The Importance Of TNVR And Citizen Engagement
Cat advocates have been working for decades to find methods to help curb the problem of free-roaming cats, and trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) has emerged as a popular, humane method to manage community cat populations. While popular, the method’s impacts on animal shelter populations and euthanasia rates had yet to be carefully measured over a long period of time, until recently. In a study of six municipal shelter systems with well-implemented programs, Peter J. Wolf and Dan Spehar found that TNVR is a win/win/win for shelters, communities, and feral cat populations. In this interview, we explore their research in greater detail and discuss how average people can make a difference.
I think a lot of our readers are probably familiar with TNR in a general way. When did this start being a technique that communities were using to help control free-roaming cats, and how has it developed over time since then?
Peter: It actually originated in Europe in the seventies and really didn’t take off here in the States until the early nineties. Although there were certainly folks doing it, it wasn’t necessarily called TNR, and it wouldn’t have been large-scale. In the early 90s in the U.S., TNR became the term, and it began to stick. It began at a very local level but it really wasn’t until the kind of programs that we document in this recently published paper where shelters are using two assets of TNR integrated together: what we think of as traditional, community grassroots-based TNR, done in a very targeted fashion, combined with shelter-based TNR or what we like to call ‘return, steal’, where the cat coming in has strayed. If they lack owner identification and meet certain eligibility requirements, they’re then sterilized, vaccinated and put back, just as any TNR would do. Those large scale integrated programs really didn’t kick off until Best Friends started working with municipalities in 2011.
Before we go further, let’s rewind and answer a question that may seem obvious to us: why are free-roaming cats a problem? Why are these types of programs important?
Peter: There are a couple of facets of this. Animal control officers or field staff often hear nuisance complaints, whether that’s spraying, yowling, or just year after year of litters of kittens being born, and many, many cats congregating in one particular area. Those sorts of things are a problem in the eyes of the public, and sterilization and vaccination programs are an excellent way to manage that. We would actually argue, for a number of reasons, that it really is in most cases the only feasible option on the table, because so many others are either flat out illegal or don’t garner much public support. There’s also the public health aspect: if you look at maps and data from the Centers for Disease Control, and you look at where cats have tested positive for rabies in the U.S., you’ll see it’s not at all randomly distributed. Mid-Atlantic states tend to be hotspots. Florida, a little bit of Texas. Where I am in Arizona, it’s virtually unheard of.
What drives us more than anything is the animal welfare perspective. It can be difficult to provide positive outcomes for stray cats. That could be because shelters think they aren’t sociable enough to be good adoption candidates, or it could be that they’re perfectly sociable but the shelter is virtually bursting at the seams with cats. Even the most adoptable ones are going to really struggle to get out of there alive, especially in communities where shelters at capacity. As soon as the cat shows up, the clock starts ticking. We have data now going back many, many years showing that what’s been done in this country, and other places too, simply hasn’t been working. So, these sterilization and vaccination programs are in many places the only feasible alternative to protect public health, to reduce nuisance complaints, and to provide positive outcomes for the number of stray cats, and ultimately, to reduce their numbers in the community and do so humanely.
A lot of people who may be reading this may know someone who has been involved in a community cat program, maybe people who have been involved in helping to not only feed colonies but also help to trap and neuter and vaccinate and return. But the people involved in this type of activity may not be part of programs that collect data. So, it brought up the question of how many TNR programs actually collect data and, up to recent times, how reliable is data about the effectiveness of these programs?
Peter: This is certainly what we observed as we started looking into what became the first paper that we co-authored and that was Newburyport Massachusetts, a waterfront community. I don’t even know if they called it TNR at the time. They realized there were a number of cats on the waterfront, and this had been going on for some time and they just weren’t getting a handle on it. So, they did a really robust sterilization and vaccination program but they weren’t ever thinking that this would make a good study that could, years later, be good enough to publish. So, there were very few records. Now, if you fast forward to today, shelters are under increasing pressure, whether it’s because of large scale projects like Shelter Animals Count or something else, to gather at least a minimum of baseline level of data for tracking purposes.
