Criticism: Constructive and Otherwise

There has been a lot of discussion on this blog’s Facebook page over the last month or two about the role of public criticism of local shelters in getting communities to No Kill. Pretty much everyone agrees that criticism has a role. The difference of opinion is on the issue of when criticism is helpful and when it is counterproductive and hurts No Kill progress.

This is not a simple question because it gets into the whole issue of how to bring about change in local government. The answer to the question is going to be different depending on the circumstances. In a small town, all it may take to reform the shelter is an offer to foster kittens and hold adoption events. In New York City, however, you have a local government that has been doing animal control since 1807 and has a whole bureaucracy built up. Getting a city government like that to change can be a major undertaking and requires a lot of political skill.

Another consideration with the use of criticism is that once you start making attacks on the local shelter director you have burned that bridge forever. If you make attacks in the name of “No Kill” you have just created a shelter director who hates the very sound of “No Kill.” So before launching attacks on the shelter director, local advocates should consider whether a sincere and determined effort to help the shelter improve has been made and has failed.

Making an effort to help the shelter before criticizing it is a no-lose proposition. If the effort succeeds then all is well. If it fails, that failure will turbocharge a reform effort made up of volunteers who have been prevented from helping the animals. When you have 10 or 20 volunteers who have been forced to stand by while animals are needlessly killed, you have the nucleus of a group that will have both knowledge and determination.

Once a decision to publicly criticize a failing and recalcitrant shelter has been made, what type of criticism is helpful? That depends on the audience. Criticism of a shelter based on its statistics and practices may be very effective when directed at a city council or county commissioners, but it must be accompanied by constructive and specific recommendations for change. A shelter director from a nearby No Kill community, or a No Kill consultant, may have more of an effect on community leaders than local advocates could have.

If the audience is the general public, criticisms based on statistics and best practices may convince a few people but most people will not pay attention. And a shelter director can deflect that type of criticism by saying that the critics do not understand the unique circumstances of the shelter, that the shelter’s intake is different from other shelters, etc. Most people will buy those excuses.

No Kill advocates can take a lesson here from the fight against factory farming. Several years ago the Pew Research Center put out a report that was a blistering indictment of the factory farming industry on every front – harm to the environment, harm to public health, cruelty to animals, putting small farmers out of business, and negative health effects on workers. That report was chock full of facts and statistics, but it had nowhere near the effect on the public that the clandestine videos taken by organizations like Mercy for Animals had around that same time. A video of a calf being beaten, or a baby chick being thrown alive into a grinder, has more effect with the public than all the statistics in the world.

It’s the same with the local shelter. Arguing that a 50% live release rate is below the industry standard may not  get you very far with the public. A photograph of a mother dog and her litter of puppies killed by mistake while a rescuer was on the way, or a pet killed because its microchip was not scanned, will get headlines and make a deep impression on the public. You can’t get that kind of documentation, though, unless you are involved with the shelter.

What I’ve said so far applies to a failing shelter that will not change voluntarily. Once a city or county government or shelter director decides to make a sincere effort to get to No Kill, then criticism becomes a whole new ballgame and different considerations apply. When a credible No Kill effort is underway, criticism becomes a balancing act. Every word of public criticism against a shelter while it is trying to get to No Kill will hurt the effort, because it will have a tendency to decrease the number of volunteers, the amount of money donated, and the goodwill of the community. The more effective and on point the criticism is, the more it will hurt the effort. So the advocate has to make a decision whether the criticism will do more harm than good, and has to think about how to phrase the criticism so that the constructive aspect is emphasized and the destructive aspect is minimized.

The advocate in this circumstance must be sure that he or she knows the shelter system thoroughly and is competent to balance the harm the criticism will cause against the benefits. A good example of constructive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort is this blog by John Sibley on the subject of New York City’s nightly kill list. Sibley has dealt with the NYC shelter system for a long time and is thoroughly familiar with it. The criticism acknowledges all the progress that has been made, and it discusses the reason why the kill list was started and the fact that it has been effective. Then it discusses the downside of the list and argues that today, the harm outweighs the good.

An example of unproductive criticism of an ongoing No Kill effort would be an analysis made by someone who has never been to the shelter in question and never talked to the director, where the analysis was made based only on statistics and current practices and only skims the surface. This type of criticism can hurt the shelter but not help it. Very typical of such criticisms are statements like: “The shelter should be open longer hours,” or “they need to institute a TNR program,” or “they should be having off-site, free adoption events each weekend.”

A shelter director who is making a sincere No Kill effort is likely to be thoroughly familiar with the advantages of longer hours, TNR, and off-site and reduced-cost adoption events. And if by some chance the director doesn’t know about those things, a private communication would be sufficient. But No Kill programs often have barriers that are not obvious to a bystander. An advocate who did some research might find out, for example, that a local ordinance forbids TNR and the city council doesn’t want to overturn the ordinance because they are concerned about bird kills. With that knowledge, the advocate could write something constructive that used facts to help persuade city leaders that TNR is good for cats and birds.

Why do we have such a problem with unhelpful criticism by No Kill advocates, i.e. pointless criticism of shelters that are in the process of transitioning to No Kill or have achieved No Kill? A good deal of it is no doubt because killing animals, even when it is true euthanasia, is a very emotional subject and people tend to write about it reactively rather than strategically. Another reason may be the effect that some No Kill leaders have on their audiences. Most No Kill leaders today are convinced that cooperation works and that divisiveness is counterproductive. There are some leaders, however, who seem to encourage advocates to look at all but a handful of shelter directors as enemies who cannot be trusted. We should not be surprised when the followers of those leaders conclude that shelter personnel are routinely faking statistics and just waiting for chances to kill animals. If we have No Kill leaders who mock cooperation and say that fighting is the only way forward, or who say that a shelter director who is not saving 98% just doesn’t care enough, then we can expect No Kill advocates to conclude that no-holds-barred criticism is a good thing regardless of the context.

The idea that No Kill advocacy always requires confrontation and that cooperation is useless traces back to the mindset of the 1990s. There was a time some 15-20 years ago when many elements of the traditional shelter industry fought against No Kill, and the fights were often bitter. I can understand how No Kill advocates who were active back then find it hard to forget. But that was then and this is now. Today it is not an exaggeration to say that No Kill practices are generally recognized as industry best practices. We still have people in the shelter industry who dislike the term “No Kill,” but that is usually because of the divisiveness associated with No Kill, not because of No Kill’s ideas about the best way to run a shelter.

Criticism based on that old “white hat, black hat” divisiveness is destructive because that world no longer exists. That doesn’t mean we all have to love each other and sing Kumbaya. It does mean we need to focus on what is happening today, not what happened in 1996, or 2006. In fact, No Kill progress has been moving so fast that events of even five years ago are ancient history. People who cannot keep up with this change would do us all a favor by retiring from the movement.

