But, like many of those problems, we can solve them — if we care to.

What do you think?

World Spay Day – February 26
Spay or neuter your pet: It’s the humane thing to do.

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