Editorial feature: Successful neuter/return must recognize reality

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2013: (Actually published on October 8,  2013)

By Kim Bartlett and Merritt Clifton

 Playing at Parcul Tei in central Bucharest,  Romania,  four-year-old Ionut Anghel and his six-year-old brother on September 2,  2013 wandered briefly out of sight of their grandmother,  through a hole in the park fence,  into a large vacant lot that offered dirt piles to climb and access to the marshy edge of the Danube river.  They might have mistaken for friendly the six dogs who rose to attack them.  The six-year-old, though injured,  escaped to tell his grandmother that Ionut Anghel was dead.  Rushing to the scene,  the grandmother and other Parcul Tei visitors found the dogs already devouring the remains.

Previously impounded by Bucharest animal control in 2008,  the dogs had been sterilized,  microchipped,  and on December 24,  2008 released to the custody of one Lavinia Mirela Nica,  identified as a former volunteer for a shelterless rescue incorporated as the Asociatii pentru protectia animalelor Caleidoscop.  Nica reportedly signed a form stating,  “Caleidoscop charity declares that they will never abandon the dog in the streets.”  But the dogs were apparently left a few hundred yards from Strada Tuzla,  the nearest street.  And,  for a time,  the dogs were not “abandoned.”  Rather,  they were fed near where they killed Ionut Anghel.  But their feeder had not come for a week or more.

A more catastrophic demonstration of how not to do neuter/release could scarcely be imagined.  Habituating any animal to being fed and then stopping the feeding is a prescription for trouble.  Releasing any animals one has pledged will not be released,  in inappropriate habitat, without food sources,  close to a playground,  is cruel to the animals and squanders public trust.   Even had the fence been fixed,  small hands could easily have stretched through the chain link into harm’s way.

Contrary to online activist assertions,  often illustrated with old photos from as far away as Mexico and China,  the Romanian parliament responded with relative restraint.  Instead of ordering a purge of all street dogs,  as activist alerts have often alleged,  the Romanian parliament on September 10,  2013 authorized pounds to kill dogs after a reclaim-or-adoption interval of 14 days.  By comparison,  the only holding interval required at all by U.S. federal law is that dogs or cats must be kept for five days before being sold to laboratories.  Holding intervals before animals may be killed are set by state or local governments in the U.S.,  and are usually in the range of two days to one week.

The new Romanian law did lead to thousands of dogs being killed,  to make room for more impoundments.  Since 2007 Romanian pounds had been required to hold dogs indefinitely,  with little funding for their upkeep and no effective oversight.  Not surprisingly,  these “no-kill” pounds often degenerated into squalid,  overcrowded canine concentration camps,   where the strongest dogs ate the weakest.

Instead of allowing themselves to degenerate,  some pounds simply stopped taking dogs,  leaving the street dog population to grow back toward the carrying capacity of the habitat,  after earlier purges in some cities and sporadic sterilization programs in others had significantly cut the dogs’ numbers––for example,  from circa 40,000 to circa 25,000 in Bucharest.  But 25,000 free-roaming dogs is still a ratio of one per 80 human residents,  meaning two or three haunting the alleys around each apartment complex.

Neuter/return programs for street dogs were successful in Oradea,  in the northwestern corner of Romania,  and in a handful of other places where sterilizing at least 70% of the dog population was achieved,  and recolonization of vacated habitat by dumped dogs or dogs wandering in from elsewhere was in some manner prevented.

But even in Oradea,  two weaknesses of the neuter/return approach were evident.  The first is that sterilizing large numbers of dogs requires an enormous investment that most communities in economically struggling nations are unable to make.

The successful Romanian street dog neuter/return projects,  and those that made Costa Rica a no-kill nation,  have all been heavily subsidized by foreign donors.  The Animal Welfare Board of India has subsidized the Animal Birth Control program in India,  which has been successful in some cities,  ineffective in others,  and has yet to reach much of the nation.  Federal subsidies have also underwritten a faltering national street dog sterilization program in Turkey.  Like the Indian program,  the Turkish program does not yet reach anywhere close to the entire nation.  In no instance,  anywhere,  have adequate public funds been available to sterilize enough street dogs to effect a permanent population reduction without sustained nonprofit help.  Neither has anyone,  anywhere,  effected a successful transition of a nonprofit street dog neuter/return project to public funding.

In theory such transitions might be accomplished without political resistance if the economies of the communities in question improved rapidly enough that the budget for sterilizing dogs could come out of increased tax revenues.  But Romania,  India,  Turkey,  and most other nations with abundant street dogs have been hit far harder by the post-2008 recession than the U.S.,  and have had no increased tax revenues to invest.

