Rethinking neuter/release by Kim Bartlett

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1993:

I have always had strict rules on neuter/release,
essentially the same as those recommended on the facing
page by Carter Luke: all cats and kittens who can be social-
ized for adoption should be; no ill, elderly, or disabled
cats should ever be released; all cats should be properly
vaccinated; no cat should be released into hostile habitat;
and all feral cat colonies should be kept under the careful
supervision of a responsible feeder, who will try to remove
and assist any cat in distress. I have never seen
neuter/release as any real solution to the problem of home-
less cats, just a stop-gap measure to prevent more births.
But I find myself even less enthusiastic about neuter/release
now, after our experiences of the past 10 months.
We thought we had found feral cat paradise here
on this 10-acre site in the mountains. It is nearly a mile
from the nearest paved road; we have a basement outfitted
with a spring-loaded cat door, blanketed beds, and a heater;

on the grounds are numerous outbuildings, including a
straw-filled barn and stable; and there are no human threats
of any kind. The cats we released here did, in fact, seem
joyously happy. For almost two months they ate, played,
and explored. At night they would all congregate near the
house––I could count each and every one. Then, in
September 1992, one by one they disappeared, at three-to-
four-day intervals, until nine were gone. I am convinced
they were taken by coyotes. After the nine disappeared,
nothing more happened to the group for eight months, until
a small yellow female named Daisy developed leukemia and
had to be euthanized. Two of the ferals moved into the
house of their own free will: they hung around the doors
seeming to want to come in, which they eventually did,
with just a little coaxing. I wish the five ferals remaining
outdoors would come in, too, but they really don’t want
anything to do with humans––except food and comfort. The
house would be like a jail to them. I think it’s cruel for
hopelessly hardcore ferals to be forced to live in captivity:
they are frustrated and live in constant fear of human
I’ve come to believe that no matter how well one
provides for free-roaming feral cats, their lives will most
likely be short, though they may not be unpleasant.
Contrary to the belief advanced by the late Phyllis Wright
and others that the lives of ferals are necessarily miserable,
many ferals do seem essentially happy, so long as they have
adequate access to the necessities of life.
Still, one can spend a fortune fixing ferals, vacci-
nating them, relocating them, and providing for their needs,
only to have them vanish. For that reason, I think that in
the majority of cases it’s probably better to round them up as
gently as possible for euthanasia, and spend the money neu-
tering the pet animals of people who can’t or won’t do it.
That would effectively cut off the source of most of the
homeless cat population. The typical stay of a cat in a home
is about six years, whereas among the 326 mostly feral cats
we handled in our rescue project, just 17% were older than
two years. The potential number of litters a housecat may
have is thus many times the number most ferals might have.
This is not to say there aren’t success stories with
ferals, or that there aren’t completely appropriate situations
for neuter/release––say, when the cats are quasi-pets living
on their caretaker’s own property. Keeter, one of my
favorite cats, started out completely wild, and allowed me
to touch him only after I’d fed him on my porch for two
years, after neutering. He adjusted well to the move here
and now spends his nights indoors. Merritt’s former feral
cat, Alfred, is the quintessential pet cat cat now. But both
of these cases began with one-on-one relationships, and the
cats originally came to us, at our homes. We have four
other former ferals living in the house with us now; one is
tame, one is semi-tame, and two remain unhandleable.
The impact of feral cats on wildlife cannot be
ignored, and should be a major consideration. Ferals may
fit in as predators, especially in the urban environment, tak-
ing the place of those long gone, but the balance is delicate.
I’m not at all sure how to compare a cat to a fox, though I
suspect the cat will kill a great many more animals than the
fox, mostly for sport. I’m certain that the predator/prey ratio
is askew in virtually all feral cat colonies. The feral who
lives alone would be a more natural fit.
But despite what I may think about feral cats today
or tomorrow, I would never, never try to discourage any-
one from attempting a responsible neuter/release approach.
First of all, while neuter/release may not always be the best
thing to do, it’s still a good thing to do. In the worst case
scenario, it’s better than doing nothing: at least there won’t
be more cats born. Second, many people are constitutional-
ly or philosophically unable to catch an animal for delivery
to the euthanasia room––only 20% of the cat rescuers who
responded to our national survey last year had done so. In
many cases, neuter/release is all one can do with a particu-
lar colony: for example, when a caretaker will only allow
the cats to be caught if they are to be returned.
I still don’t want to take a hard-and-fast position on
the issue, or alienate anyone doing the best and most he or
she can do––whether it’s neuter/release or capture/euthana-
sia. It’s a very polarized and polarizing topic, which pits
one’s humanitarian instinct to preserve life against the
humanitarian mandate to prevent suffering. It’s a case
where something has to be done, but one seldom feels real-
ly good about the options.
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