Tazewell County Hits 90%

Tazewell County, Virginia, is in the Appalachian mountains in the far southwestern part of the state. Its median household income is very low at less than $31,000. In 2015 the Tazewell County animal shelter had an approximately 50% live release rate, with an intake of about 2000 animals. Now, in the first three months of 2016, the live release rate has been over 90%.

How did this transformation happen? A big part of it was a new shelter director. The current director of the Tazewell County shelter, Ginny Dawson, started in November of 2015. She is largely self-educated about shelter management. Before taking over as director she had been a county employee for several years. She studied new methods of sheltering and talked to lots of people for ideas. She remembers reading about managed admission on the ASPCA site, for example. Whenever she thought an idea made sense she would try to find out more about it.

The staff who worked with the previous shelter manager decided for various reasons to leave the shelter when he left in 2015, so Dawson and her supervisor were able to hire a new staff of three people. They looked for people with experience working with animals, but compassion for animals was “absolutely” a requirement. Dawson noted that you can teach best practices, but not compassion.

Soon after Dawson started as director they made Saturday an adoption-only day so that they could concentrate on adoptions and not intake. They take animals who are ready for adoption to an offsite location where they will get more exposure.

Another major initiative was managed admission. People who want to surrender animals are asked if there is anything the shelter can do to help them keep their pets. If not, shelter staff help them explore whether there are other possibilities for rehoming instead of surrender. They explain to people that the county shelter is open admission, with a limited amount of space. They have found that most people are very willing to delay surrender for a few days if the shelter is full, and some people are able to find a new home for their animal themselves.

Shelter staff have increased their use of social media for adoption promotion and for finding owners of lost pets. They started posting dogs and cats to Facebook immediately, without waiting for the stray-hold period to expire, to try to reunite animals with owners as quickly as possible.

They began to work more with rescues, which Dawson describes as crucial for their success. The Humane Society of Tazewell County works closely with the shelter and helps it in many ways, including transports. They have regular transports that go to the Pennsylvania SPCA, with funding from ASPCA, and the Richmond SPCA has also welcomed transfers from the shelter. Another group in the county, Tazewell ARC, has done transports as well as outreach to county officials.

A consulting organization, Target Zero, did a presentation to interested stakeholders in January, and Dawson and the other attendees are very interested in their program. Dawson put some of their ideas into practice immediately, including use of an owner surrender form to gather more information about intakes. A simple thing, but one that had not been done previously. Target Zero did a full assessment of the shelter earlier this month, and the county is considering whether to apply for a fellowship with them.

Another suggestion Target Zero made was for the shelter to sign up with the Million Cat Challenge and start implementing their community cat initiatives, including return-to-field. Dawson had heard of the Million Cat Challenge before Target Zero’s involvement, but the suggestion gave them the push they needed to sign up. Implementing the Challenge initiatives will be done in several steps, including coordinating spay-neuter efforts with local clinics and a strengthened managed admissions program.

Dawson’s goals for the future are to sustain the progress they have made and continue to improve. The county is renovating a building for a new shelter, which should help them in many ways, including disease control. High live release rates are harder to maintain during the spring and summer “kitten season” months, but Dawson hopes to weather the season with the new programs they have in place.

In just the last few years many new and effective programs have been added to the shelter operations toolbox, including managed admission, return-to-field, and transports. Today several organizations have extensive information online at no charge. Maddie’s Fund has webinars on demand that cover many aspects of shelter management. Best Friends Animal Society has presentations from its most recent conference, including “how we did it” playbooks from several successful communities. Consultants can help shelters with every aspect of a transition, including figuring out how to apply programs to their particular circumstances and how to finance changes. Tazewell County consulted with Target Zero, but there are other organizations, such as Humane Network, that also offer consultations.

The Tazewell County shelter is still facing some hurdles, but the odds for them to have a 90% or higher live release rate in 2016 look good. Dawson has made use of new ideas and the help that is available, including support from the community, and has turned her shelter around quickly.

Getting to Know Target Zero

Several organizations have started doing No Kill counseling and shelter assessments in the last few years. One such group is Target Zero, or TZ. TZ was originally a program of First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP), which is one of the organizations that created No Kill in Jacksonville, Florida. The founders of TZ were Rick DuCharme, the head of FCNMHP; Peter Marsh, who spearheaded a state-funded targeted spay-neuter program in New Hampshire in the 1990s; Tracey Durning, a “social entrepreneur and philanthropic advisor” to non-profits; and an anonymous donor. Once TZ was underway DuCharme moved back to giving his full attention to FCNMHP and Marsh moved to advisor status.

Shelter assessments are done primarily by two members of the TZ staff. One is Dr. Sara Pizano, a veterinarian who was director of the Miami-Dade shelter for six years and was also a panel member for the Association of Shelter Veterinarians while that organization was seeking recognition of shelter medicine as a specialty. The other is Cameron Moore, former program director for FCNMHP.

TZ receives referrals from communities that are interested in receiving a shelter assessment. One of the initial steps is a Go To presentation, which Pizano and Moore do remotely. All stakeholders in the community, including government officials, shelter staff, and representatives of other humane organizations, are encouraged to view the presentation. The TZ philosophy includes the concept that cooperation is key to No Kill, and cooperation is built into the program from the beginning.

After the Go To presentation, if there is interest and TZ staff members believe there is sufficient evidence that the various stakeholders can work together, a full, in-person shelter assessment is scheduled. Pizano and Moore do the assessments, although they sometimes bring additional experts with them. An example was their recent assessment for the Tazewell County shelter in Virginia. Pizano and Moore were accompanied on this assessment by Dr. Tiva Hoshizaki, who is currently doing a residency in shelter medicine at Cornell veterinary school.

Pizano told me that shelter assessments are often most effective once a community has decided to make changes and the process of change is just getting underway. In those cases the commitment is there and the assessment can help guide the change. In Tazewell County, for example, the county was planning to renovate a building to replace the current shelter but had not received any input from shelter design experts. Hoshizaki has a special interest in shelter design and she and the TZ team were able to offer suggestions for the renovation. The timing was right, and the new shelter will reflect some of the latest advances in shelter technology.

TZ promotes the concept that healthy community cats are better off in a return-to-field program rather than being taken into a shelter only to be killed. When a shelter stops impounding healthy community cats it frees up staff to work on pet retention, adoptions, and other lifesaving programs. TZ supports the Million Cat Challenge, which has a detailed program to help shelters create humane and effective community cat initiatives. Million Cat Challenge founders Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy are TZ consultants. TZ urges shelters to join the Challenge and also the Best Friends network.

