Setting the Record Straight on TNR
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2011. By popular request, we are republishing it here.
To borrow a phrase from Peter Wolf over at VoxFelina.com, "desperate times call for desperate measures". Wolf used that ageless idea to describe a recent letter published by the American Bird Conservancy. Sent to 50 mayors in cities around the United States, the letter was the latest in a series of stunts designed to dissuade municipalities from participating in Trap-Neuter-Return programs for feral cats. Opposing TNR has been one of ABC's chief activities for many years. And, well, they have been losing ground rapidly. A few years ago, the National Animal Control Association revised their policies to officially endorse TNR as an important tool for managing feral cats. Then, the American Veterinary Medical Association did the same thing. Then, municipalities everywhere began doing TNR, and have been seeing dramatic and positive results because of it. More recently, there have been a couple of court cases involving municipalities that tried to punish citizens involved in TNR. The cases were in Minnesota and Maryland. TNR advocates won both. Then, there was the recent disturbing case of Nico Dauphine, a good friend to ABC, and contributor to their web site and other publications. Dauphine was recently found guilty in Washington, DC of attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison a colony of managed feral cats using rat poison. Dauphine is supposedly a bird lover and biologist, who apparently hates cats enough to put rat poison in their food. A lengthy blog could be written about the Dauphine case, and her connections to ABC. But I will summarize it by simply suggesting that any biologist that believes it is, in any way, OK to use poison to kill animals requires a great deal of scrutiny. For starters: even if it were true that killing feral cats was an effective means to manage their populations (which is not true) poison is a dangerous and indiscriminate killer. Wildlife - including many wild birds - are known to feed at feral cat feeding stations. Did Dauphine NOT understand that by poisoning cats, she would also be poisoning birds and other wildlife? If she had even a cursory understanding of biology, one would have to wonder how she could not understand that. But, Dauphine's lack of credibility goes beyond that. In court, under oath, when questioned about her published statements, Dauphine tried to back-track and distance herself from her own writings about feral cats. As a result, in his final decision, Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III wrote of Dauphine:
Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility.
Not only does this undermine Dauphine's credibility to the extreme, it does serious damage to virtually everything written on the topic of feral cats by ABC, who relied heavily on her discredited, back-of-the-envelope speculations on a wide range of cat/bird topics. With TNR advocates winning in the court of public opinion; with TNR advocates winning in actual, legal court; and with ABC's favorite pseudo-scientist now unemployed and discredited, what was the organization to do? Their answer was to send a semi-threatening letter to 50 mayors, suggesting that if they got behind TNR, they would likely be sued. Unfortunately, Josephine Marcotty from the Star Tribune picked up much of the letter written by ABC and printed it as fact, apparently seeking no alternative perspective on the topic of feral cats, TNR or wild bird populations. However she did even worse than that. She mixed the opinions put forward by ABC with photos of a feral cat colony maintained by a Minnesota shelter. She apparently did so without even contacting the shelter for comment on the story. She also, apparently, failed to read the original story about this colony of cats published in her own paper years earlier. Had she done so, she would have learned several things about these cats specifically, and about TNR in general. Click here to see the photo that accompanied Marcotty's story in the Star Tribune. The image came with the following caption: "Feral cats gather to feed at a colony in Anoka. [A local shelter] manages the colony of about 50 cats. Star Tribune photo. " She also wrote, "Often, they [feral cats] congregate in "cat colonies," especially if a cat-loving person puts out food for them." This suggests that people involved in TNR are causing problems. In fact, the opposite is true. The group of felines pictured had, in fact, been "congregating" on this property for decades prior to any TNR taking place. The current site is a municipal campus that was built on the property of an old farmstead. The farm had a large population of barn cats when the current buildings were erected. With an influx of people to the new buildings came garbage cans and dumpsters. These provided ample food for felines that had likely already been on the property for several generations. When humans put up new buildings, they did not take down the old barns. Cats, therefore, had ample food, water (the property is located on a river) and shelter. The felines had everything they needed to thrive and reproduce long before cat-lovers got involved. To say that the cats had been a problem would be an understatement. Before TNR came into the picture, cat bites to people and other animals were common on this property. The kitties had pretty much maxed out the available housing - there were cats pretty much everywhere you looked. And, even more troubling was the fact that they continued breeding. Every year, this group of cats would produce THOUSANDS of surplus kittens, the overwhelming majority of which would not survive, because the existing population had already reached the carrying capacity of the habitat. It was not a pretty picture. Not understanding the population dynamics in play, property managers worked with animal control, exterminators and so-called "humane" societies, trying to exterminate this population of felines. They tried for more than 20 years, and never made a dent in the cat population. For every adult they would kill, another kitten would simply survive to fill the void created by that death. They simply could not kill cats fast enough to keep up with the rapid reproduction capacity of the kitties. So, for 20 years, not knowing any better, they squandered time, money and resources on a fruitless endeavor. And, the cats remained, population unchanged. In 2004, a large-scale TNR project took place as an alternative. In a matter of days, nearly all of the cats were trapped. Those young enough to tame and socialize were taken in by local shelters and rescues, then adopted into homes. The older cats on the property were vaccinated for rabies, spayed or neutered and marked to indicate they were sterile. Volunteers have monitored and fed the felines (to reduce their dependence on hunting for food) ever since. In 2005, there were exactly 4 kittens born on this property. They were caught, taken to a rescue and adopted into homes. The mother cat was also caught and spayed. There have been no kittens born on this property in the last 6 years. Of the original adult cats released on the site, some of the oldest have since died of old age. A few have disappeared due to unknown causes. Gradual, natural mortality will eventually reduce this colony to near zero. Due to all of the factors previously described, the number of cats on the site is already down to about 25% of the original number. In other words, cats on this site did not "congregate" due to TNR activities. They had congregated on the site long before TNR was involved. TNR has dramatically reduced all of the problems that used to be associated with these felines. This colony is not an isolated case. Thousands of similar projects have taken place all over the USA. In virtually every case I have looked at, I see the same results. The felines are happier and healthier. The numbers of cats decline due to lack of reproduction and natural mortality. Additionally, because the cats are being fed, the impact on wildlife is dramatically reduced. Take a good look at the cats in this photo on the Star Tribune web site... Given their thick layers of fat and fur and their current ages, ask yourself, do they seem like felines eager or capable of catching healthy birds? I mean, really? Keep in mind that each of the cats pictured in this photograph was an older, adult cat in 2004. Their longevity and their robust condition pretty much undermines the idea that feral cats live terrible lives on the edge of survival. Rather than reprinting talking points from ABC's letter, Marcotty would have done well to seek input from people or organizations with actual experience in TNR. Had she done so, she could have written a more interesting article, and one that actually offered potential solutions to people experiencing problems with feral cats.
Update from 11/15/2015: Since this article was first published, I have learned that Animal Control in the area where this colony is found was so impressed by the success of TNR, they began implementing it, with the help of local TNR groups, in other areas of the community, and continue to praise the success of TNR at being able to reduce populations of free-roaming cats. Too bad Marcotty didn't even bother to talk with them about the colony of cats she had photographed for her "story." Had she done so, she would have written a very different piece.