by Bernadette E Kazmarski
TNR or “trap-neuter-return” can be a very controversial topic, but when you engage in a conversation it turns out that it’s really only the “return” part that draws the most objection. From people who don’t understand the nature of feral or unsocialized cats to those who just don’t like any cats, many people don’t understand why, when you worked so hard to catch the cat and went to the trouble of neutering and vaccinating it, would you go and put it back outside?
Sometimes it’s sad but necessary, especially if cats are friendly, or their health is compromised, or they are just young kittens, but there is no home or shelter where they can live and be cared for. If they are returned to the safety of a caretaker they at least get the opportunity to live out their lives and be fed and monitored by a person who cares about them.
But the goal of TNR for all concerned is not just to sterilize cats so they can’t reproduce. For both cat lovers and those who find them to be filthy pests another important goal is to reduce the population of free-roaming cats. We cat lovers want them safe in loving homes that understand their temperament, opponents just want them gone.
But while studies show TNR on its own does stabilize the population fairly quickly, it really doesn’t reduce the population very quickly. If there is a high rate of abandonment of cats in the area often it doesn’t reduce the numbers at all.
Studies of stray and feral cat management as far back as 1993 conclude that TNR alone is not an effective way to reduce cat populations. Studies published in 2002 and 2003 and later report the results of studies beginning as early as 1991 that incorporated the removal of kittens and any cat considered adoptable. They showed that the population of even a large colony could be reduced by half or more within a year or two of beginning a monthly trapping and neutering program, and thereafter diligently keeping up with any new cats who showed up as part of the colony.
Most of the studies of TNR also put an emphasis on working with caretakers who were already familiar with the cat populations, enlisting their help in assessing the cats in their colonies and in trapping and neutering, and who would be continuing to care for them and manage the colony when they were returned. Rather than calling Animal Control or an organization taking care of the TNR it’s much more successful upfront and ongoing with the support of the people who know the cats already.
But how to find fosters and adopters
With shelter euthanasia of dogs and cats in 1997 estimated at almost 10 million animals euthanized in that year alone, who was going to handle the kittens and adoptable cats from colonies of cats living outdoors, especially if they weren’t immediately adoptable but needed socialization or medical care?
Enter three things that made an impact over the past decade or more and helped to make removing adoptable cats during TNR possible: pediatric spay and neuter, low-cost spay/neuter programs at shelters and freestanding agencies, both of which helped to reduce stray and feral populations overall, and working with rescues who could take unadoptable cats and kittens from the shelters and make them adoptable over time.
On the side
I volunteer with the Homeless Cat Management Team (HCMT), a free-standing all-volunteer organization that was founded in 2000 to provide TNR to the Pittsburgh area. Over the years the organization has increased its efforts from TNR-only clinics and not permitting adoptions to adding low-cost clinics for the public and actively pursuing the spay and neuter of all cats, stray, feral and owned, and helping people with solutions through TNR and low-cost clinics.
We also began holding kittens who would be or were of an age to be socialized as well as friendly cats and finding adoptive homes. In 2014 a group of HCMT volunteers founded an in-home fostering rescue specifically for this purpose and named it Pittsburgh C.A.T. (Cat Adoption Team), formalizing approval processes for foster homes and adopters. In addition, we began working with shelters to take their unadoptable frightened/unsocialized kittens and cats as well as cats with medical needs. Cats and kittens come into HCMT through TNR activities, rescue activities and shelters, are given medical treatment if necessary, and are taken into Pittsburgh C.A.T. for socialization and adoption and prior to adoption are spayed/neutered, vaccinated per age and microchipped. Adoption and outreach is how we make it work.
We are responsible for domesticated animals
Because we humans are responsible for the animals in our world, be they domestic pets or domestic farm animals or wild animals, I will always say that rescuing animals means rescuing people. Sometimes rescuing a person involves just a little bit of education and resources that they had no idea were available, and off they can go and care for their situation on their own, like people I find who are feeding stray and feral cats but not spaying and neutering them because they may not have realized the need, and more often not had the money or transportation to get the surgeries and had no idea there was such a thing as a low-cost clinic or TNR.
Often it means guiding them through that process whether it’s helping them trap a colony of cats and getting the cats the care they need from fostering kittens to TNR and setting up a feeding station and shelters for feral cats. After it’s all done, one more person knows the best way to take care of the situation, they have resources and connections and can maintain and also help others.