There’s also a real push in the States for transparency to happen at the state and community levels. Folks want to know how their shelter is doing when it comes to life-saving efforts. So, there’s this big push for data. Some years back, Dan and I co-authored a study about a program from Chicago. A woman kept very, very meticulous records of each cat in each of the twenty colonies over many years. It afforded us the opportunity to really put it under a microscope and very carefully document the improvements there, but those sorts of censuses are a real challenge. It’s changing and there are folks now starting to do those, which is really exciting to see.
Still, it’s been a great challenge, in part because folks want to jump in and help for all the reasons I mentioned previously. Animal welfare, public health, nuisance mitigation… They want to jump in and help immediately, not necessarily set about planning a meticulous, publishable study and then jump in and help. It’s often that folks find themselves in it well before they’ve given any thought to documenting what it is they’re doing.
Dan: Even in the case of Newburyport, they collected much data contemporaneously. They had feeding logs and so forth, and they tracked these things. I don’t know if they ever analyzed it or assessed it, but they didn’t keep it, at least not to where we could see it twenty-some years later.
Peter: The other piece of it is that we’ve seen folks who are critical of TNR, who will look at the kind of data that we published in this paper and they’ll say, ‘Well, you’ve got shelter metrics here. If that’s your interest, in not seeing cats dying in a shelter, that’s fine. But it says little or nothing about actual populations at a community level.’ Which is, in the strictest sense, I suppose, true or close to it.
On the other hand, this is where I come back to the kitten intake data and say, ‘There were no other programs implemented.’ How else might we be able to explain a drop in kitten intake? These days, some shelters, some of the more progressive shelters in this country, are recognizing that neonatal kittens are a huge burden on a shelter. They don’t have the bandwidth, they just simply cannot take neonatal kittens alive. So, they’ve come up with some innovative programming to keep them in the community. If you call and say you’ve found some kittens, they will do everything, including rush out to your doorstep, with a kit with everything you need to bottle feed until they’re old enough to come into the shelter. Now, you know, that would be one explanation. ‘Well, here’s why your kitten intake went down.’ But none of those programs existed at these shelters during the period when these programs were documented. So, again, they had to really chase down what else could possibly explain the results, other than an actual population level impact.
There’s certainly no evidence that either of us have seen that would suggest that the traditional way cats have been managed in this country – complaint-based impoundment often followed by lethal injection – has had anywhere near this sort of impact. There’s not another study out there that says, ‘Well, we saw an even greater decrease in kitten intake by doing these targeted roundups.’ Nothing like that. I would certainly expect if that had been done and documented, we would be well aware of it. The evidence simply doesn’t exist. So, in that sense, it’s kind of a low bar to clear in terms of demonstrating an effective, publicly palatable program for managing free-roaming cats.
Let’s talk about your study more in detail. Why did you choose the cities that you did and was there something particular about those cities that drew you to them? Was it the data that was available? Was it the differences between them?
Peter: The communities chosen were what we call CCPs, community cat programs. At the time, these were partnerships with Best Friends and PetSmart Charities, and their respective municipalities. Essentially, what Best Friends and PetSmart Charities did was put out a request for proposal and they received a lot of applications in return. A number of factors were weighed. Everything from shelter leadership to the kind of programming already in place. It could even be that in some communities they might have all the pieces of the puzzle in place, except for not being able to provide the necessary number of surgeries annually because we’re talking 3,500 to 5,000 sterilization surgeries a year for three years. So, all of those factors were weighed in the application process. The six communities that are documented in the paper were awarded funding for these programs and they have actually continued since then.
Dan: Of the twelve programs initiated, the six that we analyzed were the ones that had been brought to their conclusions in three-year timeframes.
All of these locations didn’t have the same exact programs in place, is that correct? Some of them used RTF, some of them used high impact targeting. Can you explain a little bit more about that?
