The Orange County, CA, animal shelter has been served with a cease and desist letter, a precursor to litigation. According to a news report, “The letter takes issue with a program at OC Animal Care, where stray felines are returned to the community after shelter stays rather than being housed longer for adoption. The letter likens the practice to ‘animal abandonment.’”

“But OC Animal Care says the program, which is known as Return to Field, spares strays’ lives and reduces euthanasia rates. Many other shelters nationwide do the same thing.”

The complainants take issue with the return of healthy cats and kittens who are social with people, claiming that the OCAC program should be reserved for cats who are not social with people (deemed “feral”) and that kittens should never be released. In making such an argument, they are conflating two different programs: a Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) program for cats and kittens who are not social with people and a Return-To-Field (RTF) program for healthy strays who are. Current OCAC policy provides sterilization for all community cats and kittens who are not social with people and returns them to their habitats if they are roughly four months of age. “Feral” kittens younger than that are still at risk for being killed, rather than returned to their outdoor habitats. The RTF policy, on the other hand, requires that they be at least six months of age to qualify for the program.

Far from being too lenient in terms of the age of kittens as complainants allege, the program for kittens who are not social with people is too conservative. While I would rather see small, feral kittens tamed, killing a 10-week-old kitten instead of releasing her after surgery is intolerable. Since they qualify for major surgery (sterilization), they qualify to live in their colonies and neighborhoods, a fact each and every one of us would recognize if we were the ones facing the needle.

In fact, if these kittens could speak for themselves, and were to be asked whether to be returned to the place they were born, or be immediately executed, none would choose death. The instinct of every living thing is to flee harm, most especially mortal threats. The “killing is kindness” rationale, or the idea that we protect animals by killing them, has enabled the slaughter of millions of healthy and treatable animals in our nation’s shelters for more than a century. It is a tragedy to see these dangerous mythologies being resurrected and promoted by “cat rescue groups” which, as a whole nationwide, have been at the forefront of the movement to reform the deadly shelter practices and the pernicious ideologies which enable them for more than 20 years. This lawsuit and the language it contains are a major step backward and threaten to drag the sheltering movement back into the dark ages from which it has been steadily emerging for the past two decades. That those behind it are claiming the mantle of “cat protection” as they do so is not only misleading, but for cats and kittens, very dangerous.

Second, RTF is not “animal abandonment” if done correctly. First, some of these cats are not lost. They are outside, but they get lost when they are taken to a shelter. Returning them merely returns them home. Even if they were lost when they were picked up, the likelihood of being reunited with their families is greater for cats if they are allowed to remain where they are rather than being admitted to the shelter. In one study, cats were 13 times more likely to be returned home by non-shelter means (such as returning home on their own) than by a call or visit to a shelter. And another study found that people are up to three times more likely to adopt cats as neighborhood strays versus adopting from a shelter.

At the same time, the risk of death for street cats in communities has been found to be extremely low, with outdoor cats living roughly the same lifespan as indoor pet cats. In other words, the risk of death is lower and the chance of adoption higher for cats on the streets than cats in the shelter. In a study of over 100,000 alley cats, less than one percent of those cats were suffering from debilitating conditions. As such, the RTF programs meets the two goals of a shelter better than impoundment in a shelter does: reclaim by families or adoption into a new home. Where the alternative to RTF is death, RTF is always the preferred outcome.

Admittedly, there are caveats to this program. Moreover, I did not do RTF for community cats/kittens when I ran both a private shelter and an animal control facility. While we practiced TNR for cats who were not social with people, becoming the first community in the nation to zero out deaths of feral cats, when social cats were not reclaimed, we found all of them homes. But that requires full, complete, and robust implementation of the No Kill Equation. And comprehensive No Kill Equation implementation requires either a law that mandates how a shelter operates, like the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA), or (preferably and) a hard-working, committed staff that is passionate about saving lives and would leave no stone unturned if it meant an animal lived instead of died — something Orange County has never had. (I used to live in OC; my wife grew up there.)

While new leadership appears intent on bringing cultural and policy changes to the organization to save more lives, that leadership will always be constrained by career staff who resist change because they are content with the climate of indifference and killing that has infected the Orange County pound for decades. Short of a legislative mandate like CAPA, I have never seen an agency of considerable size achieve and maintain a lifesaving ethic without significant turnover in staff.

When I took over an animal control shelter in central New York, over half of all employees moved on or were fired within the first six months, eventually replaced with new coworkers who shared a vision of a No Kill community. The result? A 75% decline in killing. When I was hired by the Board of a shelter in Nevada, only three of roughly 60 original staff were allowed to remain. The result? We doubled adoptions and cut killing in half. And when I was brought in by the Health Commissioner of a major metropolitan city in the Northeast to reform their pound, which at the time was killing 88% of the animals, we started issuing pink slips, a 50% turnover in a year, winning every single union arbitration because of poor and hostile treatment of animals. In doing so, we virtually turned the agency into a mirror image of itself.

People are the heart and soul of any organization. To succeed at the No Kill endeavor, staff members must be committed to the organization’s mission and goals, share leadership’s lifesaving values, and have a strong work ethic. It is always better to fire a bad staff member than to kill a good animal.

I am not making excuses for any of the killing still occurring in Orange County. But if complainants want to see a No Kill Orange County in earnest, they should be demanding that the county pass CAPA. They should also demand that the county end the practice of treating the animal shelter as a jobs program for poorly performing staff by giving its leadership the ability to fire shirkers at will. Instead, they are calling for limits on live placements for cats otherwise facing the needle. And that just means more dead cats and kittens (and not just in Orange County). Because if they sue and win, that is exactly what will happen.

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