Editorial: How to introduce neuter/return & make it work
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2010:
Even before publication of our first edition, in September
1992, ANIMAL PEOPLE advocated and demonstrated the use of
neuter/return in place of catch-and-kill animal control. Our very
first project proved the efficacy of neuter/return plus vaccination
to keep raccoon rabies from spreading among feral cats at eight sites
Witnessing, documenting, and reporting about the success of
neuter/return in controlling dog and cat populations worldwide often
provides a sense of accomplishment. Yet a frequent source of
frustration comes from seeing the failure of poorly planned, ineptly
executed, and negligently maintained neuter/return projects.
Nearly 30 years after neuter/return was first successfully
demonstrated in South Africa, Kenya, and Britain, a decade before
formal introduction to the U.S., there no longer seems to be much
doubt among animal advocates and the international public health
sector that neuter/return, properly conducted, is at once the most
humane method of reducing the numbers of feral cats and street dogs,
and the most effective way to control disease vectors.
The humane argument against killing healthy animals for
population control scarcely needs introduction or summary. But the
public health argument for neuter/return tends to be at least as
persuasive when governments review their animal control policies.
From the public health perspective, neuter/return plus vaccination
replaces high mortality and birth rates among often diseased feral
cats and street dogs with stable populations of healthy animals.
Neuter/return also gradually reduces feral cat and street dog numbers
without sacrificing their role in controlling rodents, who are of
vastly greater significance as disease vectors. In effect,
neuter/return buys time in which to improve refuse disposal and other
aspects of sanitation, or at least to allow nature a chance to fill
the scavenging void with other creatures.
Effectively managed, neuter/return sells itself well enough
to have become national policy in India, Costa Rica, and Turkey,
and to have developed strong interest among policy makers in many
other nations. There is, nonetheless, continuing opposition from
people who feel that returning feral cats and street dogs to their
habitat under any circumstance is inhumane, unclean, perpetuating
societal backwardness, and/or presenting a threat to wildlife,
especially birds, who would be threatened much more if feral cats
Opponents of neuter/return can be counted upon to continue to
amplify word of any failures of neuter/return programs, as they have
since neuter/return begain. Failures will continue to be represented
as failures of the neuter/return concept, not as the inevitable
result of poor planning, execution, and maintenance. Public
policies which have become favorable to neuter/return may sometimes
be amended in adverse ways, as occurred in Los Angeles as result of
a December 2009 court decision that any neuter/return feral cat
control project done with public support must be preceded by an
environmental impact statement.
ANIMAL PEOPLE is asked no question more often than variants
on “How can we overcome opposition to neuter/return in our
community?” Sometimes the opposition is to introducing a
neuter/return program of any sort, based on negative views of feral
cats or street dogs. Often, though, the opposition is based on
misunderstanding of how neuter/return uses ecological principles to
achieve a lasting transition in which species make use of food
sources and habitat. Sometimes opposition to neuter/return is also
based on perceptions that neuter/return has failed elsewhere, and
will not succeed in addressing the specific concerns of the
community–or has already failed in the community. In fairness to
neuter/return critics, failures are common; but these are almost
entirely from predictable and remediable causes.
Overcoming opposition to neuter/return really requires only
demonstrating success. Neuter/return should significantly and
visibly reduce the problematic presence and activities of the species
it targets, including minimizing harmful effects on wildlife. A
neuter/return program that does not accomplish these goals needs to
be redesigned so that it does.
Demonstrating success begins with carrying out demonstration
projects, on a limited scale. Working on a limited scale,
especially at first, gives a neuter/return team the chance to
recognize, address, and avoid repeating mistakes. Starting small
enables a neuter/return team to develop the capacity needed to work
successfully on a larger scale later, including the ability to raise
funds enough to sustain each project, capture enough cats or dogs
for surgeons to work efficiently, and safely perform enough
surgeries to reach a 70%-plus rate of sterilization of cats or dogs
(or both) within the target area and within a single breeding cycle.
70% is the minimum sterilization rate necessary to stabilize
a feral cat or street dog population. Achieving a reduction of the
population requires achieving a higher sterilization rate. Until the
project achieves at least 70% sterilization, the target population
will retain the capacity to breed back up to the carrying capacity of
the habitat within one breeding cycle.
The “get 70% or flunk” rule is by now known to most people
advocating neuter/return. Yet the importance of getting at least to
70% in one location before moving on has not yet been fully accepted
by many neuter/return practitioners, who still scatter their efforts
across whole cities, instead of focusing on specific neighborhoods
with boundaries such as rivers, busy highways, and other geographic
features that inhibit animals from migrating in to occupy habitat
left open by a declining birth rate.