In addition to a sterilization program for community cats, TZ often recommends that shelters implement targeted spay-neuter for owned pets, a program that was key to Jacksonville becoming No Kill. Another intake-reduction program that TZ recommends is managed admissions. This includes asking people who want to surrender animals if they can work with the shelter when the shelter is full. Owners might be willing to hold their animal for a couple of weeks until the shelter has room, or might even be willing to rehome the animal themselves using social media. Managed admission programs can mesh with pet retention efforts to cut owner surrenders substantially and smooth out peaks and valleys in intake.

I asked Pizano if each of the shelters they assess are different, requiring an individualized approach. She said that while there are many differences in starting points, programs like the Million Cat Challenge and best-practice strategies for dogs are effective everywhere. TZ frequently finds that communities have local ordinances or rules that have to be changed or worked around. In Tazewell County, for example, the shelter is not allowed to accept donations directly from the public. One possibility in such circumstances is for a private non-profit to collect donations and help the shelter fund programs. TZ is not a grant-giving organization, but they can help shelters and community organizations apply for grants.

TZ does not just offer an assessment and then leave. Instead, they continue to work with shelters through their Fellowship program. Fellowships last three years, after which the community “graduates,” hopefully with a high live release rate. TZ also offers a Partner status to cities that do not currently qualify for the Fellowship program but show good potential to qualify in the future.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about TZ is that it can offer consultations and Fellowships at no charge due to support from its anonymous donor. Another characteristic of the organization is that it seeks out shelters that are performing poorly, because those shelters offer the greatest possibilities for saving lives. (Tazewell County was something of an exception since it was already doing very well at the time TZ became involved.) Reading the list of Fellow and Partner cities, it is obvious that they present challenges – cities like El Paso, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Brevard County, Florida. Progress so far is encouraging – two of TZ’s Fellowship cities, Waco, Texas, and Huntsville, Alabama, have achieved a 90% live release rate and have graduated from the program.

Consultants are an increasingly important means of helping communities get to No Kill. Today we have an enormous amount of information online about how to improve lifesaving, but there is nothing like having an expert take a look at a particular shelter and a particular community, identify the issues, set out priorities, and give shelter leadership the confidence that they can do it. This is especially true for shelters that are doing poorly, as many times the leaders of such shelters are in a deep hole and have no idea how to begin to climb out. A consultant can be the key to helping those directors realize that other people just like them have succeeded, and that there is hope.

Can We Go Too Far With Spaying And Neutering?

We have achieved very high spay-neuter rates for owned cats and dogs (83% for owned dogs and 91% for owned cats*). If people are to have dogs and cats, the dogs and cats must come from somewhere. Hence the title – are we in danger of cutting the number of dogs and cats available for adoption to the point that we see negative consequences in the form of shelter shortages? Will spay-neuter programs that are too successful wind up driving potential adopters into the arms of puppy millers?

For cats, the answer to the question of whether we are going too far with spaying and neutering is a resounding “no,” at least for now. Owned cats are perhaps no more than half of the total number of cats, and feral and community cats will continue to supply kittens to meet the demand for the foreseeable future.

For dogs, the answer is “maybe.” The dog supply differs from the cat supply in two important ways. First, unlike with cats where we have perhaps as many as tens of millions of feral and community cats, feral dogs have almost disappeared in the United States. There are persistent reports that a few areas (Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and parts of the southwest are often mentioned) have a feral dog problem. We don’t know for sure because there have been no studies to find out one way or the other, but if there are places with feral dog problems they are rare.

The second way in which the dog supply differs from the cat supply is that breeding on a large commercial scale is common with dogs and almost unheard-of with cats. The reason why large-scale commercial breeding of cats is almost unheard-of is that there is much less diversity in the cat population than the dog population. Although there are cat breeds, in most cases the differences from one breed to another are relatively minor – differences in coat characteristics and color and slight differences in size and build. Brachycephalia (a harmful genetic mutation) is unfortunately present in a few cat breeds, but overall you do not see anywhere near the size, conformation, and temperament variations in cats that you do in dogs. Because cats are mostly of one type there is less reason for people to want “purebred” cats than purebred dogs and less incentive to breed cats in large numbers for commercial gain. Lucky cats!

In the last 40 to 50 years the percentage of people who buy their dogs from a commercial breeder as opposed to adopting from a shelter or rescue has decreased. There are many reasons for this. Knock-off breed registries have been created to undermine the near-monopoly that the American Kennel Club (AKC) used to have on purebred-dog registration. Commercial breeders embraced these new registries because they were less expensive than AKC registration. The existence of a multitude of registries may have cheapened the overall worth of the “purebred” concept in the public’s eye, since the new registries have exposed the fact that a pedigree is just a piece of paper with little intrinsic value.

Another reason that people have become disenchanted with purebred dogs, in my opinion, is because show breeders have pursued ever more extreme “type” in their dogs, and as a result the health and soundness of purebred dogs has declined. A recent survey by the Kennel Club in England indicated that the lifespan of purebreds has dropped. No surprise to anyone who looks objectively at what is being rewarded as the ideal breed type at dog shows.

Yet another reason why mixed breeds have become more popular in recent decades is that the advent of the computer made it much easier to adopt a dog. Petfinder, which started up in the mid-1990s, evened the playing field between commercial breeders and shelters, giving shelters a way to publicize their animals. Petfinder and the increasing number of pet stores that feature homeless animals also seem to have led to a big increase in the number of rescues that take in owner surrenders and pull mixed-breeds from shelters. They too now have ways to compete with the commercial breeders.

And there has been a change in the attitude of the public toward shelter animals. That is partly because of all the efforts that shelter workers have made to make visiting a shelter a better experience. It also may be because people today more and more view their own pets as family members, and that increases their empathy for homeless animals. All these changes mean that today we have more demand than ever from the public to adopt shelter dogs, at the same time that we have less supply of dogs.

Today, spay-neuter programs for dogs are concentrating less on the overall number of dogs and more on an imbalance in the demand for dogs. Shelters in most places consistently report that they have too many large dogs, especially of the so-called “pit bull” type, and too few cute, fluffy, small dogs. People will stand in line at the shelter to adopt a 20-pound poodle mix, but a healthy, friendly, well-mannered 60-pound pit mix may have to wait months before an adopter comes along.

So the answer seems to be that we still need to go full speed ahead, all hands on deck for feral and community cat sterilization, but for dogs we need a more targeted approach. The difference between today and the situation we faced 25 years ago, when the big spay-neuter effort of the 1990s started, is that today we need to work smarter, not harder. We need to start integrating our spay-neuter efforts with the current state of the market for shelter cats and dogs. Ideally we can adjust spay-neuter efforts so that we have enough supply to meet the demand from people who want to adopt, but not so much supply that shelters have to scramble to find homes for them all.

