Who Speaks For No Kill?

One of the first things that new students learn about in law school is the famous 1803 Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, which was decided when our country was still new. That was an exciting time, because the fundamentals of how our country was going to operate were being created and put into place. Marbury v. Madison was important because it held that it was the duty of the courts to “say what the law is.” From that day forward, the courts have been the final word in interpreting the law.

Who has the final word in saying what No Kill is? Who speaks for No Kill? No Kill is very different from the law. While the law is a set of rules, No Kill is a process. While the law must treat each citizen equally, No Kill must be applied in a wide variety of different circumstances. And while the law is designed to provide a stable framework that gives society a certain consistency and predictability, No Kill is constantly changing as new techniques evolve and progress is made.

Although the concept of a lawgiver from on high does not fit very well with the ethos of No Kill, there is another great American institution that fits No Kill perfectly – the public square. The public square in the early days of the United States was a literal place in the center of town where people would gather to debate the issues affecting them and decide what to do about those issues. It was quintessential democracy, and it had all the strong points and the discomforts of pure democracy. There were lots of different viewpoints, lots of creativity, and lots of conflict. It was not a particularly comfortable process, but out of it arose the wisdom of the people.

The miracle of democracy is that you can take a bunch of average people, put them together, give them a problem to solve or an issue to decide, and more times than not they will come up with a pretty good solution. The process of the public square is not perfect, because it can be demagogued or highjacked. Over the years our constitution has been amended and interpreted to include protections for small, disfavored groups, so that we can be sure that everyone has a voice in the public square. Today the “public square” is more often metaphorical than real, as we carry on our debates in print, on television, and by social media.

Richard Avanzino, the person who created the idea of No Kill communities at the San Francisco SPCA in the years from 1979 to 1994, would, I think, agree with the idea of the American people as the voice of No Kill. Avanzino believes that each person’s contribution, whether it be fostering an occasional pet or starting a rescue or running a No Kill city or running an advocacy organization, is an important part of No Kill. He told me that he does not believe that No Kill is a cookbook, and that he would never presume to tell a community how they should go about No Kill or what would work for them. He is a fan of bottom-up thinking, not top-down.

In fact, what we think of today as the core components of the San Francisco approach to No Kill morphed over time, developing organically from the experience and creativity of volunteers and staff. The offsite adoption program, which dates back to 1980, started when volunteers decided to take shelter pets downtown to their work places at lunch hour so their fellow workers could see them. That worked well and the initiative grew. Eventually the SPCA made offsite adoptions a formal part of operations, and the program developed to the point of having several sites around town with dedicated vans for setting up in the morning, delivering more animals during the day, and breaking down the sites at night. It all started with the ideas of volunteers.

Today I frequently see people make statements about what “No Kill” means, or how a shelter or community should get to No Kill – or an accusation that some shelter or community is not really No Kill. I see people proposing that new No Kill advocates should be instructed in a certain way – told that they have to use a cookbook, or that the traditional shelter establishment is full of uncaring people and it is always a waste of time to work with them. I see people issuing edicts about the “right” way to calculate live release rates. Anyone who has a different idea on any of these points is called an enemy of No Kill, or worse.

We need to counter these attempts to shut down dialogue. We need to make a conscious effort to ensure that No Kill sticks with its roots as a democratic creation – a bottom up process based on creativity, open-mindedness, and a belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. No one individual or group has the right to define No Kill or to speak for No Kill. Instead, we should all have the right to be heard and speak our minds without fear of being insulted or ridiculed. Out of that process will emerge a consensus that shows the way forward in each time and place. That has historically been the strength of the No Kill movement. We got where we are today by creativity and inclusiveness, not by following rules or shutting people out. We must keep our public square open and free, and resist those who want their voices to be the only ones heard.

Keeping Our No Kill Directors

Getting to and sustaining No Kill is more difficult in some places than others. If I were looking for the easiest place for a No Kill transition, I would pick a small town with a lot of educated or wealthy people – maybe a ski resort or a college town. The town should be in the northern part of the country, the colder the better, and preferably in a mountainous area. The shelter should be owned and managed by a humane society, preferably one with an endowment or income stream that can help fund the transition to No Kill. And it would be a great bonus if the town had a veterinary college nearby with a shelter medicine program. No Kill in those circumstances would probably be easy to achieve and sustain.

