TNR Reality Check
Trap-Neuter-Release (Trap-Neuter-Return or TNR), also known as Feral Cat Colony Management, involves trapping cats, spaying or neutering them, and then releasing them into the environment. A colony caretaker feeds the cats indefinitely. Some programs also vaccinate and/or microchip the cats. Often feral cats are ear-tipped (the tip of the ear is cut) before released. The stated goal of TNR is to reduce the number of feral cats and eventually to eliminate colonies through natural attrition. However, this is not the case. Colonies do not die out, as many TNR advocates would have folks believe. TNR is based on perpetual colony maintenance. Despite the fact that outdoor cats do not live relatively long lives, the colonies can easily exist for ten or more years. Some colonies are as small as 10 to 20 cats and others can number in the hundreds.
Attrition is a gradual reduction in number, often through death. Natural attrition is natural death or death caused by old age. Many TNR advocates claim that colonies reduce in size through natural attrition, but this is not the case. Colonies may initially and temporarily reduce in size by removing friendly stray cats for adoption. Those that remain often suffer and live miserable lives in colonies. Those that do die often have been hit by cars, attacked by dogs or wildlife, or ravaged by disease. Sometimes cats just disappear and caretakers never know the fate of these animals.
Native wildlife has not developed the mechanisms to live alongside non-native predator species. This causes an imbalance and can decimate local wildlife populations. Native predator-prey fluctuations are normal and maintain an ecological balance and biodiversity. No balance can exist between domestic cats (an exotic species) and native wildlife in the environment.
A feral cat is an unsocialized cat. True feral cats are fearful of humans and are not approachable. A stray cat may be a cat that is lost or who was recently abandoned. Cats that grow up in the wild in the absence of human contact tend to be feral. This does not mean they cannot be re-socialized; however, this does require time, effort and patience. All cats (whether pets, strays or ferals) are domestic animals. They are not part of the ecosystem and do not belong outdoors. The wild is neither their natural environment nor their habitat. The domestic cat, Felis catus, is a descendent of the European and African wild cats. They were domesticated in Egypt more than 4000 years ago and have since become dependent upon humans for survival. These cats are not wild and should not be referred to as "wild cats". Wild cats include species like New Jersey's native bobcat and Florida's native panther.
TNR does not help feral cats. Often miserable lives are simply prolonged in these colonies. These cats may not receive regular meals, as all cats in a given colony may not be accounted for every day. They may not have fresh water during the colder months. Flies can quickly lay maggot eggs on their food during the hotter months. Feral cats usually do not receive regular veterinary care because they are very difficult to trap more than once. Therefore, rabies vaccinations that expire put the cats at risk for contracting and spreading this fatal disease. Cats often have intestinal parasites, including roundworms and hookworms. They also have external parasites, including fleas and ticks. They may have upper respiratory infections or urinary tract infections. All of these illnesses and more are almost always left untreated in these cats after they have been released. Many colonies are poorly "managed" and those that are maintained at artificially high densities simply serve to spread diseases, including fatal feline diseases like feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. Some cats can never be trapped and thus never altered and never vaccinated.
TNR does not protect wildlife. The "theory" behind TNR is that colonies will reduce in size, thereby lessening the number of feral cats that can predate on wild animals. The problem is that this does not happen. In fact, colonies often grow in size because the cat food attracts neighborhood cats and colonies serve as dumping grounds for irresponsible owners to abandon their pets. Not every cat can be trapped and therefore not every cat is altered. Unaltered cats continue to reproduce. TNR has a harmful effect on wildlife. Every cat has an inherent ability to hunt. This has been extensively studied and scientifically documented. Well-fed cats still hunt. Even if they receive regular food, they are no less motivated to hunt. The areas surrounding colonies in Florida show bird populations at half the normal levels. Furthermore, cats do not perform a service by killing rodents. These cats affect the rodent supply for birds of prey and other animals dependent upon this food source. Also, cats do not distinguish between an introduced species of mouse and native rodents. Cats are opportunistic, prolific killers of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
TNR does pose a risk to human and animal health. Not all cats are trapped; therefore not all cats are vaccinated. Cats are difficult to re-trap for subsequent care and vaccinations. Cats carry many types of bacteria and can transmit disease through bites, scratches and fecal contamination. Cats may defecate in the sand on beaches, in children's sandboxes, in gardens and flowerbeds. Felines are the only species to shed the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, in their feces. This parasite can live for many months in the environment and causes Toxoplasmosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that "Cats play an important role in the spread of toxoplasmosis. They become infected by eating infected rodents, birds, or other small animals." The CDC advises avoiding stray cats, covering sandboxes, gardening with gloves, and keeping cats indoors. Many TNR advocates state that folks are more likely to acquire Toxoplasmosis from eating or handling raw or undercooked meat or eating unwashed fruits and vegetables; however, this can be traced back to cats who have shed the parasite in their feces. Pigs, sheep, deer, and other animals eat contaminated feed or soil or those fruits and vegetables are grown in contaminated soil. Then humans eat that produce or meat.