Peter: Sure. So, firstly, and I apologize, I’ve been using the term TNR. We end up often using TNR and TNVR interchangeably. TNR, as you know, is historically what this method had been called. We, and some others too, have started putting the V in there to make explicit the vaccination component. But, in all of our programs, all of the cats are vaccinated.
The six communities documented in this paper did, in fact, use integrated TNVR and return-to-field, or RTF. We call it the red flag cat model the purpose of it is capitalizing on what, in retrospect, looks like utterly obvious, valuable information: a stray cat comes into the shelter either by a resident or an animal control officer. The cat is deemed stray because there’s no discernible ID. No collar, no tags, no microchip. Historically, of course, that cat probably doesn’t have a very good chance of making it out of the shelter alive. What people recognized was that, not only can we sterilize, vaccinate, and then put that cat back and save that one life, we can use that stray intake information – the location, where the cat come from, etc. – and go out and knock on some doors, look around a little bit, talk to folks in the community. Almost invariably, you will find other cats. That cat coming in over the counter almost invariably has family and friends who, at some point in time, might be on their way to the shelter as well, or the next generation is on their way to the shelter. So, you use that information to pre-emptively sterilize and vaccinate the other cats in that immediate area when you put the red flag cats back.
Maybe it sounds overly complex, but it’s actually pretty straightforward and certainly, when these programs get up to speed, it can happen quite seamlessly, and there’s a great efficiency in doing so. Again, you’re pre-empting other cats coming in and it’s no surprise that you see a reduction in intakes by integrating these two pieces.
Dan: It’s just like you said, capitalizing on that information about the RTF cat. You can gather that information and do nothing with it, or you can take advantage of it and go out there, target and get the other cats that are living in the same immediate environment there.
Peter: I don’t spend nearly as much time probably as I should in shelters, since my role with Best Friends is very much research and policy analysis… But when I do go to these shelters, if somebody has been working the intake desk at a shelter for a number of years, especially in, say, one of the southern states where it’s warm and it’s kitten season, it’s not uncommon to see the same cat have two litters a year if she’s not spayed. If you were to talk to someone working that intake desk for a while, it’s quite likely that they will tell you they know exactly who brings in the litters of kittens because they’ve been bringing them for years. They know these people on a first name basis.
So, in some ways, this information has already been available. It’s been just slightly out of reach. Again, part of this is that the data hasn’t been tracked or it wasn’t in a searchable database. It was maybe even on index cards not that long ago. Now, we’re just at a point in time where we really have the technical capabilities of leveraging that data and seeing the tremendous gains that can be made through targeting efforts once that information is in hand.
Through your analysis of the data from these six locations, you found some pretty significant results. You found a median overall decline in euthanasia of 83% across the shelters. Now, that’s an overall decline in euthanasia. Does that include, for example, the euthanasia that would be occurring at the shelter from cats coming from homes as well?
Dan: Yes. That’s overall feline euthanasia. The range was 59% in Baltimore up to 91% in Tucson, but it was pretty consistent across the board. It was even outpaced a little bit by kitten euthanasia which declined by 87% median.
What is your analysis of that number? What do you think the significance of it is?
Dan: Well, for a three year period that’s extremely significant. If you could implement these two integrated programs and achieve that kind of a result in a 36 month period, it almost speaks for itself.
With that kind of evidence, what do you think would be holding back communities from implementing these types of programs? Are they overly expensive? Are they difficult to manage? What’s the catch?
Peter: Two pieces. First, if we’re able to achieve 60%, 70%, 80% or more reduction in feline euthanasia, it really could transform the way that shelter staff view their whole role. I’ve visited shelters. I visited San Antonio, one of the programs documented in the paper. Maybe it was early in year two or midway through year three, I don’t recall exactly, but they had virtually no cats in the shelter. So, they had all this bandwidth which means other cats who needed to stay for medical reasons could stay. Like I said, it’s the cultural transformation that’s remarkable because now, all of a sudden, the staff see that there’s another way. They’re seeing all these lives saved. You know, the likelihood of them ever going back to the old days after that is very slim. The same is true for the broader community. They’re not likely to go back once they see the strong momentum in this life-saving direction.