The second weakness of neuter/return applied to street dogs is that it does not quickly remove dogs from places where they are seen as problematic,  unwelcome,  and dangerous,  and are likely to be stoned,  scalded,  poisoned,  or shot,  among other cruel fates,  if not hit by cars in ever more heavily trafficked thoroughfares. Neuter/return is an eminently effective means of controlling street dog populations in places where dogs are generally liked and tolerated, so long as there are not too many of them.  Usually this requires that rabies has receded as a frequent threat,  if it has not been entirely eliminated,  and that feeders are discouraged from causing dogs to congregate in public places and behave in hazardous ways,  for example chasing bicyclists and mobbing any passer-by who is carrying food or even just a bag that might contain food.

Neuter/return is also a humane and effective means of controlling the populations of feral dogs who live in relatively remote places and want nothing to do with people.

But neuter/return is not and cannot be the only approach to dog population control accepted in public policy.  Neuter/return is not workable in every habitat where dogs are found,  nor for every dog,  even where neuter/return is acceptable for some dogs.

Fortunately dogs tend to vacate habitat that becomes inappropriate,  due to decreased food availability and increased traffic––unless feeders encourage the dogs to linger.

Observing the Prime Directive

Similar can,  and must,  be said of the use of neuter/return for feral cats––a technique which ANIMAL PEOPLE has always advocated, encouraged,  and defended,  when done appropriately,  observing the Prime Directive that no animal should ever be returned or relocated into hostile or otherwise unsuitable habitat. The very first ANIMAL PEOPLE  project,  begun almost a year before the debut of the ANIMAL PEOPLE newspaper in September 1992,  was a seven-month trial of neuter/return feral cat control in northern Fairfield County,  Connecticut.  Our goal was in part to vaccinate enough feral cats and reduce the feral cat population enough to prevent a raccoon rabies outbreak from spreading into cats.

Assisted by neighborhood volunteers,  we trapped 326 cats from eight separate colonies.  Many of the volunteers already fed some of the cats,  but we discouraged expanded feeding.  We emphasized the importance of not leaving food and food containers unattended and out at night, since this might lure raccoons into greater proximity to cats.

Forty-three cats,  or 13%,  were found to have health issues when trapped.  Of these cats,  24 were successfully treated;  19 either died while in care and under treatment,  or were euthanized.  Of the survivors,  237 (73%) had safe habitat and reliable food sources.  After sterilization and vaccination,  those cats were released where they were captured.

Seventy cats (22%) were either young enough to be socialized,  or came from habitat we deemed unsafe.  We kept these cats to be socialized by volunteers.  We adopted out 47 of the 70 during the seven months of the project.  We relocated the remaining 23 cats,  among whom nine were killed 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 relocations of other wildlife,  which usually are considered successful if half of the animals survive for one year.

The 14 survivors of the translocation had the opportunity to come indoors if they chose to do so.  Ten of them eventually became quasi-house cats.

From the beginning,  the aim was to reduce the feral cat population at our 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 1996.

There are two preconditions for zeroing out a cat or dog population through neuter/return.  Both were stringently observed.

First,  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 remaining animals will still be able to breed back up to the carrying capacity of the habitat.  ANIMAL PEOPLE made every effort to trap and sterilize 100% of the cats at each site as rapidly as they could be identified.  Second,  neuter/return sites must be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure that all newcomers are identified,  caught,  and sterilized.  Observing the cats by night as well as day is essential, because feral cats who are not accustomed to being fed by humans tend to be nocturnal rodent-hunters.

Feeding,  we learned,  frequently tempts furtive mousers,  whom nobody notices,  into becoming diurnal bird hunters,  who hunt for recreation while awaiting their food handouts.  This does not help the cats,  who already had adequate food sources or would not have been there;   does not help to control the rodent population;  does not help the birds (although dispatching sick birds who might infect others and are on the ground after dark,  after others have roosted,  is a key ecological role of cats),  doesn’t help to reduce birder resistance to neuter/return, and doesn’t help to demonstrate the efficacy of neuter/return,  because even if the neutering reduces the numbers of cats,  the feeding increases their visibility––meaning that in most people’s perception,  there are more cats.

We learned the hard way that highly visible habitat,  where feeding animals may encourage people to dump their pets,  should be considered unsuitable for neuter/return,  regardless of other conditions.  The largest cat colony site among our eight trial locations was as big as it was due to abandonments,   and persisted as long as it did because abandonments continued until the colony feeder learned to keep his activity invisible.

We cannot over-emphasize our allegiance to the Prime Directive,  throughout the Connecticut project and in encouraging neuter/return ever since.  Again:  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,  by humans or by other animals.  Most especially,  hostile habitat is anywhere the community is intolerant of the presence of the animals.