Sometimes it involves skilled negotiation that doesn’t go as far as you’d like but still helps the animal, like convincing someone to at least spay and neuter their cats and provide food, clean water and a real shelter that will protect their cats and keep them safe and comfortable in any weather.
And sometimes there’s failure when a person refuses help or refuses to do what is recommended for simply selfish reasons and you know the animals will suffer, and there is nothing more you can do.
From 15 cats outside to two through outreach and adoption
A few years ago I met a group of caring people who were trying to get an increasing number of abandoned stray and feral cats in their neighborhood under control after a neighbor had moved away and abandoned three unspayed female cats, Charm and Scarlett, and a tabby cat whose name was unknown.
A person who worked in an office building across the street from the house where the cats were abandoned messaged me about the situation. She had already TNRd a few cats who had settled around the building she worked in, had a feeding station on the side of the building and was in touch with TNR and low-cost programs. She told me she’d seen, from her office window, the man put all three cats out on the front porch on a blustery November day, lock the door and leave, and then realized he never returned and the cats were still outside.
She went to investigate and found that two of the cats who had been abandoned had stayed near the house and a neighbor next door had taken them into her basement. Unfortunately Charm had escaped a window but Scarlett was unable to. Later a male cat had broken into the same window and found his way to Scarlett. It was likely both cats were pregnant.
Charm was very friendly and had stayed near the house. The neighbor fed Charm on her porch, and Charm gave birth to five kittens in a box on the porch where they were easily socialized.
The office worker kept abreast of the situation, intending to get the cats spayed and hopefully get homes for the kittens. It was in April when the unneutered males she hadn’t been able to trap came back for Charm again that she messaged me with the story and asked for some help in getting things under control. Not only were there these unneutered males and the pregnant Scarlett in the basement, but she had actually seen Charm running off with her kittens while male cats were chasing her. Charm had returned for food and was likely now pregnant again, but no one had any idea where the kittens were. This whole situation was going to explode into feral and semi-feral cats and kittens in no time.
We looked for Charm’s kittens while Charm was charming all of us, but had no luck. We talked to neighbors, giving them contact information if they saw any kittens at all, and we also talked to them about their cats and other cats in the neighborhood, giving them information on low-cost veterinary opportunities.
And we decided to get a head start on TNR for the unneutered male cats, taking them to a private veterinarian who had a TNR program. Since they were still hanging around Charm on the neighbor’s porch, we set the traps there. We caught one unneutered male and—surprise—a tabby female who the veterinarian let us know was obviously nursing.
The spay incision made for high-volume TNR clinics is as small as possible, often only ½” long. Veterinarians use a “spay hook” that can reach into the incision while the veterinarian palpates from outside and pulls the organs in question through the incision. They can complete the surgery and use sutures that will dissolve, and then usually apply surgical glue to the incision that helps to close and protect it. In the case of this nursing mother, since we had no idea the age or location of her kittens, we had to release her as soon as possible but decided we had to keep her overnight to give her a chance to start healing. We had alerted neighbors about listening for kittens mewing, and even went listening on our own to see if we could locate them. The next morning she took off as if we’d ejected her from the trap when we opened it; we found nothing in the direction she ran.
Poor Scarlett was several years old and had apparently had litter after litter of kittens with poor nutrition and no veterinary care in between, and she wasn’t doing well with this litter of kittens. Her fur was thin all over, especially down her spine, across her hips and her tail were completely bare, and her tail itself was short and curled tightly like a pig’s tail, even her legs were stunted as if they had had no chance to develop. She was sweet and affectionate, but looked like a feline gnome and hardly moved at all on her own.
She would not be returned after spaying but would be put up for adoption. I surrendered her to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society with the HCMT reclaim option, wherein the shelter and HCMT agree that if the cat may be euthanized for any reason, we will receive a call and will retrieve the cat. Scarlett was spayed and her body began to improve immediately. She was in a cage at the shelter for a few days then went into the cat colony room where she befriended the other cats and was eventually adopted.
A neighbor told us they’d seen Charm’s kittens under a porch a week after they’d disappeared. In an all-day stakeout the neighbor who’d been feeding her grabbed two of the kittens, then we set up an area in front of the neighbor’s porch where Charm had stashed them and grabbed them as they came out to eat. Charm and her kittens came to my house for fostering until they were of age and weight to be spayed and neutered. Because Charm was having trouble nursing five kittens while she was likely pregnant again and pulling out large chunks of her own fur from stress I had her spayed at our next clinic. Her kittens were all adopted before they even had their surgeries and went home with their adopters the day of the clinic and the day after. Charm went to an amazing home later on in the summer.