As for the future, any systemic shortages of dogs in the United States could be addressed by importing homeless dogs from overseas. There is a lot of fear-mongering by commercial breeders about dog importations, though, so it remains to be seen whether a significant number of imported homeless dogs will be allowed. There is also some “friendly fire” from No Kill advocates who oppose transportation and importing of dogs because they would like to see shelters go out of business entirely. This is a viewpoint I don’t understand. If shelters close down due to a lack of pets available for adoption, commercial breeders will bounce back and we will be stuck with all the horrors of commercial dog breeding forever. We have the puppy millers on the ropes — let’s keep them there.

* American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey 2013-2014 (Greenwich, CT: American Pet Products Association, 2014), 16.

No Kill: Getting Started

I usually report about No Kill efforts that already have a track record of success. But not infrequently I get questions or comments from people who say that there is nothing going on in their city or town – no type of No Kill effort at all – and they wonder what to do, how to get started. Based on the stories of successful No Kill leaders I’ve interviewed, there does not seem to be any one path to accomplishment. However, in this post I list some themes that have turned up over and over in my talks with successful leaders. Please note – I am not a consultant and have never worked for pay in a shelter. The following is based on what I have learned from interviews with lots of people in both No Kill and the traditional shelter industry in my five years of reporting on No Kill. So take it for what it’s worth.

Seek out inspiration.

A common theme with successful No Kill leaders I’ve interviewed is that they actively sought out inspiration. Robin Starr went to San Francisco in the 1990s to see in person what Rich Avanzino was accomplishing at the San Francisco SPCA. Rick DuCharme went to Lynda Foro’s 1997 No Kill conference in Massachusetts and met Peter Marsh, who told him about the impressive results of New Hampshire’s approach to No Kill. Rebecca Guinn attended the 2002 Best Friends conference and received encouragement to start a non-profit. All three of these people went on to have a major part in making their cities No Kill.

If you are a new No Kill advocate wondering what to do, you cannot do better, in my opinion, than attending the Best Friends conference. There are other great conferences, including American Pets Alive! and HSUS Expo, but I think Best Friends is particularly helpful because they present workshops by people who have been key in getting their cities to No Kill. It would be nice if Best Friends would stagger the schedule of these workshops so an individual can attend all or most of them. But in addition to the workshops themselves the Best Friends conferences offer a great opportunity to network with those successful leaders.

If I were a new advocate I would ask the successful people what were the very first things they did on the way to No Kill. Makena Yarbrough raised a lot of money and built a fabulous shelter for the Lynchburg Humane Society, but that was not the first thing she did. Rick DuCharme’s organization works with other organizations to put on gigantic mega-adoption events in Jacksonville, but he did not start out doing that. Find one thing that you think will put you on the path to No Kill, something that’s doable starting out. It may be transports. It may be a TNR program. It could be starting a volunteer program for the shelter, or a foster program, or a help desk. It might be building a grass roots organization to work at creating a city council that is more friendly to animal issues. It isn’t a bad thing to start small, and learning how other people have succeeded can inspire you to realize that small efforts can grow into big organizations.

Ask for help.

Once you decide what you want to do, ask for help. There is lots of help out there, but if you want people to help you, you really need to have a plan. People are much more likely to want to help you if you have done your homework, know what you are talking about, have made contacts within No Kill, and above all are practical about what you can accomplish. You must be able to articulate specifically what help you want and why you think your plan will make a difference.

Some of the best places to look for help are:

(1) No Kill shelters near you. I have yet to meet a successful No Kill director who does not want to help neighboring communities go No Kill. A No Kill shelter in your area can do several things for you, such as alert you to local resources, help you build a grass roots group, and maybe even stage regional events. And when you are trying to convince city leaders that No Kill is possible in your city, they will be far more impressed by what a neighboring shelter has accomplished than a shelter hundreds of miles away.

(2) State federations. These are really an overlooked resource. Some state federations, like the one in Virginia, are fabulous and very committed to No Kill. Even some of the more traditional federations may have people who are successfully raising live release rates, but who do not advertise that fact or call it “no kill.” The state federation is definitely worth checking out.

(3) Consultants. The most productive way to use a consultant is if you can have the consultant meet the shelter director and make an inspection of the entire animal control and sheltering system in the jurisdiction. That’s not always possible, but if it is, a consultant can be incredibly helpful. Today there are shelter veterinarians who offer consultations, and they may be a little less intimidating to a traditional shelter director than a No Kill consultant.

Lots of people seem to start out by focusing on getting donations or grants. Donations and grants are critically important, but it seems like people are much more successful at getting them once they have at least a little bit of a track record or institutional backing. Asking for donations or grants for a brand-new enterprise that hasn’t done anything yet is a tough sell. Not impossible, but not easy.

Build bridges.

I’ve seen some people who advise new No Kill advocates to view themselves as superheroes who are coming in to destroy the old system and raise a new system in its place. That does not appear to be a very effective method. Virtually all the successful No Kill efforts I’ve reported on involve people who built bridges to city leadership and to other organizations in the city.

Building bridges does not mean you all get together and sing kumbaya. It means that you conduct yourself in a businesslike, professional way. Perhaps the most important part of building bridges is to prove that you are willing to work. No one likes an armchair quarterback, and any advocate who just stands back and tells people what to do, even if they frame their message politely, is not going to be very effective.

The beauty of building bridges is that you may find help where you were not expecting it. Even if you don’t, you have left open the possibility of a future coalition. And by having an open dialogue with the other players in the city you will learn a lot more about the situation than if you wall yourself off in a silo. Building bridges may help the work you are doing, and it certainly will not hurt. Burning bridges, on the other hand, can permanently make your job harder.

There has been an unfortunate tendency among some No Kill advocates to demonize people who work in traditional shelters. The psychology of traditional shelter workers and the interface between the traditional shelter industry and No Kill has deep historical roots, and a thorough discussion of it is beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say that there are all kinds of people who work in traditional shelters. Just don’t pre-judge them, take each one as an individual, and you will do fine.

Analyze the situation.

One might think that “analyzing the situation” should be done earlier in the process. As a practical matter you will be analyzing the situation all the time, right from the start. But it is difficult to analyze a situation accurately until you are pretty familiar with it. And getting too wrapped up in an analysis can slow you down if the analysis turns out to be wrong or incomplete. So by all means analyze the situation, but don’t get too invested in the analysis until you are sure of your ground. Many of the successful No Kill leaders today started out in one direction and then either changed directions or added additional initiatives as they went along.

That said, you do need to know the basic facts about your community. What is your shelter’s policy toward cat intake? Does the shelter make traps available to people? Does animal control actively seek out free-roaming cats to impound? Do they only accept cats over the counter? Is there a TNR program? What is intake per 1,000 people? What is the breakdown between strays and owner surrenders? Between dogs and cats? How long is kitten season in your location? How much money does the shelter receive? How old is the shelter building? How convenient is it for adopters? What are the state and local laws, regulations, and ordinances that affect the shelter? Who on the city council or among the county commissioners is friendly to animal issues? Are there a lot of free-roaming animals in the city? What organizations and rescues pull animals from the shelter? What is the shelter’s social media outreach? How many non-euthanasia deaths are there each year? What categories of animals are dying of disease? What percentage of dogs and cats are killed for behavior? Does the shelter do owner-requested euthanasia, and if so how many and what are the requirements? Does the shelter vaccinate on intake? Does it require an appointment for owner surrenders?

Knowing the answers to these questions and a lot more like them can help you decide what needs to be done and how to focus your energies. In starting out you want to pick a goal that will have an impact and is big enough to attract other people to your effort, but not so big that it becomes unfocused or overwhelming.

Don’t get discouraged

It is possible that you will struggle for months or maybe even years and feel that you are not accomplishing very much, but in fact you really are. Maybe your effort to persuade the shelter director to meet with a consultant failed, but if you have been polite, constructive, and professional, and have done a good job explaining the advantages of a consultation, you will have made an impression on the shelter director. And you will have learned something about that director. Maybe you set a goal to do 1,000 free spay-neuters in the city’s poorest neighborhood in your first year and you only did 500, but 500 is far better than nothing. And you will have established contacts that can allow you to do better next year. Just talking to people about No Kill and making the effort is important. If your projects fail, they will still help pave the way for people after you to succeed.

Regardless of what you might hear, No Kill is almost never easy. In a tiny town where the shelter receives a few hundred animals a year, you might be able to achieve No Kill overnight, but not in Memphis. Or Dallas, or Houston, or Detroit, or any of a lot of mid-sized cities and counties. Be realistic, not ideological. Above all, make your own way.

Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Movement

From the Out the Front Door HuffPo Blog:

We used to have a terrible pet overpopulation problem in the United States. Intake at the Los Angeles city shelter in 1970 was 144,000 animals. Today it’s less than 18,000 per year. In New York City, the number of animals taken in by the city shelter fell from 136,035 cats and dogs in 1974 to about 30,000 today. Similar falls in shelter intake happened all over the country starting in the 1970s.

There were also lots of animals in the environment in the 1970s who never came to the shelter. It was very common in those days to encounter homeless or stray animals in the street, or to hear from friends and neighbors that they had found a stray animal or that they had a litter of puppies or kittens they needed to place. Today in most cities it is rare to see strays living in the street, and the number of puppies brought to shelters is small. “Kitten season” still occurs, but at a lower volume in many places.

The reason most commonly cited for the drop in the number of homeless pets is that around 1970 private veterinarians began to recommend spaying and neutering for their clients’ pets as a routine part of veterinary care. The first low-cost spay-neuter clinics started opening up in the 1970s, and that may have spurred the veterinary profession to take action to avoid losing that business. Another factor may have been that it was not until the 1970s that spay and neuter surgeries were safe enough for private veterinarians to feel comfortable recommending them. In any event, the spay-neuter rate for owned pets went from perhaps 10% in 1970 to 85% or more today.

There might have been other factors that contributed to the drop in shelter intake. Attitudes toward pets were evolving in the 1970s, and people began to view their pets as family members. And in the 1970s and 1980s many communities passed leash laws, which helped reduce the number of free-roaming dogs.

It seems doubtful that today’s No Kill communities could have evolved without the huge drop in shelter intake since 1970. Comprehensive nationwide statistics on shelter intake are not available, but from the data we have on individual shelters and from various surveys that were made, it appears as though shelter intake per person was about five times higher in 1970 than it is today. It is hard to imagine today’s No Kill communities being able to maintain 90% and above live release rates if their intake was five times as high.

People often think that the reason animal shelters killed some 90% of their intake in the 1970s was because shelters in those days were run by workers who did not care about animal lives. That’s a misperception. Given the overwhelming number of homeless animals, shelter workers back then were faced with the reality that there were not enough homes. Adoptions were like a game of musical chairs. An adoption from a shelter simply meant one less home for a stray living in the street or for a puppy or kitten from someone’s “oops” litter. That did not make the killing acceptable, but shelters were in a situation with no good choices.

Starting in the 1990s there were several innovations that were critical to No Kill. The fall in shelter intake was boosted by trap-neuter-return (TNR) and return-to-field (RTF) programs, which have been game-changing for cats. TNR was largely unknown until the 1990s and RTF is a recent practice. Petfinder, which started up in the mid-1990s, was very important in boosting shelter adoption rates and encouraging the formation of all-breed rescues. Also in the mid-1990s Richard Avanzino started to attend national conferences to publicize the techniques for increasing live releases that he had perfected at the San Francisco SPCA from 1976 to 1989. And the first course in shelter medicine was taught in 1999.

By the year 2000, the basics for No Kill to succeed were in place and it was a matter of spreading the word, continuing to develop techniques, and building the infrastructure. The traditional shelter industry was slow to catch on because it was collectively suffering from a type of learned helplessness due to its decades of dealing with overwhelming shelter intake. It needed to be pushed by the No Kill movement to realize that times had changed and it was possible to save more and more shelter animals.

Today there are still quite a few regressive shelters, but the shelter industry as a whole has gotten the message and is solidly behind No Kill. Things are rapidly improving, and at this rate we could very well have a majority of No Kill communities in the country by 2020.

Counting Feral Cats

Now that feral dogs have virtually disappeared in the United States and the supply of homeless dogs is approaching balance with demand, attention is increasingly turning to feral cats. Cats in general, and feral cats in particular, are now the great issue in the effort to save all healthy and treatable shelter animals.

One practical problem we face at the outset with feral cats is that we do not know how many there are. We do not even have any good estimates – just guesses.1

There is a way to work around this, though. The absolute number of feral cats today is less important than the trend in their numbers over time. So how can we figure out the trend? The first step is to go where the cats are. Free-roaming cats, including feral cats, are highly concentrated in urban environments.2 The reason is that urban environments provide far greater opportunities for scavenging and far greater concentrations of food resources and shelter than agricultural and uninhabited areas. In fact, the number of free-roaming cats per unit of ground in cities is more than 20 times the number of free-roaming cats in rural areas.3

The second step is to look at shelter intake of cats over time. If, after correcting for variations in enforcement, the trend in cat intake is up, then we know that whatever the community is doing as to feral cats is not working. If the trend is down, then we know the community is on the right track.

You might be wondering how shelter intake of cats in general can indicate the trend in feral cat populations in particular. After all, the majority of shelter intake of cats is owner surrenders and strays. And lots of shelters do not take in feral cats at all. The reason that shelter intake of cats reflects the number of feral cats is that the feral cat population is not separate from the cat population as a whole. Gary J. Patronek, one of the premier experts on population dynamics in both cats and dogs, has pointed out that there are seven common lifestyles for a cat: indoor-only, indoor-outdoor, community cat, stray, managed colony, barn cat, and feral cat.4 The key to cat population dynamics is that these categories are not hard and fast. In fact, cats frequently move from one category to another. Thus, the feral cat population will tend to rise and fall with the general cat population. And the intake of cats at the shelter is an even better indicator of the trend in the feral cat population than the number of owned cats in a community because shelter intake is limited to homeless cats, which is the category that includes feral cats.

The Jacksonville, Florida, city shelter provides a good example of how shelter intake over time can track the free-roaming cat population. Florida, with its balmy weather and relative lack of mesopredators, is heaven for feral cats, so Jacksonville is second to none in the difficulty of the feral cat problem it has to solve. Yet cat intake at the city shelter began to decline when the Feral Freedom shelter-neuter-return program was started in 2008, and is now at its lowest point since accurate shelter statistics began to be kept.

To sum up, all we need to do to determine whether we are making progress in reducing feral cat numbers is look at shelter intake trends in cities. We look at cities because that’s where the feral cats are, and we look at shelters because that’s where the homeless animals go. We look at trends rather than worrying about absolute numbers because trends tell us whether we are making progress or not. We don’t have to be fussy about what types of cats a shelter takes in, because all cats are part of the overall cat population that feeds the feral cat sub-population.

In recent years there has been debate about whether we need to keep putting resources into further reducing shelter intake of dogs in communities where live releases of dogs are high. With cats we clearly do need to keep putting resources into spay-neuter efforts, because ideally we would like to reduce the number of feral cats to zero. The problem of feral dogs was solved long ago in most places in the United States. The problem of feral cats has been harder to solve, but the results in Jacksonville show that not only can we solve the problem, we can solve it rather quickly, without any mass roundup or mass slaughter of cats.

1. Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra, “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” Nature Communications 4, January 29, 2013, Supplementary Information: doi:10.1038/ncomms2380.
2. Terry O’Connor, Animals as Neighbors: The Past and Present of Commensal Animals (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 57-66.
3. John W. S. Bradshaw, The Behavior of the Domestic Cat, 2nd ed. (Wallingford, UK: CAB International, 2012), 140.
4. Gary J. Patronek, “Special Report: Free-Roaming and Feral Cats – Their Impact on Wildlife and Human Beings” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 212, no. 3 (January 15, 1998), 218.

Building the Infrastructure for No Kill

We sometimes hear that No Kill can happen overnight. That has been true in a handful of communities where shelter intake is small. In many big cities, though, getting to No Kill has taken years of painstaking building of institutions to make it happen. Even in cases where it seems as though No Kill has happened in a few months, if you look closely you often see that the infrastructure that allowed No Kill to happen took time to build. Following are some examples.

  • Austin, Texas

The city of Austin had one of the earliest No Kill efforts of any major American city, starting way back in 1997 when it launched its No Kill Millennium plan. This was just one year after Richard Avanzino had presented his report on the success of San Francisco’s Adoption Pact at an American Humane Association conference. Austin’s No Kill Millennium plan was drafted by the fledgling Austin Pets Alive! (APA) non-profit, and was passed unanimously by the city and county. The goal was to end the killing of “adoptable” animals at the shelter by 2002. The plan did not receive government funding and it was seen by many as a failure. It actually had a good deal of success, though, because reported shelter killing went from close to 90% in 1997 down to roughly 50% in the early and mid-2000’s. At that point, a revitalized APA under the leadership of Dr. Ellen Jefferson, and a new advocacy organization called Fix Austin, headed by Ryan Clinton, renewed the movement for No Kill in Austin. Eventually, in 2011, with APA providing crucial help to the city shelter, the city achieved a live release rate of over 90%. It took many years to build the institutions necessary to Austin’s success, but advocates did not give up after the initial setback.

  • Jacksonville, Florida

In 2001 the mayor of Jacksonville established a task force to suggest a plan to improve the city shelter. One of the members of the task force, Rick DuCharme, was familiar with the No Kill movement because he had studied No Kill and had attended Lynda Foro’s 1997 No Kill conference. He brought copies of Craig Brestrup’s 1997 book “Disposable Animals: Ending the Tragedy of Throwaway Pets” to the first task force meeting and gave a copy to each member of the committee, along with a binder of information about No Kill. As a result of the task force, and with the help and inspiration of Best Friends, Rick formed First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) in 2001. SpayJax, a program of FCNMHP, started a low-income spay-neuter initiative that correlated with a steady decline in intake at the city shelter. Rick was able to build FCNMHP up over the years and add more programs, including mega-adoption events. The No Kill movement in Jacksonville got a boost when the city hired Scott Trebatoski to run the shelter in 2008, and another boost in 2011 when Denise Deisler took over the Jacksonville Humane Society. In 2014 the live release rate for the combined agencies was 92%. It was a step-by-step process, starting small and gradually gathering steam as more and more people saw the progress and jumped in to help.

  • Atlanta, Georgia

Rebecca Guinn attended the Best Friends national conference in 2002 because she wanted to do something to improve things at the two county shelters that served Atlanta. She came away from the conference thinking change was possible, and was inspired to form LifeLine Animal Project. LifeLine concentrated for years on spay-neuter efforts, including TNR for feral cats. Guinn built up the organization until she felt confident enough to bid on the contracts to run both of the county shelters, starting in 2013. Today LifeLine is zeroing in on a live release rate of over 90%. Unlike the situations in Jacksonville and Austin, LifeLine has not had a large rescue partner and has had to go it mostly alone.

  • New York City

What happened in New York City is a complicated story, but here is the short version. After the ASPCA gave up the contract for animal control and sheltering in 1994, the city set up an organization to run the shelter. That organization did not do well. In 2002, Jane Hoffman founded the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals for the purpose of bringing together a coalition of organizations to help the shelter. Hoffman was an attorney who had been involved in animal law for many years. In 1990 she had helped to found an animal law committee for the New York City bar association, one of the first such committees in the nation. The bar association committee held a conference in 2000 where Hoffman met Rich Avanzino, the former head of the San Francisco SPCA who by that time was the head of Maddie’s Fund. Hoffman and others on the committee were inspired by what the partnership in San Francisco between the San Francisco SPCA and the city shelter had accomplished. They were also inspired by the successful partnership between the Richmond SPCA, led by Robin Starr, and the Richmond city shelter. The Mayor’s Alliance applied for and received a Maddie’s grant, which helped propel the effort. It took many years of slowly building up the Mayor’s Alliance, but in 2015 New York City had an 86% live release rate.

At this point you may be thinking that the idea of a No Kill effort that takes a decade or more to build an infrastructure is pretty discouraging. But the process can go much faster today now that pioneers have shown the way. Today there are mentors available to help people, conferences and other sources of information, and much more direct help from grants and neighboring No Kill shelters.

San Antonio is an example. In 2006 San Antonio put forward a plan to get to No Kill that failed. In 2011, though, they put forward another No Kill plan, and this one succeeded in four years. The difference was that in 2011 they received a lot of help and advice and inspiration from their neighbor, Austin. Similarly, the city of Stockton is well on its way to No Kill because of direct help from the San Francisco SPCA. The Jacksonville coalition hosts gigantic adoption galas where shelters from all the surrounding counties are invited to bring their animals. Another example is the no-kill Brandywine Humane Society (formerly Chester County SPCA) in Pennsylvania, which just took over animal sheltering for the state of Delaware next door.

Even if a city does not have a neighboring No Kill jurisdiction that can help, there are ways to speed up the process. Advocates can attend conferences to find mentors from across the United States. The Best Friends national conference, for example, each year offers numerous “how we did it” presentations by directors of shelters in the most successful No Kill communities. (A detailed brochure is created for each presentation and those are made available online for people who cannot attend.) And the networking that can happen at conferences may be even more valuable than the presentations. It is worth noting that in 3 of the 4 cities profiled above, a conference was an important inspiration in kicking off the No Kill movement.

No Kill consultants are another source of mentoring and direct help that is available today that was not available in the 1990s. There are several people who offer consulting, including some veterinarians who specialize in shelter medicine. And we have new techniques that have gone mainstream in just the last few years, including the new community cat paradigms and the professionalization of dog transports.

Today there is still a need in many cities to build private infrastructure to assist (or ultimately take over) the city shelter. Even in communities where the local government is willing to make an effort to hire a director who believes in No Kill, that director will need community help to get to the goal. The most successful model for No Kill in mid-size and larger cities has proven to be the public-private partnership. Both the city and the private sector have to do their part.

This blog is the first in a 3-part series. In the next blog I will look at the historical reasons why the most common model for No Kill in mid-size and larger jurisdictions has been a public-private partnership. In the third blog I discuss what needs to change in our legal system before governments can become full participants in No Kill sheltering.

Words of Wisdom

I’ve interviewed lots of No Kill shelter directors over the last few years, and many of them have told me about the mottoes they use to guide their organizations. Some of those mottoes, at first glance, can seem rather anodyne, but on closer inspection they reveal important truths about successful animal sheltering.

One of my favorite mottoes is the one Richard Avanzino and his team lived by when they were running the San Francisco SPCA: “Do a good job, tell people about it, and ask for their help.” When I first heard this I thought “what could be more obvious?” But on closer inspection, this motto turns out to have a very pertinent meaning for No Kill. Notice the placement of “do a good job.” It’s first, not last. In other words, before a shelter director can go to the community and ask for help, the director has to do a good job.

I’ve often heard people say things like “we could have a neonatal kitten program if only we had the money,” or “we could have a giant adoptathon if only we had the volunteers,” or “we could keep animals healthy if we had a new shelter building.” In other words, they are saying that they could do a good job if only someone outside of their organization would first supply them with the resources they need.

As Avanzino’s motto says, that’s backward. The fact is that no one wants to donate to or volunteer with an organization that is not proving that it has value. An organization that wants community support has to show that it can do a good job first, before it asks for money or volunteers or other resources.

When Avanzino started working for the San Francisco SPCA in April of 1976, one of the first things that happened was that the city said it was going to cancel the contract that provided over half of the SPCA’s funding. Avanzino persuaded the city to continue with the contract, but the SPCA was still in dire financial shape. And it was doing a lousy job of animal sheltering. Avanzino did not go to the public and say “please give us money so we can do a better job.” Instead, in his first six months with the SPCA he started a low-income spay-neuter clinic, extended shelter hours to seven days a week from three, stopped accepting feral cats for euthanasia, started vaccinating animals on intake, painted the shelter, junked the SPCA’s decompression chamber, and made many other positive changes. Only then did he go to the public, tell them what the SPCA was doing to save lives, and ask for their help. The rest is history.

Another notable thing about Avanzino’s motto was that it challenged the idea that was ingrained in the traditional shelter industry that the public did not care about homeless pets. The core of the San Francisco SPCA No Kill ethos was that the American people loved their pets, thought of them as family members, and would come to their rescue when they needed it the most. All the shelter had to do was to provide a framework to make it possible for the public to help.

Some might ask how shelter workers are supposed to do a good job before they get the resources needed to do a good job. It seems like saying they should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. That’s where another of my favorite mottoes comes in – “solutions, not excuses,” which is the motto of Teresa Johnson, director of Kansas City Pet Project (KCPP).

This is another motto that seems somewhat obvious at first glance, but when you look at it more closely it gets at one of the core issues that shelters encounter. Every shelter director faces problems. The key when confronted with a problem is not to use the problem as an excuse. Almost every shelter director in the United States has faced a shortage of resources. The difference between successful and unsuccessful directors is how they react.

Johnson put her motto into action in the early days of KCPP’s existence, when she faced the problem that their shelter building was in an out-of-the-way location with little visibility. They needed a new shelter in a better location, but the city had no interest at the time in building a new shelter. Johnson solved the problem by setting up an offsite adoption venue that she outfitted with donated equipment. This was only one of many innovations she made by looking for solutions, not excuses. Now, when KCPP asks the public for help, they have a track record that makes the public want to support them.

Another motto that expresses this same goal-oriented outlook is attributed to Caroline Earle White, who founded the first animal shelter in the United States in Philadelphia in 1870. White was one of the three great leaders of the post-Civil-War humane movement. One of her colleagues said of her that she “regarded defeat as but one of the steps to accomplishment.” White carried out that motto in her work. When she was barred by her gender from taking any active role with the first SPCA she founded, she founded a second one for women only. She faced a threat from medical school researchers who wanted to take dogs from her shelter for experimentation, but she outmaneuvered them. She had to deal with hostility and ridicule from reporters who thought that concern for “worthless curs” was silly. It took decades, but they gradually changed their views and their reporting. White did not allow any of these challenges or setbacks to throw her off course.