To your question, what is the hesitation? There are a few issues with it. When we come in with these programs, it is a significant financial commitment upfront. Each community’s a little bit different in terms of the non-profit piece, and what the municipality can provide. It varies. But it is a significant commitment of financial resources. Of course, the flip side of that is that, if we aren’t keeping cats so long in the shelters, they’re also not falling ill with upper respiratory infection or have other illnesses that would cost money. So, there hasn’t been a rigorous economic analysis done yet, but I think the overall economics should be probably less an impediment than the cultural shift upfront.
As much as it sounds great that, ‘Hey, community X, you could be saving the lives of the cats coming in your shelter in three years,’ I think in some ways it’s really scary for some shelters to go there. Implicit in that message is that others have been doing this for some years now, and it’s proven effective at this point. The implication is that there was another way and because we haven’t been doing that, I think there’s a lot of guilt that comes with it. So there’s a reluctance to immediately throw up your hands and say, ‘Yes, we’re ready to do this.’
It’s also a challenge, the notion of taking cats, vaccinating them, sterilizing them, and putting them back where you got them. Sometimes, it’s a genuine concern for their welfare and I certainly understand that as a researcher but also a caregiver. We worry about these cats who are out there in the neighborhood, free-roaming. There are certainly concerns about their welfare. There are also concerns from animal control officers. You know, what about the people who don’t want the cats back? We don’t want to get into some of the contentious language surrounding it, but we know from public surveys that communities don’t want to see their shelters killing animals. They want to see more lifesaving options. There is this strong momentum in that direction. That’s certainly where things are going.
One of the things you also found was a median 8% decline in adoption rates and that was a number that had a lot of variance, plus and minus. Did you find the decline in adoption rates a cause for concern, or does that go hand in hand with lower intake?
Dan: As you mentioned, it varied considerably across the six programs but if you look at adoptions as a percentage of intake, I think there was only one program that had a small decline. If you factor in cats that were transferred to rescue groups for adoption, every program had an increase in adoptions when looked at in that fashion. With intake declining across all the programs, that’s probably the most prudent way to look at it.
Despite all of this positivity, there isn’t unanimous support for TNR, for whatever reason. There are probably some people who are just concerned about free-roaming cats in general and their impact on the environment, and there may be other reasons that people have opposition to TNR programs. What would you hope that people take away from a paper like this? What do these results say to people who have an opposition to TNR?
Peter: Holly Sizemore, who is Chief Mission Officer at Best Friends, has told folks for many years, whether you love cats or loathe cats these are the programs for you. This is how we bring numbers down, even if you’re concerned about environmental and wildlife impact. I come back to looking at the options that are on the table and this is it. The traditional method is the poster child for failed public policy.
In the United States and I’m quite sure in Canada as well, we’re not looking, with any seriousness, at the eradication programs that have been done on small, oceanic islands in a sort of ‘war on cats’. Those aren’t on the table here, so this is really it. Again, whether you’re coming at it from a welfare perspective, whether you’re coming at it very skeptically, or very critically because you’re concerned about the impact, this is it.
Unfortunately, the issue has become so contentious over the years that it’s easy to overlook that common ground. How can we make the most effective programming possible to address the issue of community cats? That’s a good place for all of us to be focusing our energy and actually collaborate with some of those folks who are skeptical. That, it seems to me, would be the best outcome we could hope for. Short of that, whether it’s advocates in the community, we hope shelter staff, shelter leadership, or elected officials in a particular community can look at the results of what these six programs were able to accomplish, and say, ‘Yeah, we want that for our community too. It’s demonstrated success in different parts of the U.S. and elsewhere. We want to do that here too.’
