When I wrote the other day about some animal lovers' trap-neuter-return efforts with a colony of stray cats, I was well aware that not everyone supports this approach.
Trap-neuter-return involves capturing stray cats, then sterilizing and vaccinating them and treating them for fleas and whatever other problems they may have. Kittens and friendlier adults go into foster homes or are adopted. The truly feral ones are returned — with an ear notched to indicate they've been sterilized — to their place of origin, where caretakers supply food and water to a colony that eventually will shrink because they're not breeding and life expectancy is shorter for cats in the wild.
I support the TNR approach, as do pretty much all the major animal welfare organizations, and I'll explain why. But first, I wanted to share excerpts from an email I received on this subject, just to give you a sense of the point of view espoused by the American Bird Conservancy and some other conservation groups.
This particular emailer offered the following arguments:
"Many people, including you, advertise this as good policy to help cats," she wrote. "This could not be further from the truth. Cats are not native animals in the U.S. The problem is outdoor and feral cats are devastating the population of songbirds, birds who reside in our area all year, small mammals and their babies. I am talking millions of birds and small mammals are killed every year by outdoor cats and feral cats. When a cat is released in the wild, it is as devastating as if someone would release a tiger or lion in our neighborhood and it preyed on humans.
"Some species numbers are down 85 percent in the last 10-15 years … Just from the cats, millions and millions are killed every year.
"… The feral cats that are trapped should be humanely euthanized and the people-friendly cats that are dropped off at many places should be trapped and found homes. The life of a feral cat is horrible. They are hit by cars, injured and killed. They are exposed to deadly diseases that cannot be cured and as a result, they suffer horribly. They are outside in all kinds of weather, many suffer through harsh weather, some don't make it. They can also spread deadly diseases and humans that handle them are at great risk of being infected."
I'm very sympathetic to these concerns, which is just one of many reasons I feel people who dump their pets in the wild should be horsewhipped. It's incredibly cruel and irresponsible.
But here's how ABC summarizes its "Solutions" at its website: "Cat owners should keep their cats indoors. There are a number of ways that people can help their cats adjust to an indoor lifestyle, and ABC provides a wealth of resources to help them. Many veterinarians and animal welfare organizations support keeping cats indoors for their own safety, as well as to prevent them from killing wildlife. Outdoor cat colonies, sustained through the practice of trap neuter release, are also bad for birds, do not help reduce the overpopulation of feral cats and are inhumane for the cats, who lead short, harsh lives. Instead, feral cats should be kept in enclosures, trapped and adopted to loving homes, or euthanized."
Outside of the advice about keeping cats inside, I don't think that constitutes much of a solution.
Even if we accept these estimates of the number of songbirds killed by cats, returning to the practices of the past will do nothing to solve that problem. It's safe to say that the animal lovers who are trapping cats to be sterilized, vaccinated and — where possible — put up for adoption in a TNR program will not be interested in trapping cats to be killed. Animal shelters that routinely euthanize healthy dogs and cats have been under increasing pressure to change their policies, in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere.
So if the goal were euthanization, I don't think you would be trapping nearly as many strays as are being captured now, which means fewer tame ones going to good homes and all of them continuing to breed. That means more stray cats, not fewer, and more of the offensive behaviors associated with breeding, not to mention a larger toll on songbirds and the like.
What's more, even if you could pull enough people to clean out a particular stray cat colony for euthanization, that approach doesn't work. Strays from elsewhere just will move in — and breed.
As the Alley Cat Allies group explains at its website, "Removing cats from an area by killing or relocating them is not only cruel — it's pointless … Scientific evidence indicates that removing feral cat populations only opens up the habitat to an influx of new cats, either from neighboring territories or born from survivors. Each time cats are removed, the population will rebound through a natural phenomenon known as the 'vacuum effect,' drawing the community into a costly, endless cycle of trapping and killing."
I wish there were better ones. I haven't heard them.
Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.