TNR is not a humane or effective solution to the feral cat problem. There are several companion animal organizations that endorse TNR, but that does not mean that TNR works or is, in principle, humane. The focus for these organizations may be more for cats and less for native wildlife. They may wish to recommend TNR as an alternative to euthanasia, which often is the result for feral cats brought into local area shelters. However, euthanasia may very well be the most compassionate outcome for these cats. Nevertheless, euthanasia does not have to be the only alternative to TNR. Many adult feral cats can be socialized and adopted into homes, despite what TNR advocates claim. Those cats that absolutely cannot be socialized can remain on private property and given sanctuary in an enclosed barn, enclosed cattery, or some other structure that protects them and keeps them separate from wildlife. At a minimum, those folks who have existing fencing on their property may construct an enclosure using PVC piping as a curved barrier, thus keeping cats confined to the property. This will prevent the cats from roaming, however, wildlife may still enter (unless the top is also fenced) and this does little to protect the cats from outdoor weather extremes unless some other structures are available. TNR advocates often state that we cannot socialize or give sanctuary to millions of feral cats. Likewise, we cannot TNR millions of feral cats. In fact, out of the seventy million feral cats in the United States not even one percent has gone through TNR.
TNR advocates often present incorrect and misleading information:
Many TNR advocates state that habitat loss is the "real" cause for declines in wildlife. Habitat loss IS the primary challenge native wildlife faces. However, cat predation is also a significant cause of death for wildlife. Secondary reasons for decline should not be ignored or cast aside as insignificant. Heart disease is the number one killer for women. Shall we ignore breast cancer because it is not the leading cause of death?
Many TNR advocates state that humans are the reason for the death of wild birds and mammals and not free-roaming/feral cats. Allowing cats to roam freely (and breed uncontrollably) is human behavior. This is just one more way that humans impose themselves on the environment. Humans have degraded habitat by inflicting an exotic species, the domestic cat, on the ecosystem. The domestic cat is a human artifact, and therefore its impact on nature is a human-caused impact.
Many TNR advocates state that scientific studies grossly exaggerate the estimated number of deaths of wild animals by domestic cats. Actually, even the most conservative estimates are in the millions nationwide. Extrapolations are acceptable as long as representative samples are utilized. Studies may underestimate the actual number of deaths, not taking into account prey completely consumed, prey killed elsewhere, and prey that escaped but died later from injuries. Just what level of predation is acceptable? How many wild creatures should die as a result of free-roaming and feral cats?
Many TNR advocates state that having a caregiver who regularly feeds the cats and knows their habits can significantly reduce their impact on wildlife. This is false. Regularly well-fed cats are NO less motivated to hunt. The hunting instinct is separate from the urge to eat. This has been scientifically proven and well-documented. The habit of the domestic cat is to hunt. Any outdoor cat is a threat to wildlife - day or night year-round. Colony caregivers are not supervising the cats 24/7 and may not even be able to account for every cat, especially in the larger colonies. In fact, some caretakers simply drop off food and leave the site. Some ordinances require caretakers to observe the cats at least twice per week, but there is no minimum allotted time required.
Many TNR advocates state that cats perform a service by killing rodents, but actually they affect the rodent supply for native wildlife that need that food to survive. Click here for more information.