We hear a lot about how important leadership is to No Kill, and that’s certainly true, right down to the mottoes. So don’t make the mistake I did in brushing off these words of wisdom as obvious or unimportant. They can be keys to success.

Dealing with Bird Conservationists

The last few years have been a very exciting time for cat advocates because the new community cat paradigms are revolutionizing how shelters deal with cats. Problems can arise in fully implementing community cat programs, though, including ordinances that restrict trap-neuter-return (TNR) or return-to-field (RTF). Just recently we have had a threat to the TNR program in Washington, DC and a scare as to the TNR and RTF programs in Jacksonville, Florida. We never know when or where the bird conservationists are going to pop up and propose a restrictive ordinance to stop TNR and RTF, or try to persuade government officials to adopt a trap-and-kill program.

Community cat advocates are fortunate to have great sources of help and information such as Alley Cat Allies and the Million Cat Challenge. Peter Wolf’s blog Vox Felina has many articles deconstructing the research that bird conservationists cite as support for their trap-and-kill agenda. In addition to those great resources, I thought it might be handy to have a short guide to the true state of knowledge about feral and community cats today. Here are some facts that sometimes get buried in the rhetoric about free-roaming cats .

  • We have no idea how many free-roaming cats there are in the United States. In 2013, a meta-analysis of cat predation on wildlife that came to be known as the Smithsonian study was published by three conservationists.* The paper received a great deal of attention and has been frequently cited by bird conservationists in arguing for trap-and-kill programs. The authors admitted, however, that the number of free-roaming cats in the United States is not known. In their words: “No empirically-derived estimate of un-owned cat abundance exists for the contiguous U.S.” What this means in plain English is that no one has ever done an evidence-based study on the number of outdoor cats in the United States. The authors then went on to acknowledge that the guesses people have made as to the number of feral cats range from 20 million to 120 million. So if you are ever at a city council hearing and a bird conservationist says that “there are 60 million feral cats in the United States,” feel free to correct them by citing their own flagship study. The fact is that whenever anyone claims there are “x” number of feral or free-roaming cats in the United States, they are purely guessing.
  • Cats are a commensal species.** That means that they live primarily in and near human habitations, much like squirrels, raccoons, and opposums. Commensal species are dependent on humans for food and shelter. There is no evidence whatsoever that significant numbers of feral cats live in wilderness areas in the continental United States.
  • There is no evidence whatsoever that the number of unowned cats in the United States as a whole is increasing. In fact, the evidence we have indicates that the number of free-roaming cats is decreasing. Bird conservationists often argue that cats are an “invasive” species. It is true that the domestic cat is not native to the Americas, but there is no evidence that cats are an “invasive” species in the sense of rapidly multiplying and taking over habitats. Cats were introduced to the United States before the Pilgrims arrived, and if they were a classic invasive species the country would be chock-a-block with cats by now. Instead of increasing, cat populations in cities, measured by shelter intake and anecdotal evidence of the number of cats on the street, appear to have been declining for the last 75 years. And since cats, as commensal animals, live mostly in cities, then if cat numbers are declining in cities they are probably declining overall.
  • There is no evidence that cat predation harms bird species at the population level, or that cat predation has ever affected the survival of an endangered bird species in the continental United States. The authors of the Smithsonian study attached a supplemental table where they listed bird mortality by species as found in various studies. As Peter Wolf pointed out in a blog post on Vox Felina, of the 58 species cited, 57 are plentiful. One, the Northern Bobwhite, is listed as “near threatened,” but its status is attributed to habitat destruction and sport hunting.
  • No one knows how many birds a typical outdoor cat kills. Studies that have been done in the United States have found everything from 1.64 birds per cat per year to 186.47 birds per cat per year (see Supplementary Table S1 in the Smithsonian study). With such a gigantic variation in study results, the only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that scientists have not yet discovered how to set proper parameters for effectively measuring cat predation on birds in the field.
  • Owned cats kill fewer birds than unowned cats. Although the studies cited in Supplementary Table S1 of the Smithsonian paper are extremely inconsistent as to the number of birds killed by individual cats, the studies are very consistent in concluding that owned cats kill far fewer birds than unowned cats. Owned cats are fed, so it is not surprising that they hunt less. Feral cats who have a colony caregiver are also fed. Therefore, the Smithsonian study provides strong support for the argument that TNR, with ongoing colony care, will lead to less predation on birds.
  • The trap-and-kill methods pushed by bird conservationists have never been shown to work. In order for trap-and-kill to work, the generally accepted view is that at least 70% of the target population has to be killed, and this has to be repeated every two years. Because cats live mostly in urban and suburban areas, especially in alleys and vacant houses and outbuildings where they can find shelter, extermination programs would have to trap cats in people’s neighborhoods. I am not aware of any city that has ever tried a mass trap-and-kill program, and I cannot imagine how such a program would succeed. First, it would be very expensive because it would require the purchase of a large number of traps and the employment of a large number of people to set and monitor the traps and kill the cats. Second, catching feral cats is not easy, and the people who know how to do it would not be assisting the city. Third, the traps would catch more pet cats and small dogs than feral cats, and it would be very expensive to house those animals for return to their owners. Fourth, there would be many highly publicized horror stories of pet cats who were caught and killed by the trappers. Fifth, people who sympathized with the cats would sabotage the traps and would not allow traps to be placed on their private property. Sixth, the bird conservationists are not offering to fund or carry out these extermination programs themselves, and instead urge the cities to pay for it and to take the heat. Advocates should make sure that city officials see the contrast between TNR/RTF programs, which are paid for with donations and carried out by volunteers, and trap-and-kill programs which would have to be carried out by hired help and funded by the taxpayers. And we should use every opportunity to point out that bird conservationists who argue against TNR and RTF are trying to destroy existing programs without having any practical solution to put in their place.
  • Our message is not “just leave the cute kitties alone.” Bird conservationists often try to paint cat advocates as irrational and sentimental people, and they sometimes invoke or hint at the “cat lady” stereotype. They try to portray cat advocates as supporters of an untenable status quo. We need to make sure that government officials know that TNR and RTF are programs that are designed to change the status quo. In fact, the purpose of TNR and RTF is to do exactly what bird conservationists say they want, which is to reduce the number of free-roaming cats. Government officials love to find a middle ground on contentious issues, and TNR and RTF provide such a middle ground.

CITATIONS:

* “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra, Nature Communications 4, January 29, 2013, doi:10.1038/ncomms2380.

** Terry O’Connor, Animals as Neighbors: The Past and Present of Commensal Animals (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013).