On the other hand, think about a job as director of a municipal-owned shelter in a big southern city, in a place that has warm weather for most of the year and a long kitten season, with a population that has average or less-than-average levels of wealth and education, and with no subsidized access to advanced veterinary care. That would be tough. There are people who have succeeded in creating No Kill in such circumstances, but it’s hard work.

Until the last few years the great majority of No Kill communities have more closely resembled the scenario described in the first paragraph than in the second. But recently we have seen an explosion of cities with live release rates over 80%, in places where it would have seemed impossible just five to ten years ago. We have seen shelter directors taking on No Kill projects in big cities in the south and the midwest, including in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Missouri. Even Mississippi has a No Kill shelter now.

That’s great news, but unfortunately some No Kill advocates are not making the distinction between the little resort town in Colorado and the giant metropolis in the south. There have been several reports of shelter directors saving 98%, 99%, or 100% of animals in little county shelters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or in wealthy small towns in mountainous areas of Colorado, or in college towns in the northeast, and some advocates seem to have gotten a skewed idea of what is possible in places that look more like average America. Actually, the 98% to 100% save rates seem to be pretty rare even in the small northern towns. Even in those places 90% to 97% yearly save rates are probably more common.

The result of the high expectations has been that some shelter directors who are revolutionizing shelters in the south and saving tens of thousands of lives every year are nevertheless being criticized because so far they are “only” at 80% or 85% or 89% instead of 98% to 100%. And the criticisms are not gentle. I was talking to one such shelter director recently who said she and her staff have been called “SOBs” and “murderers.” And those are the printable epithets. This director and her organization stepped in to save a dysfunctional shelter system in a large southern city, and they are raising the live release rate very rapidly. They are working under extremely difficult conditions, with virtually no establishment support, and they are practically killing themselves doing it. The director told me that she had just recently taken her first vacation in five years, and that all she did was sleep. I would defy any of her critics to give up what she has given up to do this work, and I would defy any of them to do a better job. And yet there is a segment of our own No Kill movement that thinks that she and her team are not good enough!

Similarly, in another large southern city that has seen many failed past attempts to raise live release rates, the current director of the municipal shelter is slowly and steadily raising live release rates. It’s looking good for his shelter to have a live release rate in the 80% range for 2015. Will he ever get to 90%? I don’t know, but the year before he took over the shelter didn’t even get to 50%. Yet he was the subject of relentless criticism from some local advocates before he even had a chance to get started.

In another southern city some local No Kill advocates have been criticizing the shelter even as it has reached and exceeded the 90% standard. They disapproved of the program that shelter management chose to use, because there is a different program that they like better. And in a northwestern city a group of No Kill advocates have been pillorying a No Kill shelter that reports live release rates of over 90%.

None of the shelters in the cities and towns I mentioned above are perfect, and criticism can be a good thing when it points out real flaws and urges even better performance. But undeserved criticism can be draining for shelter directors. And calling out shelter directors who are rapidly improving their live releases but are not up to 80% or 90% yet can actually cause harm and slow their momentum by undermining the support and engagement of the community.

Unreasonable critics are only part of a larger problem, though, which is that good shelter directors working in the tougher cities are often not seeing enough rewards for a job that can be incredibly difficult and draining. When we fail to appreciate good directors we risk losing some of our best leaders to burnout. Burnout may not be a big problem in the case of directors of small shelters in wealthy northern towns, but it is potentially a problem for the new generation of shelter directors who are taking on tougher challenges. Just offhand, I can think of several No Kill stars who have left positions as municipal shelter directors in recent years. Most of these people have gone on to other important work on the national stage in No Kill, which is a good thing, but we have lost them from the front lines.

So what can be done to combat burnout and keep great directors on the job? First, we need to make sure that directors have the help they need. No Kill advocates, instead of standing on the sidelines and demanding that the director work miracles, can get involved themselves. They can approach the city or county government (in a reasonable, respectful way, after doing their homework and keeping in mind that governments have many important priorities) and seek more resources for the shelter, including higher pay for good performers. They can work on revising ordinances, an important task that is often overlooked.

