2015: The Year of the Cat?


Last week, I posted about the progress we made in 2015 across a wide range of issues, including saving the lives of cats (dogs, and other animals) in shelters and protecting them from abuse. A couple of readers suggested I needed to be more explicit on the increasing success of sterilization and release (depending on the context, sometimes called trap-neuter-return/release, shelter-neuter-release, or return-to-field) as one of the most profound accomplishments of the year. Indeed, 2015 was a good year for U.S. community cats.

There were a number of communities who embraced it in lieu of continued killing, such as Blair, NE, which amended its ordinance to give “community cat caregivers” legal status. “Blair residents are currently allowed to own three cats or three dogs; the total number of dogs and cats older than 4 months can’t exceed four. Under the amended ordinance, a community cat caregiver may feed an unlimited number of cats if those cats are humanely trapped, ear-tipped, neutered, vaccinated for rabies and returned to their original locations.” And Elkton, MD, which embraced a partnership with a No Kill feline rescue group to sterilize and release the city’s community cats.

In addition, sterilization and release has specifically gained traction even among regressive shelters looking for a way to do less work while also increasing lifesaving in response to public pressure. Campaigns like the Million Cat Challenge have repackaged long-term No Kill initiatives like “sterilization and release” for community cats and successfully encouraged more communities to embrace it. The Challenge claims over 250,000 cats were sterilized and released, rather than killed in 2015. This is a major achievement, although admittedly it includes cats who would have been saved without the initiative since some of the participating shelters were already practicing it. The San Francisco SPCA, one of the participating shelters for example, started a TNR initiative in the early 1990s, the SPCA of Eerie County, another signatory, started it while I was running a neighboring shelter in New York in the early 2000s, as have others. (It should also be noted that while “return to field” for cats who are social is and remains preferable to killing, it is an imperfect solution and less ideal than adoption if the cats truly have no human address.)

Moreover, studies touting the benefits of sterilization/release have become more plentiful and more expansive. Here are just four that show: it works from a computer modeling perspective, that is saves both cats and dogs, that it should be done for dogs because of its success with cats, and that is saves cats in other ways, too (such as reduced incidence of respiratory infection for cats at the shelter).

This is tremendous progress to be sure, should be celebrated, and is a far cry from the days when most shelters and the large, national organizations like the Humane Society of the United States called sterilization and release “abhorrent,” “inhumane,” “subsidized abandonment” and even encouraged caretakers to be arrested and prosecuted. But if 2015 was the year of the cat, it was decidedly a mixed bag and, tragically, one of the most majestic of all creatures remains public enemy number one in some circles.

In an announcement that made every cat lover’s world shift on its axis, Australia declared  it was embarking on a five year extermination campaign to put to death 2,000,000 cats. The genocide is mind-boggling and medieval in scope, scale, and barbarism.

In the U.S., likewise, Washington, D.C. officials announced a desire to “revisit TNR”, a euphemism to begin putting community cats to death despite a very successful sterilization and release initiative that has brought District shelter death rates to all-time lows. (They also announced a bid to kill geese, deer, and other animals.) This backtracking in a city with a progressive government and successful TNR program shows how quickly defeat can be snatched from the jaws of “victory.”

Caretakers continue to be cited and in some cases threatened with jail for feeding cats in the U.S. and legislation to clarify that TNR was legal in Virginia failed after PETA and its acolytes convinced legislators that community cats were better dead than fed. PETA also joined with hunters to deny funding for TNR efforts in New York. And the level of anti-cat sentiment in both the “scientific” and popular press appears to be increasing.

While PETA’s war on cats has more to do with the dark impulses of its founder Ingrid Newkirk, the others are driven by the environmental movement’s hijacking by invasion biologists who claim that the cats are “not native” and therefore must be killed. “Non-native” and “invasive species” are terms that have entered the lexicon of popular culture and become pejorative, inspiring unwarranted fear, knee-jerk suspicion, and a lack of thoughtfulness and moral consideration. They are language of intolerance, based on an idea we have thoroughly rejected in our treatment of our fellow human beings—that the value of a living being can be reduced merely to its place of ancestral origin. And when we speak these words, repeat them and pay lip service to their perceived implication that we must revere the familiar and disdain the foreign, we should not only be ashamed to do so, but realize that we are opening the floodgates of expression to our darker natures and our most base instincts—impulses which have been responsible for the most regrettable moments in human history. Indeed, Invasion biology has likely surpassed regressive shelters as the primary threat to the well-being of community cats.

Not surprisingly, conservation has become synonymous with killing. That’s not just my view: it is a truth that these pseudo-environmentalists do not deny and in fact openly promote (as this full page ad in an environmental magazine admits). And not only are cats (and other animals) being killed, killing is done in some of the most brutal ways possible: by electrocution, poisoning (including anticoagulants which cause animals to slowly and painfully die), snare traps, and shooting. In the U.S. the killing is less brutal and more sanitized (except in gassing states where it is tantamount to torture): cats are rounded up and injected with a fatal dose of poison, but it is killing nonetheless.

We’re making progress to be sure. Communities across the country are radically increasing lifesaving through adoption, we’re impacting the “kitten mill” system by passing laws making it illegal in cities to sell commercially-bred cats in pet stores, and more communities are embracing sterilization and release. But it is too soon to declare victory. And too soon to call 2015 the year of the cat in the U.S. or elsewhere.  For that to happen, we must gain strength from our many victories for cats and redouble our efforts to reform the historically regressive practices of our nation’s shelters, while driving the terms “invasive species” and “non-native” into a well-deserved extinction.


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