Dan: Yeah. I would say focusing on that common goal of fewer community cats, no matter what perspective you come from, is one of the things to take away from this paper. I’m going to let Peter elaborate on this, but one thing we looked at was the numbers of dead cats collected from the wild. Our data was limited in some instances, where the data wasn’t tracked specifically for cats or was just specific types or certain cats that were brought into the shelter. That would suggest more research is needed. There may be fewer community cats in those communities, or at least there are fewer cats roaming and being struck by vehicles who have been sterilized. Do you want to add to that, Peter?
Peter: Yeah. The results in some ways were surprising, I suppose, insofar as there is a myth that any place there are cats at all is actually teeming with cats. In fact, you find, two to five cats is about average. Again, there’s not a lot of research out there on that topic, so we were excited to be able to contribute that piece of it.
Then, in terms of the dead cat data Dan mentioned, the data was – all over the place is maybe an understatement. I think it was Baltimore, they didn’t even separate by species. It was just dead animal pick-up numbers, and you don’t even know if you’re talking about domestic animala or wildlife at that point. It was really difficult to tease apart that data but, nevertheless, the trend is pretty clear and supports what’s been documented elsewhere, which is that areas with TNVR also had a decrease in cats struck by vehicles in the community.
The other piece that we didn’t touch on was that, of all of the cats coming in across the six programs – nearly 73,000, or just half of 1% – were in such poor condition such that euthanasia was warranted. This is supported by other published studies on the same topic. This is actually a pretty common scenario, but it really turns on its head this notion that these cats are struggling out there, that they’re unhealthy, they’re just hanging by a thread. It’s certainly true that there are some individuals for whom that description is accurate but, again, when you have this large data set and half of 1% are in such poor condition that they need to be euthanized, it really should dispel a lot of those myths.
It shouldn’t surprise us, intiutively, because if it was half the cats coming in in terrible condition and needing to be euthanized, there wouldn’t be nearly so many out there. In fact, they are resourceful, they are survivors, and many of them thrive out there in neighborhoods because there are a lot of resources. The cats are where the people are, and there are a lot of resources for them to survive. If that were not the case, there wouldn’t be. In this country, we’ve been trying to get our arms around the quote-unquote ‘feral cat problem’ with little success until the development of TNVR. That alone speaks to the fact that these cats are able to, and often do, thrive living around other people.
If people want to get involved in these types of programs, what do you think is the best way they can do that? Is it less important for individuals to get involved in the actual hands-on aspect of it and, instead push their local shelters or try to get funding to be able to do this?
Peter: There’s something for everybody to do. There are a lot of communities that have ordinances or local bylaws in place that don’t necessarily make TNR illegal but are impediments. They might have, for example, a leash law, or they might require all cats to be licensed and/or tagged, which is an impediment.
So, go to a city council meeting and try to get the law changed, so that the folks who are interested and committed to implementing these programs are not having to do so under the cover of darkness. They can do so above board, and they’ll have community support.
With the financial piece, there’s also a role for everybody, and the example that often comes to mind is here in Phoenix. A friend of mine is president of the Animal Defense League of Arizona. They operate a network of clinics and about 15,000 or 17,000 cats every year in the area, community cats, are sterilized. She told me about a neighbor of hers who is not a fan of cats. This is not somebody who’s ever going to adopt a cat. But once he saw the positive impact in his neighborhood of getting these cats sterilized, he agreed to start doing transport. He said, ‘I don’t love the cats but I see that this is working, whereas nothing else ever has. I can’t just sit idly by and complain, I have to contribute. I’m not going to adopt, I’m not going to go out there trapping but I can transport.’ That is an important piece of it.
Depending on your work schedule, some folks can do the trapping but can’t do the transport and recovery. In other cases, it might just be, ‘Look, I’m allergic to cats. I can’t even be around them but I can certainly help you track your data. I can do that from home.’ So, again, all of those pieces are really important. There’s something everyone can do.
Dan: There is something for everybody to do. There are so many components to the process that you can participate in, but I’d say if you’re going to feed outdoor cats, or your neighbor feeds outdoor cats, or you know somebody that feeds outdoor cats, make sure they get sterilized, and support your local spay and neuter clinic. Those are probably the two most basic things.