Editorial: The Prime Directive for handling feral cats & street dogs
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2004:
Puppy-and-kitten season has again arrived, and again we are
hearing familiar cries of dismay.
From communities lacking TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return) programs to control
the reproduction of street dogs and feral cats, we are hearing of
overcrowded shelters and exhausted, demoralized animal control
staff, to whom it is no comfort that shelter killing rates have
plummeted over the past several decades when they themselves, right
this minute, may feel obliged to kill an animal for whom there is no
adoptive home and no cage space.
From communities that do have TNR, we are hearing far too often of
increasingly militant organized resistance.
An election campaign underway in India, for instance, has
encouraged demagogues in Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Sringar, and
Cochin to blame street dogs for disease and filth, and to pledge
that if elected, they shall hire the unemployed to purge the dogs.
Many of the dogs who might be killed are sterilized and vaccinated,
and all of them are vital parts of the front line of Indian national
defense against the consequences of poor sanitation.
Similar political ploys recently victimized street dogs in several
parts of central and eastern Europe, including Athens, site of the
2004 Olympic Games.
In Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and parts of the U.S., feral
cats fed by TNR volunteers are meanwhile commonly but erroneously
blamed for the decline of rare bird species. The birds’ real enemies
are habitat loss, lighted skyscrapers, microwave towers,
pesticides, and–especially in the U.S.–deer populations that have
been “managed” into excessive abundance for the benefit of hunters.
While the deer devour the forest understory that the birds need to
nest, cats take the rap–though like any predator, cats hunt
primarily the sick, the injured, the old, and the very young,
most of whom would have little chance of survival and only the
prospect of longer suffering without predator intervention.
The common denominator among opponents of TNR for either dogs or
cats, anywhere in the world, is that the TNR programs are
conspicuously returning the animals to public habitat, in conflict
with the interests of competing use groups.
Even where the defenders of street dogs and feral cats prevail
politically, the animals often lose, because only one poisoner can
kill hundreds of animals overnight.
“It grieves me beyond measure to think of the possibility of a
resumption of slaughter of street dogs,” Compassionate Crusaders
Trust founder Debasis Chakrabarti wrote from Kolkata (Calcutta) in
“We impress upon all our people that the calls of municipal
councillors, other government departments, hospitals and housing
complexes, and other public places must get priority,” Chakrabarti
continued. “This enables us to convince decision-makers that our
program works. Then we remove sick and injured dogs from the roads,
wherever our people see them. A concentrated effort makes the roads
free of badly diseased dogs. This silences many of our critics,”
since the remaining dogs do not look like a public health threat.
“We initially agree with dog haters when they call us to
remove dogs,” Chakrabarti added. “Our people are tutored to soothe
people who become indignant when dog lovers refuse to understand
their fear or dislike of dogs threatening their children or soiling
the common areas in a residential complex. After the irate person is
calm, and confident of our cooperation, our people gently begin to
ask with seeming casualness whether all the dogs in the locality
threaten them or just one? Most often, people grow adamant due to a
personal grudge against a neighbour who refuses to admit that their
grievance has some validity,” Chakrabarti observed. “With some
understanding and pampering, they begin to agree that they have no
wish to harm an animal, but it is just this one dog who is a
habitual nuisance. Then our people offer to sterilize and return the
rest, removing just this one villain, and they usually agree.”
The Chakrabarti approach is equally applicable to
sidestepping potential conflicts over cat TNR. Essential to doing
TNR successfully with either street dogs or feral cats is
understanding that even though the ecological precepts behind it
appear to work anywhere, responding appropriately to the cultural
environment wherever homeless dogs or cats exist is just as important
as understanding the population biology.
ANIMAL PEOPLE was instrumental in introducing
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) to the United States, starting in 1991 with
a seven-month trial of the method in northern Fairfield County,
Connecticut. We had already been informally sterilizing and often
socializing barn cats and wandering cats of unknown origin for 15
years, along with hundreds of other rescuers around the country,
but only belatedly realized the importance of quantifying our
experience so as to be able to teach the technique and respond to
criticism of it, which in those days came primarily from within the
The prevailing view, espoused most vociferously by PETA and the
Humane Society of the U.S., was that feral cats were miserable waifs
who could never be tamed and could best be helped by “putting them
out of their misery.”
Starting at the onset of the winter of 1991-1992, we captured 326
cats from eight separate colonies in a systematic effort assisted by
neighborhood volunteers. The most pathetic waif among these cats,
whom we named Rosalba, is still among us, a shy but seemingly happy
indoor pet. Forty-three cats, or 13%, arrived with health
problems, of whom 24 were successfully treated, including Rosalba,
while 19 either died or were euthanized.
Of the survivors, 237 (73%) already had regular feeders and safe
habitat. After sterilization and vaccination, those cats were
released where they were captured.
Seventy cats (22%) either had no reliable caretakers, were young
enough to be easily socialized, or came from habitat we deemed
unsafe. We were able to adopt out 47 of the 70 during the seven
months of the project.
We relocated the remaining 23, among whom nine were picked off by
wild predators soon after relocation. This, a severe shock and
disappointment at the time, turned out to be typical of feral cat
relocations when we compared results with others, and also turned
out to be typical of wildlife relocations, which are considered
successful if half of the animals survive for one year.
We kept our doors open to the survivors. Ten of them eventually
became quasi-house cats. Only Becky/Louise–named after the founders
of Alley Cat Allies–has rarely come inside for naps and visits.
