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Quality versus Quantity

In the February 2008 issue of the Feral Cat Activist, a publication by Alley Cat Allies (ACA), the front page explores a Case Study of a Feral Cat Sanctuary. The tag line reads WHY SANCTUARIES ARE NOT THE ANSWER FOR FERAL CATS. The article recounts the efforts to remove 100 cats that resided at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Apparently, half were adopted, one quarter went into foster care and the remaining cats were temporarily housed at Kennedy Space Center until a sanctuary could be built elsewhere).

Is running an animal sanctuary an expensive undertaking? Possibly. The ACA article paints a bleak picture of what is an excellent way of providing quality care for domestic companion animals while protecting native wildlife and public health. There are situations in which a sanctuary may not be the best option to pursue. But, in the case of these space coast felines, removal helped to ensure the continuation of a threatened endemic species, the Florida Scrub Jay.

To learn about threats to the survival of this beautiful bird, conservation status and how you can help, please click on the links below.

Audubon Florida Jay Watch

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - North Florida Field Office
Florida Scrub-Jays

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Species Spotlight

Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds
Florida Scrub-Jay

To learn about TNR in Florida, particularly in Brevard County, please click on the links below.

Impacts of Feral and Free-ranging Cats on Bird Species of Conservation Concern. (See page 11).

Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and Feathers Are Flying.
A Report to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In the ACA piece, the President of the organization in charge of the sanctuary cats states that the intentions of the sanctuary were to protect and care for feral cats and that they accomplished this for a small number of animals. However, she also states that the resources that have been expended could have been used to help a dramatically larger number of cats through well-planned Trap-Neuter-Return programs, and accessible, affordable spay/neuter services for feral and house cats, particularly in low-income areas.

But, is this really a fair comparison?

TNR is practiced in an open system. For that reason alone (as stated by the American Veterinary Medical Association), the result of these programs is statistically insignificant. There are 60 to 100 million feral cats in the U.S. and 100,000 just in Brevard County, home to Kennedy Space Center.

Cats in a sanctuary are truly protected and saved.

They receive food and water daily in a contained and controlled environment. This is quite different from the usual buffet served outdoors that attracts unwelcome dinner guests including raccoons and skunks. The food is not frozen during the winter or ridden with fly eggs in the summer.

In the 'case study' costs to operate the sanctuary are discussed. Food is mentioned, although in a TNR program the cats still need to eat don't they? More money is probably spent on food for colony cats simply for the facts that the food spoils quicker and is eaten by non-target species.

In a sanctuary setting, cats are not dying from vehicles or coyotes or dogs or animal abusers. Cats do not simply disappear as many colony cats do. Their fate is never known.

They are not spraying bushes or defecating in the environment and contaminating our soil, grain and produce. They are not further compromising native wildlife, already struggling to survive due to loss of habitat.

In a sanctuary setting, the cats receive regular veterinary care. Most cats in managed colonies receive one-time services. In the 'case study' the author states that they cannot offer long-term medical assistance to cats that cannot be touched. Is this not the same in a managed colony? In reality, the level of medical intervention needed is probably much greater for outdoor cats that are subjected to a variety of hazards and are more than likely catching diseases from other free-roaming cats.

There are other interesting points to consider in comparing and contrasting sanctuary versus TNR.

The author states that staffing the sanctuary is perhaps the greatest difficulty. Yet, there are some very dedicated folks who engage in TNR and drive many miles to feed colony cats. Sometimes that level of dedication results in illegal trespassing and the sabotage of traps set by agencies attempting to remove the felines. Nevertheless, ACA and many TNR groups boast that TNR works because of the numerous volunteers and community involvement. Why should this be different at a sanctuary?

The reality is that TNR has problems, too, regarding 'staffing'. Those same older folks at the sanctuary are also the ones trying to manage the outdoor colonies. People die, move away, run out of funds, graduate and leave campus, etc. Many managed colonies are not managed well at all and simply serve as a dumping site and a place for disease to spread. Caretakers get overwhelmed, do less trapping, more and more cats move in (because cats do not, in fact, defend their territories) and the breeding cycle continues. The difference is that these cats are still well-fed and thus better able to breed and to hunt.

The author also states that the sanctuary concept limits them to caring for a small number of animals over a long period of time. She further states it will take 20 years to replace the original population. In some managed colonies this also happens. Some cats may live to be 15 or 16 and those whose lives are shortened are simply replaced by newcomers due to that food source. TNR is a perpetual cycle in which colonies do not get eliminated, as TNR proponents would have folks believe.

Operating a sanctuary is not prohibitive of engaging in other ways to combat cat overpopulation. For many reasons, we do not advocate TNR as one of those ways. Whether or not that particular sanctuary operates, cats will still continue to breed and the population of cats in Brevard County will continue to grow. Despite well over one hundred thousand dollars and many resources allocated toward the TNR effort for Brevard County cats, the population has not even stabilized. This is not because some folks created and operated a cat sanctuary.

Rather than dismiss the idea of sanctuary as not plausible, ACA and other TNR advocates should applaud this wonderful compromise that results in the protection of cats and wildlife and encourage more of the same. Where sanctuary is not possible or feasible, folks may be able to set up enclosures on private property to care for just a few cats (provided this is permitted in municipal code). People have used screened-in porches, enclosed barns, cat fencing and other structures to provide a safe and protected environment for the cats while simultaneously preventing those cats from harming wildlife. A closed system is what works and TNR does not provide for that.

Due to the vast number of feral cats, no method is going to result in significantly decreasing the population. The way we make a difference is in the quality of the lives we touch. For species like the Florida Scrub Jay, whose numbers are low enough to result in extirpation from Florida, cat removal is very necessary and one more way we can help ensure the survival of this endearing bird.

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