Operation Catnip: Working Together to Reduce Free-Roaming Cat Populations Ethically and Effectively
In this well-researched editorial for The Veterinary Journal, Annette Litster presents a strong case for the support of trap-neuter-vaccinate-return programs, which she argues is the best method for both controlling and moderating free-roaming cat populations. Addressing issues such as the effectiveness of lethal animal control methods, human abandonment of cats, and the contention that free-roaming cats are a threat to avian species conservation, Litster discusses each aspect in turn and provides compelling evidence that non-lethal programs are the best possible solution.
In her editorial, Annette Litster, the Scientific Editor of The Veterinary Journal, begins by describing the success of a trap-neuter-vaccinate-release (TNVR) program in Florida, dubbed Operation Catnip: “veterinarians, staff and volunteers coordinated community outreach with the mass sterilization of over 2300 free-roaming cats over 2 years. Feline impoundment rates in targeted areas were reduced by 66%, while those in neighboring non-targeted areas lagged behind at only 12% over the same period. Even more impressively, by the end of the study period, euthanasia rates for cats admitted to shelters in target areas were 17.5 times lower than for those in non-target areas.” These numbers sound impressive, and the results become all the more important when you note that the published estimates of the number of free-roaming cats in the US vary widely “from 25 million to 100 million. Free-roaming cats are prolific breeders, with females often producing their first litter before they reach 1 year of age and bearing multiple litters each year thereafter.” Still, TNVR programs need broad community support at various levels, and Litster notes that the key to TNVR success is “a positive working relationship between public health officials, animal welfare agencies, veterinarians, local governments and wildlife experts, directed towards the common goal of humane population management.”
Historically, it is well known that euthanasia has been a common method of population control. It seems to make logical sense that euthanizing animals reduces their numbers, but in the case of free-roaming cats, the logic is known to be flawed: “lethal control methods have only been shown to eradicate cats on small isolated islands with small cat populations,” Litster notes, “where repopulation cannot occur from neighboring areas. Lethal methods and large-scale trap and removal programs can result in rapid depopulation in the short term, but they soon prove unsuccessful because of repopulation through breeding and migration.” Furthermore, the general public doesn’t seem to support lethal methods for controlling otherwise healthy free-roaming cat populations, especially when non-lethal methods are available. There is an awareness that “the existence of stray and free-roaming cats is the result of human abandonment,” and Litster notes correctly that “we are responsible for an ethical solution to their control.”
Of course, another aspect to these cat populations that causes much public debate is the impact of free-roamers on wild bird populations and other wildlife. It is a debate characterized by “a sense of strident advocacy, on both sides of the argument, at the expense of empirical observation, reasoned consideration and respect for different ideologies.” Litster notes that “importantly, cat predation must be examined in the context of habitat destruction, since cats have not been shown to be the primary cause of the loss of native species on mainland continents.” Likewise, she notes that free-roaming cats are most often found in heavily urban areas, and so their true impact on wild bird conservation is likely to be minimal, as threatened or endangered species are not often found in urban areas. She addresses this issue in the hope of encouraging “productive compromise,” so that wildlife advocates might acknowledge the importance of TNVR as a population management method, while cat advocates recognize the need for more aggressive management in places where wildlife conservation is a real concern.
Operation Catnip is a shining example of TNVR at its best. Litster notes it as an example of advocates coordinating an approach where “a whole community works together toward a common goal: effective and humane reduction of the local free-roaming cat population.” If we acknowledge the human role in creating free-roaming cat populations, and likewise recognize our ethical responsibility to address the issue humanely, the only real way ahead is groups working together under a TNVR model.