Ask Me Anything: Community Cat Edition

I get a lot of questions about animals on a wide variety of topics and I try to answer each and every one. When they have wider appeal, I’ll post my response. (If you would like to ask me anything, you can do so in the comments of my Facebook page or through the No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization.)

This week, I was asked about the limits of community cat sterilization, specifically about cats who live on the streets and suffer through starvation, untreated injury and illness. The commenter suggested there was more dignity in being killed via an overdose of barbiturates than suffering on the street. Likewise, it has also been suggested that as cats are not labeled as “native” doing so can assist birds.

Here’s my response (slightly modified):

While I would never allow or support injured or sick cats being left untreated or to starve, your hypothetical does not reflect the reality of the situation. The argument that cats necessarily suffer when living outdoors is antiquated dogma that does not hold up to scrutiny. A comprehensive 11-year study of outdoor cats found that these cats had similar baselines in health, disease rates, and longevity as indoor cats. A subsequent study gave community cats “A+” grades across a wide range of physical and health characteristics. In yet another study, less than one percent of over 100,000 cats admitted to seven major sterilization-and-release programs across the United States had debilitating conditions. And a survey across 132 colonies of community cats in north central Florida showed that 96% of the cats had a “good” or “great” quality of life.

And yet, even if it were true that these cats were disproportionately suffering outdoors (they are not), it would not change what the ethical response should be. It is never okay to kill an individual cat based on a group dynamic. If we were to postulate, for the sake of argument, that most community cats die prematurely due to disease or injury (again, they do not), it would still be unethical to kill any individual cat because not only do that cat’s inherent rights ethically prohibit it, but we would never know if that particular cat will ever succumb to such a fate, let alone when. Moreover, even if we did, even if we knew that a cat would get hit by a car two years from now, it isn’t ethical to rob him of those two years by killing him now. In the end, the answer from opponents of community cat sterilization programs—that we should stop cats from being killed by killing the cats ourselves—is a hopeless contradiction.

Similarly, claims by some that cats are not “native” and therefore do not belong outside are also antiquated, unscientific, and cruel. (As are claims that they impact U.S. bird populations as more than one study has concluded that the “common belief that feral cats are serious predators of birds is apparently without basis.”) “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.

The idea that cats should be labeled an “invasive species” or “non-native” is also hypocritical: forcing onto cats a standard the people who embrace these labels refuse themselves to obey. People are also “non-native” to North America. People belong to a species that is the most “invasive” the planet has ever experienced, causing virtually all of the environmental destruction. And while they blame cats for harming birds, they kill or pay others to kill birds so they can eat them, supporting a vicious industry that kills billions of birds annually. And yet for reasons based entirely on narrow self-interest, they do not hold their own actions to the same standards which they impose upon cats: they do not force themselves to live exclusively indoors, they do not pack up and move back to the continent where humans first evolved, they do not stop eating birds, and they do not impose upon themselves or their fellow humans discriminatory standards which judge the worth of an individual based solely on the lineage of their ancestors.

We need a kinder, gentler, and more tolerant way of viewing the world and the distribution of animals upon it. We also need one more firmly grounded in science. Each species on Earth, writes Biology Professor Ken Thompson, “has a characteristic distribution on the Earth’s land surface: But in every case, that distribution is in practice a single frame from a very long movie. Run the clock back only 10,000 years, less than a blink of an eye in geological time, and nearly all of those distributions would be different, in many cases very different. Go back only 10 million years, still a tiny fraction of the history of life on Earth, and any comparison with present-day distributions becomes impossible, since most of the species themselves would no longer be the same.”

This never-ending transformation—of landscape, of climate, of plants and animals—has occurred, and continues to occur, all over the world, resulting from a variety of factors: global weather patterns, plate tectonics, evolution, natural selection, migration, and even the devastating effects of impacting asteroids. Close your eyes and randomly stick a pin on any location in a map, then do a Google search of that region’s history and what you will invariably find is that at some point in time, that location looked very different than it does today, as did the plants and animals who resided there. Over 10,000 years ago, a sudden burst of monsoon rains over the vast Sahara desert transformed its dunes into a savannah which could sustain life, including people and giraffes who migrated into the area which today is once again a barren expanse of sand. Roughly 74 million years ago, Tyrannosaurs, Ceratopsians, and Sauropods roamed the continent of North America which was divided down its middle by a vast, ancient sea. In the distant past, the now frigid polar regions of the Earth were moist, temperate and blanketed by forests. The geographic and fossil records tell us that there is but one constant to life on Earth, and that is change. So under what pretense does an arbitrarily picked “single frame from a very long movie” chosen by people who refuse to practice what they preach trump the right of cats to live, wherever they may be?

(Thankfully, as destructive nativist efforts increase in number and severity across the world, responsible journalists and scientists are fighting back and challenging this dangerous, environmentally catastrophic pseudo-science. See, e.g.,,,, and

Finally, the choice is not and never has been allowing cats to die slowly or killing them right away by poisoning them in a pound. Where there are the resources to trap and impound them, there are resources to care for them appropriately. And so regardless of what measure you use—quality of life, resources, return rates, adoption rates, and even bird predation rates (themselves overblown in a war on cats), community cat sterilization is a worthwhile, humane, and effective tool.

In short, it helps cats, helps birds, saves taxpayer money, reduces nuisance complaints, and improves a community’s satisfaction with the job government is doing, a “win” by every measure used.

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