Before any organization or ambitious individual begins a
neuter/return project, it is critical that the neuter/return process
be thoroughly understood. There are no shortcuts to success. Yet
correspondents often ask ANIMAL PEOPLE to recommend or at least
endorse, as one recent neuter/return advocate wrote, “compromises
between doing it 100% perfectly versus the real world.” This is like
seeking a compromise between flying and crashing. Neuter/return
succeeds, when done properly, by altering the balance of species
who occupy the carrying capacity of the habitat. There are many ways
to do the necessary work on an extremely limited budget, but there
is no substitute for doing the work. The fewer the resources of the
neuter/return practitioners, the more essential it is to plan every
step, anticipate every contingency, and minimize making wasteful
Neuter/return rarely succeeds if there is compromise on doing
the necessary preliminary research; thoroughly training program
participants in best practices, from animal capture to return of
sterilized animals to their habitats; and insisting that the best
surgical techniques be used, under absolutely aseptic conditions.
For example, it is self-defeating to hire a surgeon to spay
cats or dogs who makes unnecessarily large incisions, and relies on
antibiotics instead of asepsis to prevent post-surgical infections.
The animals will avoidably suffer; the efficacy of the program will
suffer because of the need to hold animals longer to ensure that they
do not become infected, or to treat infections; and the credibility
of the program will suffer if sutures fail after animals are
released, as occurs most often when multiple sutures are used to
close large incisions.
Expecting inadequately trained and practiced surgeons to
sterilize more animals than they can handle is perhaps the second
most common reason for street dog sterilization program failures in
the developing world.
The first most common reason for neuter/return failures
involving either dogs or cats, in any part of the world, is
starting to operate before doing the necessary preliminary surveys.
The essentials are accurately assessing both the target animal
population and their environment. This begins with mapping the
Sometimes this is easy. Highly successful neuter/return
programs have been done within the visibly limited confines of a
gated residential development, a fenced military base or industrial
park, a greenbelt surrounded by freeways and busy streets, or even
just the courtyards, balconies, and rooftops of indvidual apartment
houses. Yet one should not merely assume that even such seemingly
obviously delineated habitats are self-contained. A busy street,
for example, may be much less a barrier to a nocturnal population of
dogs or cats, who cross in the wee hours of the morning, than
humans might guess.
Designing a neuter/return program to serve a neighborhood
without obvious physical boundaries will usually be more difficult.
Such neighborhoods usually are not the best places to demonstrate
neuter/return. Yet careful observation may discern that dogs and
cats do not usually pass through blocks without food sources, such
as accessible garbage, or where aggressive pet dogs chase visitors.
Urine markings and/or scent mounds will reveal favored routes, while
the absence of markings and mounds within a distance of about a block
may mean that something within this space inhibits animal passage.
Regardless of what the boundaries to a particular feral cat
or street dog habitat are, they must be identified, and a
successful neuter/return program must work from boundary to boundary
to avoid merely opening habitat to other cats or dogs.
There is no substitute for counting the target species within
the target area, not only before beginning a neuter/return project,
but also repeatedly during the project, to make sure the initial
population estimates were accurate, and afterward, to quantify
success and identify immigrant animals, who also must be sterilized,
lest they repopulate the target area.
Doing an accurate dog or cat population count need not cost
any more than the price of a clipboard and pen, and the time to walk
repeated line transects of the neighborhood, night and day. ANIMAL
PEOPLE will be pleased to e-mail instructions to anyone in need of
them. Because this work is simple and inexpensive, it is an
excellent starting point for would-be neuter/return practitioners who
have yet to raise a project budget; and the data thus obtained can
become the basis for successful fundraising.
Sterilize pets first
If targeting feral cats, one must develop estimates of the
feral cat population in comparison to the roaming pet cat population.
To stabilize or reduce the numbers of cats at large, neuter/return
practitioners often find that they must sterilize both feral cats and
roaming pets. Even sterilizing (or exterminating) 100% of a feral
cat population will achieve nothing to reduce the total number of
cats, if–as is now the case in parts of the U.S.–the roaming pets
are four times more numerous and have a sterilization rate of only
50%, or lower.
In that case, the roaming pet cats have more than enough
reproductive capacity to quickly replace themselves and the entire
feral cat population; and because the roaming pet cats may be making
the greatest contribution to cat population growth, the program can
accomplish more, faster, by focusing on sterilizing the roaming pet
cats and educating their people, than by starting out trapping
ferals. Trapping ferals should be the second phase of the program,
begun after the sterilization rate among the roaming pet cats is
raised to 70%-plus.
