No one knows for certain how many feral cats currently roam the United States, but recent estimates have exceeded 50 million.
These cats are genetically the same as house cats. The difference lies in the fact that feral cats have spent their lives outside and have had little to no contact with humans. As a result, feral cats fear people and most aren’t candidates for adoption. Feral cats often form colonies near a common food source such as a dumpster or fishing harbor. We know that public commitment to adoption and spaying/neutering of pets comprise the best measures to keep animals off the street and out of animal shelters. Still, innovative ideas about what to do with the millions of feral, unadoptable cats are sorely needed.
One solution that has demonstrated effectiveness in lowering feral cat numbers is Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR. Under a TNR program, organized volunteers use humane traps to capture cats in a targeted geographic area. The cats are then spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and their left ear tips are often snipped while the cats are under anesthesia to mark them as having already been treated. After recovering from the anesthesia, the cats are released at the location where they were captured. Although the cats are still feral and outside, they are effectively removed from the reproductive population. A two-year study published by The Veterinary Journal this year examined the results of Operation Catnip*, a TNR program supported by NHES that covers a 5-square mile area in Gainesville, FL. The study found a 70 percent decline in cats seized by animal control within Operation Catnip’s target area. The results of TNR are not instant, but they are humane, measurable, and effective.
Unfortunately, TNR remains controversial. Many states have laws against the release or “abandonment” of cats. While these are good laws, they create legal gray areas when allowances aren’t made for TNR programs. The practice is also criticized by some wild bird advocates because of the damage feral cats cause to bird populations. They reason that a TNR team’s unwillingness to kill undermines the program’s effectiveness and that the cats should be euthanized outright to squelch any chance of future bird killing. While there’s no denying the enormous impact feral cats have on wild birds, TNR programs contribute to bird preservation by reducing the number of feral cats over time. Yet other opponents of TNR have the opposite objection. They argue that TNR is too hard on feral cats. Although some TNR programs include caregivers to provide shelter and food to re-released cats, some don’t. After being spayed/neutered, many of these cats resume the lives they led previously, without human involvement.
In sum, TNR is not a perfect solution. A perfect solution would preserve the lives of feral cats, provide for their lifelong health and comfort, end all killing of native birds by cats, place no burden on local animal shelters, and would be cost-effective. In reality, if such a solution existed, the need for TNR would not. It is our position that feral cat numbers are too high to do nothing while overlooking a humane, effective, and measurable program simply because it cannot please everyone.