Monday, September 24, 2012

The Feral Freedom program: leave outdoor cats where they are!

Even in parts of the country in which the dog overpopulation problem is mostly under control, the cat overpopulation problem is still rampant. Cats entering shelters often have a less than 50% chance of adoption, down to 10% or less in many communities. Certainly, unfriendly feral cats coming in to shelters have a miniscule chance of adoption, so small that most shelters euthanize them rather than trying to find them a barn home.

On the other hand, cats living outdoors often do very well for themselves. Contrary to the popular assumption that the life of an outdoor cat is nasty, brutish, and short, most of the cats coming through trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs are healthy. They may not live as long as indoor cats, but they are not miserable. To some people, the idea of euthanizing a cat rather than run the risk of its being hit by a car in a year seems silly or even a little mean.

The city of Jacksonville, Florida, recognized that the choice for outdoor cats, feral or not, was either to be spayed/neutered and returned to their territory, or euthanized. That was it. Certainly feral cats stood no chance of adoption, and the influx of friendly cats was so great that their chances weren’t much better. That realization was the seed of Jacksonville’s Feral Freedom program. This program facilitates the sterilization, vaccination, and return of all healthy outdoor cats that are presented to the shelter. These cats come from the surrender of “stray” cats and from active trapping. Rather than become shelter inhabitants, they are returned to the location where they were originally trapped or picked up.

Does it cost a lot? Because the city was holding all cats for five days in case an owner came to reclaim them, and paying for euthanasia and disposal of the body, the program costs the same as the previous policy, or a little less.

Do owners fail to find actual stray cats when they are not held in a shelter? Research has shown that stray cats are less likely to be reunited with their owners in shelters than if they are left outside to find their own way home. Many owners do not expect to see their outdoor cats daily, and may not start looking for a missing cat until after it has already been euthanized in a shelter.

Are outdoor cats nuisances? Some certainly can be, although sterilization does reduce nuisance behavior, and vaccination reduces disease. (Cats are much more likely to get sick in a shelter than outdoors.) Feral Freedom provides assistance to people with complaints about individual cats. They will trap, sterilize/vaccinate, and return the cat, and then suggest that people who want it off their property try methods like motion-sensitive sprinklers. (And hilarity ensues.)

Do the good citizens of Jacksonville approve of this program? Jacksonville initially implemented the program on the sly without a lot of publicity, but did publicize it once it had proven to reduce cat euthanasia rates in shelters. The city receives complaints about individual cats, but rarely about the program as a whole. Most people, when they understand that the cat’s choice is euthanasia or return, accept that putting the cat in a shelter is not a humane option. (Some people do disagree. That will be true of almost any public policy, except maybe the one where every new baby gets a chocolate eclair.) But cats will not be relocated, even problem cats. Aside from the question of how well a cat will do when dropped down into a new territory, there is nowhere for them to go. There are no places that want more outdoor cats.

And, of course, the ethical questions. Isn’t it the job of a shelter to provide care for homeless animals? Of course it is. But if the shelter does not have the resources to provide for all of them, does it become the job of the shelter to kill them when they are not otherwise suffering? And aren’t cats better off in a good home? Of course they are. But if there is no good home available (or even bad one), are they better off dead?

I certainly recognize that this approach to cat overpopulation is a controversial one and that many will disagree with it. (If there is interest, I may blog later about the questions of communicable disease in outdoor cats, or predation of wildlife by outdoor cats.) But I think we have reached the point in dealing with the pet overpopulation problem where revolutionary ideas are worth trying, because we have tried almost everything that is non-revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong: euthanasia of healthy domesticated animals has certainly decreased in the past decades. But there is still a long way to go. As one of my faculty advisors said to me recently, “It’s an exciting time in shelter medicine. Everything’s on the table.”

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  1. The idea sounds both sensible and humane to me.

  2. What do you think about FELV/FIV SNAP tests for cats coming into a TNR program? I worked at a private clinic where a feral cat found to be FIV+ was euthanized instead of neutered and returned, to try to protect the population of healthy outdoor cats by reducing spread of the disease from the feral cat reservoir. What's your opinion?

    1. This is another contentious issue. I think arguments can be made either way. I would say that just sterilizing cats makes them less likely to fight, so they won't swap blood or spit, which makes them less likely to pass either of those viruses on to other cats. In other words, reproductive sterilization alone will help reduce disease incidence. The TNR clinics I have seen do not test. If a cat is apparently healthy, it goes back.

  3. Miami Dade is running the feral freedom program but have a policy of feral cats willnot be tolorated Iin county parks. I find this to be rediculious. Cats are dumped daily and are breeding daily in South Florida. Feral Freedom needs to be for all cats regardless of where they live. They are trapping tge cats in county parks and claiming they are putting them at a sanctuary. There is no way this will work for the county park cats. They will be trapping for the rest of their lives. And there is not enough land to hold all the cats in all the county parks. The cats will be stressing out being locked up and having their freedom taken away to the point of getting sick, fighting with other cats, being scared of other cats and will die a slow horrible death.