If targeting street dogs, one must likewise develop an
accurate understanding of the balance of population among
free-roaming pets; “community” dogs, who are more-or-less public
pets; and authentic feral dogs, who may be the hardest to catch,
while making the least contribution to dog population growth,
because their puppies usually have the lowest rate of survival.
Again, a sterilization program will usually need to serve all of
these populations. Again, it is sensible to sterilize as many of
the free-roaming pets as possible first, enlisting the cooperation
of their people; then progress to the “community dogs,” who are
relatively easily handled; and leave the feral dogs for last.
Along with surveying the animal populations, a neuter/return
practitioner should survey the diseases and parasites that may be
common among them, and develop a strategy for eradicating disease
and parasites as part of the neuter/return program. This will
typically include vaccination against rabies and distemper, and
sometimes other ailments; deworming; mange treatment; and in some
habitats, application of fungicides. A neuter/return practitioner
cannot guarantee the quality of life of every feral cat or street dog
handled, but relatively small investments in disease treatment can
substantially improve the quality of life of most.
Further, one can greatly improve public acceptance of
animals by eliminating visible conditions such as mange and the
emaciation caused by intestinal worms.
Ideally, one should obtain recent wildlife population counts
before beginning a neuter/return program. In the U.S., Christmas
bird survey data for many locations is available from the National
Audubon Society (which opposes neuter/return). Breeding Bird Survey
counts may be obtained from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. State
and local agencies may have information about wild mammal populations.
The best defense against an allegation that neuter/return may
harm birds is to show that preventing cats from bearing litters
reduces predation on birds–and on rodents, who are also eaten by
many birds. If a feral cat neuter/return project may open habitat to
hawks, owls, and eagles, one may need to be able to show that
hawks, owls, and eagles attracted by an increased abundance of mice
are also responsible for increased predation on songbirds.
A neuter/return program that reduces the numbers of street
dogs may at the same time encourage a rapid increase in the feral cat
population–or immigration of monkeys or street pigs, or even
jackals and leopards in some habitats.
Effective neuter/return program planning requires identifying
the possible effects involving other species, and formulating
responses for whatever might result.
Not all animals can be returned
The goal of any neuter/return program is to return sterilized
animals to their habitat to live out the balance of their lives,
ideally with better quality of life than they had before.
Yet not every animal can be returned to the habitat from
which the animal came. ANIMAL PEOPLE has often editorially reminded
readers that the prime directive for doing neuter/return
successfully, in a humane manner, is to never return animals to
unsuitable habitat. This includes habitat where there is a strong
likelihood that the animals will be poisoned, shot, or trapped for
dispatch by animal control.
Returning a feral dog or cat to habitat where the animal has
already learned to avoid natural predators, such as coyotes, foxes,
leopards, or tigers, is merely recognizing that the animal is
living as wildlife, enjoying the freedoms and trying to evade the
risks that normally accompany wild existence. Returning a feral dog
or cat to habitat where the animal is unwelcome and will be subject
to human persecution may cause more suffering than just humanely
killing the animal in the first place, before putting the animal
through the stress of sterilization surgery. Inherently unsuitable
habitat includes land reserved for wildlife; multiple use public
parks, where the presence of dogs and cats may interfere with other
uses, leading to complaints that end with the animals being killed;
and sites where the visibility of dogs and cats leads to abandonments
Even when the habitat is suitable, not every cat or dog
captured by a neuter/return program is a suitable candidate for
release. Sick or injured animals should not be put back into
situations where they will suffer and may spread diseases to others.
Abandoned ex-pets are usually conspicuous by visibly suffering from
life as feral or street animals, and should not be returned to a
homeless existence. Easily tamed cats and dogs, including kittens
and puppies, can be rehomed. Where the goal is to reduce the
numbers of cats and dogs as rapidly as possible, socializing the
tamest animals for adoption is usually the quickest way to show
Neuter/return is often promoted as an alternative to
sheltering animals, as in the “no kill, no shelter” model advanced
by Gerardo Vicente, DVM, of the McKee Project in Costa Rica, and
the “no kill” strategy advanced by No Kill Advocacy Center founder
Nathan Winograd. Indeed, neuter/return is an effective and humane
alternative to sheltering many feral cats and street dogs, but it
does not eliminate entirely the need to shelter or foster animals,
even as part of neuter/return programs.