Obviously we erred in relocating the nine cats who were killed by 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.

The outcome of trying to “save” animals by keeping them in unsuitable locations is often both an enormous waste of time and money,  and a net increase in animal suffering.

ANIMAL PEOPLE found through our own experiment and national surveys of cat rescuers done in 1992 and 1996 that 80% to 90% of all of the places where feral cats take up residence should be considered unsuitable.

This appears to be also true of street dogs.  Fortunately,  the suitable locations tend to have about half of the cats,  and probably about half the dogs.  Because unsuitable habitats are not hospitable to cats or dogs,  the cat and dog populations in those habitats will be relatively sparse––unless feeders encourage cats or dogs to congregate where they could not otherwise survive.

Wildlife response is not a model

From the perspective of our own work and from having reported about neuter/return programs worldwide in every edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE, we found Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle’s blog of September 12,  2013 both encouraging and alarming.  Pacelle,  who was skeptical of our 1991-1992 project,  but later came to endorse neuter/return,  affirmed his appreciation of the value of the method––but his endorsement this time included implicit encouragement of misapplications of neuter/return and damaging misstatements of why and how it is best used.

Wrote Pacelle,  “Our movement may be at the front-end of an ‘aha’ moment with regard to how we respond to the un-owned outdoor cat population.  When these so-called ‘community cats’ arrive in shelters––whether brought there by nuisanced or well-meaning neighbors––their fate is often predetermined,  and it’s not a good one.  What’s more,  the volume of cats coming into shelters isn’t enough to reduce the size of the cat population,  and the only conclusion is that we aren’t doing much to help curb nuisances,  cruelty,  or predation on wildlife.”

Pacelle then introduced Kate Hurley,  director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.  Hurley alleged,  contrary to any credible cat population survey published since 1927,  that “The population of un-owned cats in the United States is estimated to be approximately the same size as the population of owned cats.”

This matters,  because faulty factual input leads to flawed reasoning and grossly misguided public policy recommendations.  In truth, National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull found as long ago as 1950 that about two-thirds of all cats had homes.  At least six surveys done by four different organizations between 1989 and 1996 found this percentage rapidly rising to 80%-plus after the advent of neuter/return––90%-plus in the Northeast and along the West Coast.

Since then,  the ratio of cats with homes to cats without appears to have stabilized,  based on shelter intakes,  sterilization program data, roadkill counts,  and actual on-the-ground feral cat colony counts.  The number of feral cats in the U.S. has declined to circa eight million on year-round average,  but remains about 10% of the total cat population because the pet cat population,  according to American Veterinary Medical Association research,  declined by 18% between 2002 and 2012.

Hurley argued for shelters to “set euthanasia aside as a tool to control cat populations and focus on other alternatives––most notably, shelter/neuter/return.”  Hurley also recommended that shelters should help communities to “find strategies to co-exist with cats peaceably,  just as we do with other creatures such as raccoons and opossums that might make an unwanted appearance in somebody’s back yard.”

ANIMAL PEOPLE learned through extensive discussion with Hurley at HSUS Expo in Nashville,  Tennessee in May 2013 that she appears to be oblivious to the existence of the enormous and growing “nuisance wildlife” control industry in the U.S.,  whose chief work is killing raccooons, opossums,  and other animals,  including feral cats.  The limited available aggregate data indicates that about 6,000 private “nuisance wildlife” contractors are currently doing $1.2 billion a year worth of business.  Add to that $72 million per year billed by USDA Wildlife Services,  which works mainly for other public agencies.  Altogether,  Americans now spend almost as much to kill “nuisance wildlife” as the estimated $2.5 billion spent by animal control agencies and humane societies to control the dog and cat population.

Educating the public to tolerate wildlife and to use non-lethal methods to avoid conflict with animals has been a lifelong pursuit of all of the ANIMAL PEOPLE team.  We believe encouraging tolerance of wildlife should become a much higher priority for humane organizations.  But meanwhile,  how society treats raccoons and opossums––who in much of the U.S. are still recreationally hunted with dogs––scarcely sets an example for how feral cats (and street dogs) should be treated.

“The common thread is to reduce intake,”  added San Francisco SPCA co-president Jennifer Scarlett to the remarks by Pacelle and Hurley,   “but the tactics for change can run the spectrum from managed intake to diverting all healthy cat intake to neuter and re-release.”

Many animal advocates had the ‘aha’ moment of which Pacelle spoke several decades ago.  Many animal control agencies and humane societies have at least tacitly encouraged local neuter/return practitioners for 10 to 20 years.  The San Francisco SPCA,  a pioneer in the field,  has subsidized and assisted feral cat sterilization projects since 1988.

