The Problems with Trap-Neuter-Return
There are a few issues that are so divisive among the animal advocacy community that the mere introduction of these topics can turn a rational discussion among friends into a bitter argument. The need for traditional multi-service shelters as opposed to “no-kill” shelters is one; declawing a cat to prevent his or her hypothetical future surrender to a shelter if the furniture is destroyed is another; and the practice of dealing with feral cat overpopulation by the “Trap-Neuter-Return” method is among the most contentious of welfare topics.
TNR involves the trapping of feral cats using non-lethal baited traps, taking the cats to a participating veterinarian for spaying and neutering, vaccinating them against rabies, and blood testing them (if funding permits) for exposure to the feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses. Some veterinarians may ear-notch them to permanently mark them as altered when released back into their places of origin. Typically, they are released within 24 hours, very early in the healing process for (in the females) major abdominal surgery.
Proponents of this system tout it as the most humane solution for the feral cat overpopulation problem, claiming that the altered animals will prevent any newcomers from entering their area, thus limiting the population locally. In theory, their numbers will dwindle eventually to zero by aging and attrition. Meanwhile, colony care givers are responsible for providing fresh food, water, and some form of shelter, as well as for catching any new arrivals to ensure that they, too, are neutered.
Opponents of this practice sometimes refer to it as Trap-Neuter-Abandon and feel that it is our role, as the guardians in the human-companion equation, to provide more than a tenuous existence to animals who are only in their abandoned state due to human irresponsibility and ignorance. Placing animals — domesticated for thousands of years — in unprotected and even hostile environments (including cars and cruel youths in urban settings, rabid animals and predatory coyotes, in rural ones) too often engenders great suffering. Their lives can be brutally short and their deaths excruciating in upstate New York´s winter: I personally have found ferals frozen to death, dumped on my upstate farm.
Additionally, despite good intentions, few colonies retain constant care givers; most find that helpers´ numbers dwindle and cats lose their food sources over time. Conversely, when food is supplied reliably and long-term, the balance of wildlife populations can be affected as some animals are drawn to the bait, such as raccoons, possums, and foxes; their numbers and normal interactions can be significantly skewed by TNR feeding programs. However, the most significant and deleterious impact of feral cat populations on wildlife is the constant predation by cats on small mammals and song birds. As if we humans have not done enough to shrink migrating bird populations by our destructive activities at both ends of and along their routes, we add an even greater stressor by promoting the congregation of feral cats who have had a devastating impact on the song birds´ dwindling populations. The American Bird Conservancy has a national program, “Cats Indoors” , aimed at veterinarians and cat owners to promote keeping cats as house pets only to permit the recovery of some fragile bird populations.
Because of the high degree of suffering that TNR produces, both in domestic and wildlife populations, NYSHA cannot support this method of feral cat population control, except in rare supervised instances in which colonies are safe from environmental extremes, human cruelty, and vehicular deaths, and in which the care giver staff is long-term and reliable. Dr. Julie Levy´s much-studied colony at the University of Florida´s Veterinary School is one such special case. Such places cannot exist in the northeast, unless the animals are permanently sheltered and afforded veterinary care when necessary.
Ultimately, it is only prevention of births coupled with increased responsibility on the part of cat owners that will effectively diminish both the need to euthanize such animals (a sad burden borne by many responsible shelters in order to prevent the cats from undergoing a worse fate) and stem the proliferation of TNR programs. Meanwhile, NYSHA recognizes that the degree of suffering that is the likely norm for countless cats in TNR programs precludes many responsible individuals, shelters, and organizations from endorsing them.
New York State Humane Association Humane Review, Vol.XXI, No.3, Winter 2007-2008.