From the very beginning, a successful neuter/return program
must decide what it will do with animals who cannot be returned to
their habitat, and must develop facilities appropriate to the chosen
responses. If a neuter/return program chooses not to operate a
shelter or fostering network, it must partner with other people who
provide these services, or be prepared to kill animals for whom
there are no other options.
The volume of animals a neuter/return program may handle who
cannot be returned to their habitat should not be underestimated.
The 1992 ANIMAL PEOPLE demonstration of neuter/return found that
about 25% of the feral cats handled could not be returned to their
habitat, of whom 6% required euthanasia due to illness or injury,
while 19% were either adopted out or kept by ANIMAL PEOPLE for the
remainder of their lives. Several survived as long as 15 years.
Our experience, in light of subsequent results from other
programs around the U.S. and in the developing world, turned out to
be unusually positive. Many, especially those handling street dogs
in areas with endemic rabies, find that they cannot return even half
of the animals they receive to their habitat. Three recently visited
by ANIMAL PEOPLE, in far removed parts of the world, found that
they euthanized from 15% to 33% of the dogs they handled, chiefly
due to signs of exposure to rabies.
Up to 40% of the dogs these organizations received were held
either as prospects for adoption or due to dangerous behavior, which
increased among male dogs when the numbers of females coming into
heat declined. Specifically, large packs formed in pursuit of the
remaining fertile females, pursued passers-by, and–though not
killed–were microchipped or tattooed as unreleasable by the
community dogcatchers. Because killing healthy dogs is morally
unacceptable to each organization, the outcome in each case is that
a program initially focused on neuter/return has become refocused to
a considerable extent upon sheltering, at great cost to program
The goals of a successful neuter/return project must be
identified right from the beginning, and may differ for the various
stakeholders, including the humane organization undertaking the
project, the donors to the project, the owners of property where
the animals congregate, the people who feed the animals, the people
who object to the animals’ presence, the local public health
officials, and the community government. All should be consulted.
The neuter/return process must be adequately explained to each set of
stakeholders. Cooperation should be solicited to the utmost extent
possible, and tolerance of the project should be established, if
possible, even in absence of active cooperation.
Introducing the first phases of the project as a trial or
demonstration will usually help to win tolerance, including of
mistakes that may occur as the project participants develop the
necessary skills and capacity to work on a larger scale.
Neuter/return practitioners must identify in each place they
work whether the primary goal of most of the stakeholders is
extirpation, meaning that there are no more feral cats or street
dogs, or merely a reduction of problems associated with the animals.
Whether the goal is feasible must be carefully assessed, along with
the possible consequences of success.
For example, extirpating a feral cat or street dog
population is usually not possible where poor sanitation makes food
waste and rodents abundant, but reducing the numbers of cats or dogs
may encourage the arrival of raccoons, coyotes, or monkeys, who
may be seen as even more problematic. The solution may be for the
neuter/return team to work in partnership with agencies or civic
organizations whose focus is improving sanitation.
The most successful neuter/return projects document each
result as it occurs. If a cat colony or the number of dogs on a
street corner declines, this is recorded. Conversely, if two
declining cat colonies or street corner dog packs merge, making one
larger while the other disappears, this is noted, in case it needs
to be explained to someone.
Frequent consultations to compare observations ensure that
other stakeholders are seeing the same things happen. If there are
differences in perception, the differences are explored, and
conflicting observations are reconciled. Sometimes this requires
making a change in procedure–for example, by counting animals at a
Ideally, satisfied stakeholders in a well-planned and
efficiently executed neuter/return demonstration project will become
advocates for an expanded project. Several successful demonstration
projects, of increasing scope and in increasingly challenging
habitats, may be needed before skeptical public officials are
persuaded to take the political risk inherent in replacing an
established catch-and-kill or poisoning program with neuter/return as
policy. Realistically, the time from inception of a first
demonstration neuter/return project to acceptance of neuter/return as
public policy will take at least three to five years of documented
success, and may take 10 years or more.
As urgent as the needs of the individual animals served by
neuter/return often are, attempting to establish neuter/return as
public policy before the capacity to do it is adequately developed
is usually a prescription for failure. The consequences of a failure
leading to public policy decisions reinforcing catch-and-kill or
poisoning are not easily undone.
Far more beneficial for animals in the long run is to work in
a stepwise, incremental manner, ensuring that each task in
introducing neuter/return is done effectively and persuasively,
avoiding catastrophic failures whose effects may hinder the
development of other neuter/return programs, not only locally but