But feral cats are very different from former pet cats whose ‘caregiver’ wants to relinquish them to a shelter,  or who abandons them on the streets,  or next to a dumpster.   Feral cats are also very different from “community cats,”  whose needs may be provided by multiple cat-lovers in a non-hostile neighborhood.  Authentic “community cats,”  like street dogs,  now mostly exist in small towns and villages,  chiefly in the developing world.

Feral cats,  by contrast,  are just as wild as raccoons,  opossums,  and coyotes.  Feral kittens who survive to maturity have been taught to hunt by a mother who knows how to train them,  and knows the location of food sources.  A feral cat has adapted to the habitat,  and will stay away from unfriendly people.

Not so former house cats,  who may know nothing about survival,  except how to beg food from people,  making them easy targets for poisoners and other abusers.   Former house cats may experience profound sadness at being homeless,  whereas the true feral has never had a home with people,  and even if given one,  may escape at the first opportunity.

What “managed intake” means is that a shelter accepts surrenders of animals only by appointment,  with a waiting list for cage space.  By slowing the pace of intake,  a shelter can avoid overcrowding that leads to killing healthy animals who cannot find homes.  But what “managed intake” also means,  if there is no open-admission shelter in the community,  is that people in the stressed state typical of people who surrender pets may instead dump those animals at large to “give them a chance.”  Or animals may be kept longer in atmospheres of domestic instability and violence.

Neuter/return programs have more often than not involved transporting cats (and street dogs) to shelter clinics for sterilization.  In the event of surgical complication,  those animals may be housed at the shelters for a post-surgical observation period,  or they may be cared for by volunteers at their homes.    The Animal Welfare Board of India requires a post-surgical holding period of up to a week.  But even for the animals captured to be sterilized who turn out to be tame,  and are evidently dumped former pets,  there is no intent in a neuter/return program that the animals are “sheltered” in the usual sense of the word.  The animals in a neuter/return program are neither surrendered by the public nor impounded by animal control in response to complaints;  rather,  they are trapped,  often with great difficulty,  and brought to the shelter clinic by the same volunteers who will return them to their habitat as soon as possible.

The term “shelter/neuter/return” suggests that the animals involved will include animals who have been brought into shelter custody through caretaker surrender or impoundment.  This is a very different matter from neuter/return as usually practiced.  Former pets surrendered by their caretakers and animals impounded by animal control are brought to shelters because they are no longer welcome wherever they were. They cannot be returned to those places.  Release of tame house cats (or pet dogs) to outdoor habitat anywhere is abandonment,  and would differ from people abandoning unwanted animals “to give them a chance” only in that a shelter would be doing it.

Even if a shelter does not intend to release tame but unadoptable animals,  the term “shelter/neuter/return” implies that releasing an animal who should be sheltered is acceptable.  In combination with a “managed intake” policy,  publicizing a “shelter/neuter/return policy” practically guarantees that more animals will be dumped by people who are unwilling or unable to keep the animals through weeks on a waiting list.

Animals impounded by animal control may indeed be authentic ferals,  with outdoor survival skills,  but releasing them belies the purpose of animal control,  since many will try to find their way back to their former habitat,  and many will become problematic in their new location,  too––if indeed unoccupied suitable habitat can be found.

To be remembered is that the purpose of neuter/return is not simply to reduce shelter killing.  Rather,  neuter/return is meant to remove feral cats and street dogs from their habitat as gently as possible.  Much of that habitat is no longer appropriate for any wildlife,  and will not be reoccupied,  but what remains suitable will soon be filled by native species with their own habitat needs.  Releasing cats or dogs into habitat from which they have been displaced by other species is likely to create conflicts which jeopardize both the released animals and the other animals who have moved in.

The U.S. feral cat population was reduced by 75% within a dozen years of the introduction of neuter/return in 1991-1992,  but over the past decade has stabilized at about 8-9 million.  Most of the feral cats left are in places that are inaccessible to neuter/return volunteers.  There is opportunity for animal shelters to extend further help to responsible,  well-managed neuter/return programs,  so that they can reach more of these cats,  but since most of these cats in inaccessible places are not coming to shelters in the first place,  extended neuter/return outreach is unlikely to decrease either shelter admissions or killing.

Much of the rest of the “feral” cat population are being maintained by feeders as quasi-outdoor pets.  These cats are not really “feral” any more.  These cats need a home.   The same is true,  elsewhere in the world,  of most fed street dogs.

Feral cat and street dog populations in problematic places,  now as ever,  typically result from abandonments of unwanted animals who manage to raise a litter before their early deaths.  Thus the surest way to keep these animals from being impounded is to ensure that pets are prevented from reproducing.

Kim Bartlett and Merritt Clifton serve respectively as president and editor at Animal People

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