Many TNR advocates state that cats will defend their territory and not allow new cats into the colony. This is a fallacy. A number of scientific studies have proven this. Dr. Carol Haspell, who studied cats in Brooklyn, NY, found that, "cats occupying a certain area do not keep others out, particularly if there is a feeder." In a study of managed cat colonies at Texas A & M, Dr. Sara Ash discovered that the feeding stations attracted new cats, including pets, and the original colony members did not defend their territory. Researchers from the Universities of Milan and Claude Bernard studied 81 cats at a public square in Rome, and concluded that, "abundant food led to high local densities of feral domestic cats and the disappearance of individual territories." Furthermore, colony caretakers often relocate cats from one colony to another.
Many TNR advocates state that feral cats are no more sickly or disease-ridden than pet cats. This is misleading because this comparison should be between feral cats and pet cats that are permitted to roam outdoors. Indoor pet cats live longer, healthier lives.
Many TNR advocates state that TNR is the only humane and effective method to reduce the feral cat population. Others feel that this method is inhumane and realize that TNR has not been scientifically proven to reduce the numbers of feral cats. Most "evidence" that TNR works is anecdotal at best. TNR advocates will cite reduced euthanasia rates at shelters and reduced nuisance calls as "proof" that TNR works. Neither of these things are true indicators that the actual population of feral cats is reducing. To evaluate properly the success of any TNR program a specific set of questions must be answered. Often this information is not available or not readily given by colony caretakers.
Many TNR advocates state that Trap and Remove does not work. Trap and Remove (whether cats are euthanized, socialized/adopted, or given sanctuary) has been proven to work when the artificial food source is removed. For TNR to work a very high number of cats must be trapped, there should be no migrants into the colony, and no addition of new cats through abandonment. This simply does not happen. TNR has been around for at least 15 years and we never hear about colonies that exist no more due to natural attrition. Often TNR advocates will claim that Trap and Remove will not work because of a so-called "vacuum effect" since not every cat can be trapped. In the wild, animals do move in to fill a niche; however, the only reason domestic cats are congregating is due to an artificial food source (a cat feeder or an improperly secured garbage dumpster). If the food source is removed, the cats will disperse and no longer congregate. Kind-hearted folks may want to feed these cats, but they are only exacerbating the problem.
TNR saves taxpayers money. Currently, there is a significant cost to towns because of the large number of feral cats clogging the shelter system. This is not necessarily true. Some towns have voted to legalize TNR, under the impression that TNR will save them money, but this may not be the case as animal control officers (ACOs) still must be paid for time and travel to cat colonies. They may have to go multiple times rather than once to remove the cats. Also, the sale of dog tags and other fees provides services for dogs and cats in shelters. Cats are essentially "getting a free ride" because most municipalities do not require cat licensing and registration. Cat licensing is a way to generate income and promotes responsible ownership of companion animals.
Some municipalities have legalized TNR.
In Burlington County, New Jersey, the townships of Beverly, Woodland, Tabernacle, Shamong, Southampton and Springfield have passed ordinances allowing feral cat colony management. An ordinance was introduced in title only and passed the first reading on 8/1/06 in Burlington City. Mount Holly passed a resolution supporting this method of so-called management. Woodland, Tabernacle, Shamong and Southampton are part of the Pinelands National Reserve - an ecologically sensitive area. This critical habitat hosts a multitude of wild animals, including rare, threatened or endangered species.
The ordinances for Beverly and Woodland have absolutely no protection for wildlife. The ordinance in Tabernacle is similar and leaves little recourse for residents when problems arise as a result of these colonies. There seems to be no external oversight whatsoever. However, there is some consideration for wildlife in the Tabernacle ordinance. The ordinance includes the following statement:
Use due consideration to avoid the taking of rare, threatened or endangered species under the Endangered and Nongame Species Conservation Act, N.J.S.A. 23:2A-1 et seq.
The ordinance in Shamong is similar to that of Tabernacle. The ordinance in Southampton has problems indeed, but the language is an improvement over the others that have passed and the township has retained some rights should the colonies create problems. However, since there is still no external oversight or management, there is difficulty in determining the impact of these colonies. Also, the location of the colonies has not been disclosed to the public in any of the ordinances.
If TNR is practiced, the following three additional stipulations would minimize the impact on wildlife, allow for proper evaluation and observation, and improve the quality of management of the colonies: