TNR And Ethics: Taking The Nation By Storm
The trap-neuter-return (TNR) method is a way of controlling feral cat populations that has grown slowly over time to be a favored technique among the cat rescue community. Just over 10 years ago, TNR was a newly developing trend meant to address the longtime issue of community cats. These “feral” cats, who are essentially strays with little-to-no human contact, frequently face issues of disease, predators, and human-made factors. To help alleviate these troubles and also stop the cycle from perpetuating itself through uncontrolled reproduction, cat advocates began trapping these cats humanely, neutering/spaying them, and then re-releasing them into their environments so that they could live out their lives without bringing new ones into the world.
From its inception to today, TNR has grown to be recognized as a valid, mainstream method for community cat population control. However, the practice has its critics, with a prominent piece of criticism titled “A Review of Feral Cat Control” coming in 2008. While this article was published prior to TNR’s peak in popularity, it raised ethical concerns around the non-lethal nature of the practice since community cats do face a variety of plights and suffering.
Now, with the mainstream acceptance of TNR as a viable method of community cat control, those arguments are worth revisiting and addressing. In particular, a couple of animal welfare scholars wished to explore the 2008 paper through two lenses: ethics and public opinion. They present data and evidence that, in addition to addressing the paper’s claims, demonstrate just how society’s attitudes towards community cats have evolved. In the past, the populations of community cats were managed through lethal methods. Why? Simply put, the acceptable ethical framework at the time was an anthropocentric “humans-first” perspective, because only humans were assigned intrinsic value. Now, more and more people believe that animals, too, have intrinsic value and are worthy of ethical consideration. Thanks to growing research that has shown empirical evidence of cognition, emotion, and sentience in animals, society has incorporated more zoocentric ethics.
When we recognize that a being has intrinsic value, we are more inclined to treat them with respect and compassion. Since 2008, the number of U.S. adults who agree with the statement “animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation” has grown by 28%. That’s a considerable increase that reflects a changing ethical trend in our society.
This cultural shift in ethical values manifests through lesser support for lethal population control methods and greater support for non-lethal methods. A 2014 survey found that 73% of respondents believed that allowing community cats to live undisturbed is the most humane option, while just 9% preferred lethal methods. What’s more, community cats are the same species that we find as companion animals in our homes. When the issue at hand shares a deep relation to someone we’re already close with, we are more likely to feel an ethical obligation to them.
Around the time the 2008 critique of TNR was published, the no-kill animal welfare movement was sweeping the nation. Since then, many city- and state-funded animal shelters have assumed a no-kill status. This trend goes hand-in-hand with other non-lethal cat welfare activities such as “working cat” initiatives and, of course, TNR. That the nation began to prioritize non-lethal practices at a governmental level is further evidence for the cultural shift towards more zoocentric ethics.
In the court of public opinion, TNR is winning. In 2014, a survey revealed that 68% of respondents prefer TNR as a method for community cat control, while 24% preferred lethal methods. When a survey with similar questions was conducted three years later, these numbers changed to 72% and 18%, respectively.
TNR is garnering support in professional and scholarly realms, too. The American Public Health Association’s Veterinary Public Health Special Primary Interest Group deemed TNR to be “the preferred method of management wherever feasible” while in 2016, the American Veterinary Medical Association officially changed its position on community cat control to be more supportive of TNR efforts. These organizations’ stances reflect not only their members’ interests, but the attitudes of the public they serve as well; for TNR to receive official endorsement is notable.
There’s certainly evidence to support the notion that the public’s attitude towards community cats has generally shifted to a more compassionate and humane stance. You may be able to recognize these attitudes in your own communities, with TNR programs gaining traction both in metropolitan and rural cities across the country. For longtime advocates in cat welfare and rescue, this is a welcome change.
In terms of animal advocacy in general, this is still something to get excited about: the attitudes towards just one niche issue have evolved so much over less than a decade. The cultural acceptance of more zoocentric morals and ethics offers an opportunity for other acts of animal activism that go beyond community cats. Plus, it’s hard to say that culturally-held ethics won’t continue to evolve given time. The mainstreaming of TNR represents just one more reason to optimistic and hopeful for the futures of other animals.