A few days after Charm’s kittens went home the neighbor told us of seeing the tabby female and also hearing about three black kittens in the neighborhood. She found the kittens were hiding under a porch two doors down from her and managed to grab one of them while they were playing next to the porch and put him in a cage in her basement.
We planned another stakeout a few evenings later but were unsuccessful, though we saw where the kittens ran to hide and asked one of our group members with a lot of rescue gear if she could help. After letting the neighbors know what we were doing, we met in the early evening when the kittens usually came out to feed, surrounded the area where two of the kittens were seen to play when they weren’t under the porch, and waited. Using a net we caught one hiding among shrubs and flowers in the neighbor’s garden. The other kitten tried to hide sitting up in a tiny spot next to a fence post. I had him in the kitten grabber but it tangled in a rose bush and I couldn’t close it all the way. He escaped and ran into the tiny space between soil and concrete under a patio, a hissing and spitting demon with long thin claws, but too far for us to reach. One of the tenant’s visitors at the house was a roofing contractor and reached in under the patio, gently pulling out the kitten with his leathery hands. Both kittens were fostered and found wonderful homes.
How it works
Through all of us working together and doing what we could cats were spayed and neutered and several adopted to good homes, kittens were fostered and adopted, neighbors were organized and educated and a feeding station maintained at an office building for a two cats too feral to come inside. The male we neutered turned out to be a pet cat who ended up staying mostly indoors, and a few other people took advantage of low-cost spay and neuter programs and had their cats fixed. People are still keeping watch over the cats they see outdoors to determine if they were owned, abandoned or feral, and a huge disaster of kittens having kittens the following spring never happened. Outreach is an important part of the success of TNR.
In all seven adult cats were spayed or neutered, the three abandoned females and three owned males and one feral, and eight kittens were rescued and fostered. With fostering through our rescue and working with shelters, 10 cats out of 15 were not returned, and two owned males were not returned to roaming, leaving two cats of 15 out on the streets. Being able to foster and adopt is essential to reducing the populations of a colony with TNR.
Zaunbrecher and Smith, 1993. Neutering of feral cats as an alternative to eradication programs: https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19932290799 (only the abstract is available online)
Lisa A. Centonze, BA, and Julie K. Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, 2002. Characteristics of free-roaming cats and their caretakers: https://www.avma.org/News/Journals/Collections/Documents/javma_220_11_1627.pdf
Julie K. Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM; David W. Gale; Leslie A. Gale, BS, 2003. Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population: https://www.avma.org/News/Journals/Collections/Documents/javma_222_1_42.pdf
Loyd, K. T., and J. L. DeVore. 2010. An evaluation of feral cat management options using a decision analysis network. Ecology and Society 15(4): 10.: https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art10/
Neighborhood Cats Sample TNR Policy Presentation: https://www.spayusa.org/assets/pdfs/sample-tnr-presentation.pdf
“Animal Shelter Euthanasia”, American Humane website 7/16/17: https://www.americanhumane.org/fact-sheet/animal-shelter-euthanasia-2/
“An overview of pediatric spay and neuter benefits and techniques”, Philip A. Bushby, DVM, DACVS, Brenda Griffin, DVM, DACVIM, DVM360 website, 7/16/17: https://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/overview-pediatric-spay-and-neuter-benefits-and-techniques
“Early-Age Spay/Neuter”, Clinician’s Brief, March 2012, pp. 71-73. Philip A. Bushby, DVM, DACVS, Mississippi State University: https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/sites/default/files/Early-Age-Spay-Neuter.pdf`
Under the supervision of her rescue and foster cats Bernadette E. Kazmarski is author of the award-winning daily blog The Creative Cat featuring stories on feline and pet health, welfare, adoption and rescue plus humor, photography and fine art. She works at home as a self-employed commercial artist and writer, graphic designer and illustrator, and is also a fine artist creating over 100 commissioned portraits of pets and their people as well as landscape and wildlife artwork. Bernadette has been rescuing and fostering cats for 30 years and works with her local TNR organization to trap and transport and also to volunteer at high-volume spay-neuter clinics. Her current “permanent collection” of cats includes five incredible house panthers and her feline family always includes several feral kittens and often a senior or geriatric rescue from TNR and rescue efforts.