Getting to zero
From the beginning, our goal was to reduce the feral cat
population at our initial target sites to zero as rapidly as
possible. We estimated that this would take from three to five
years. Only one site, the location of the largest colony, still
had feral cats after three years. It was down to zero cats by late
There are two preconditions for zeroing out a cat or dog
population through TNR, and both were stringently observed:
1) At least 70% of the animals and preferably 100% must be
sterilized. Before the 70% figure is reached, there will be no net
reduction, because the reproductive capacity of the remainder will
still exceed replacement. ANIMAL PEOPLE made every effort to trap
and sterilize 100% of the cats at each site as rapidly as they could
2) Sites must be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure
that all newcomers are identified, caught, and sterilized.
We learned the hard way that highly visible habitat, where
feeding animals may encourage people to abandon their pets, should
be considered unsuitable. The largest colony site was as big as it
was due to frequent abandonment, and persisted as long as it did
because abandonments continued until the feeder learned to keep his
We stipulated as fundamental humane considerations that all
kittens who could be socialized for adoption would be, a rule we
have also seen applied to puppies captured in successful TNR efforts
on behalf of street dogs. Kittens and puppies are easily adopted,
and are the most vulnerable animals if left at large.
We further required that no sick, elderly, or disabled animals
should ever be released, not that we found many, because animals
with infirmities are typically the first to be killed by predators.
Finally, as the Prime Directive for practicing TNR successfully
without rousing politically problematic opposition, we determined
right from the beginning that no animal should ever be returned or
relocated into hostile or otherwise unsuitable habitat.
Hostile habitat is anywhere the animals will be at high risk
of being injured or killed, whether accidentally or deliberately,
whether by humans or other animals. Most especially, hostile
habitat is anywhere the community is intolerant of the presence of
homeless cats, or dogs, which puts the animals at high risk of
being poisoned, beaten, shot, or subject to capture and extermination
at the discretion of municipal agencies or other civil authorities.
Obviously we erred in our relocation of the nine cats who were killed
by wild predators, but we did not err in removing them from their
former habitats, characterized by heavy traffic and local opposition
to their presence. If we had not removed them, most would have been
killed sooner than they were.
Most situations in which vaccinated and sterilized animals
are rounded up for extermination by local officials appear to result
from disregard of the Prime Directive.
The outcome of trying to “save” animals by keeping them in
unsuitable locations is an enormous waste of time and money, and
often a net increase in the animal suffering.
ANIMAL PEOPLE found through our own experiment and two
national surveys of cat rescuers that 80% to 90% of all of the places
where feral cats take up residence should be considered unsuitable.
Fortunately, the suitable locations tend to have about half of the
Mention of the Prime Directive inevitably raises the question
of what to do with the animals from unsuitable habitat. The
conventional response is “euthanasia.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE does not consider population control killing or
culling to be “euthanasia.” The word “euthanasia,” literally
meaning “good death,” is most properly used to describe putting to
death hopelessly suffering creatures in order to relieve their
misery. Reflecting the contentiousness of the issue, there is
internal disagreement within ANIMAL PEOPLE over whether or not the
word “euthanasia” might accurately be applied to painlessly ending
the lives of healthy animals who are in clear and present danger of
experiencing a more miserable death. The humane community long ago
began misusing the term “euthanasia” as a synonym for all use of
lethal injections–and sometimes all killing done within animal
shelters, by any method–in order to feel better about killing
healthy animals from lack of alternatives. Some humane workers may
still believe there are no viable alternatives for many of the
animals who cannot be sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to
suitable habitat–but with the U.S. feral cat population down by as
much as 90% in a decade, and even the Indian street dog population
visibly reduced in many major cities, the old argument that there
will never be enough homes to adopt out all the animals in need is no
longer the verity that it once was.
High-volume adoption has not even begun yet in any nation
with abundant street dogs, but that is precisely the problem: when
dogs are visibly abundant, they have little perceived value. When
enough dogs are removed from problematic places, they are no longer
omnipresent pests, their better qualities can be more effectively
advertised, and rescuers can give former street dogs significant
added value by housebreaking them and teaching them to obey basic
Here in the U.S., pet dogs commonly wandered at large as
recently as 1970. Shelters rarely adopted out dogs other than the
cutest puppies–and often did not even try. Today few people allow
their pet dogs to wander, and shelters have captured 21% of the
total dog acquisition market, placing primarily full-grown adults.
The adoption potential for feral cats is even greater.
Survey after survey has affirmed over the past 25 years that half of
all household pet cats are acquired either from the cat just showing
up on the doorstep or from an animal shelter or rescue group. When
the U.S. had as many as 35 to 40 million feral cats, obviously there
were not enough homes to accommodate them all, but today the number
of homes becoming available each year is approximately equal to the
feral cat population.
In theory, at least, there are enough homes now. The
problem is matching the cats to the homes–and not all feral cats
want to be matched.
Our experience was that among the 70 feral cats whom we tried
to tame for adoption in 1991-1992, about one in five were hopeless
cases. This suggests that 80% of the present U.S. feral cat
population can find homes, if removing cats entirely from contested
sites is necessary to avoid jeopardizing the cats, and to avoid
conflicts that spill over to the thousands of other locations where
TNR can be practiced quietly, discreetly, and without opposition.