Perhaps most of all, No Kill advocates can either start their own organizations to assist shelters, or work on reforming local legacy humane societies that are not doing their part. It is hard to overestimate the importance of supporting organizations in getting to and sustaining high live release rates. For example, two large cities in the south that have live release rates around 95% have been able to reach that level in part because in each of the two cities there are three large organizations that help each other in the No Kill effort. But in some cities there are unhelpful legacy humane societies that are sucking up the lion’s share of local donations and mostly using them to put on a happy face and keep their payroll up. I’m speaking here about some local organizations, not the national organizations. In the last few years the traditional national organizations, with one notable exception, have become very supportive of No Kill and they are now doing some innovative stuff. Both the HSUS and the ASPCA, for example (along with other national organizations that have always supported No Kill), were early supporters of the new cat paradigms, and have used their enormous national influence to gain increasing acceptance for what otherwise could have been a hard sell.

Legacy humane societies that haven’t really changed the way they operate in the last 20, 30, or 40 years are a problem. Imagine the difference it would make for the municipal shelter director, on the morning of a puppy mill bust when 40 dogs in poor condition are being impounded, to get a call from the local humane society with an offer to take in the 25 sickest dogs. That type of help from local organizations goes a long way to preventing burnout, and it is really what every municipal shelter director has a right to expect. It might behoove local No Kill advocates to ask what the local humane societies are doing before they go after the municipal shelter director.

The work of a No Kill municipal shelter director has a lot of intrinsic rewards. It is important work. It is life-saving. No Kill shelter directors know they are making the world a better place. But a person who has the managerial and people skills and the work ethic needed to succeed as a shelter director in a typical American city is someone who has talents that would be rewarded with a lot more pay and status and a lot less stress in another profession. If we are going to retain our stars and attract other stars to the profession, we need to appreciate them and try to support them rather than make their jobs harder.

Meet The Director: Lara Hudson

Lara photoLara Hudson came to animal shelter work by an unusual route – quite literally. After college she wanted to travel and see the world, so she took a job as a flight attendant. She was in the Middle East shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and she began volunteering for the Humane Center for Animal Welfare (HCAW) in Amman, Jordan. There were 14 nomadic villages in the desert around Amman, and at HCAW, instead of finding cats and dogs left on their doorstep during the night they would find donkeys and other agricultural animals tied to the porch. These were animals that no longer had any economic use to their owners, often due to neglected broken legs that had healed unevenly, and the only thing HCAW could do for them was to provide a painless death.

The villagers were living in conditions that made their existence seem almost as though they were on a different planet from the developed world. And as hard as life was for the villagers, the lives of their animals were even harder. Lara describes the suffering of the animals as “profound.” It was this experience that made her decide that she wanted her career to be improving the lives of animals.

When Lara returned to the United States she settled in her home town of Middleburg, Florida, near Jacksonville, and began working with the Safe Animal Shelter (SAS). SAS was a private, limited admission No Kill organization. Lara started out as a volunteer and then joined the staff, working her way up from kennel tech to vet tech to assistant manager to director. She worked at SAS from 2005 to 2011. The last year she was at SAS she purchased a truck to allow her to transport animals from the county shelter to the SAS facility. She made regular trips to the county shelter and had to select animals to save from the ones they were going to kill. It was devastating to look at the ones she could not take, and she thought about them all the way home. It was this experience that made her decide that if she was going to help animals in a more meaningful way she would have to work in an open-admission shelter.

When a director’s position became available at the open-admission county shelter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, she applied for and won the job. The shelter, called Southern Pines, took in some 5,000 animals per year. Lara ran Southern Pines for two years, and during that time she and her team worked to bring up the number of animals that left alive. Lara was not focused on statistics at that time but she believes the shelter was killing about 2/3 of its animals when she started. When she left the save rate was in the range of 80% to 90%. Lara and her team did not follow any particular program to achieve those gains – instead, they brainstormed together to solve the problems that were in front of them in the county. Their success was so great that Lara decided she wanted to travel around the country, working at failing shelters for a couple of years and turning them around, then moving on.

It was at that time, early in 2013, that Lara saw a mysterious ad on a website listing shelter jobs. The ad said that a large open-admission shelter in the southeast needed good leadership after years of unsuccessful leadership. The job sounded like just the thing for Lara, and she applied. It turned out that the ad had been posted by Rebecca Guinn of LifeLine Animal Project in Atlanta, which had just won the contracts to operate the two county shelters that serve the city of Atlanta. Rebecca’s mission was to make the city No Kill, and she was on a very tight deadline to get two large management teams up and running by the rapidly approaching takeover dates.

Fulton shelter signRebecca hired Lara to run the Fulton County shelter. Most of the urban population in the city of Atlanta lives in Fulton County. The shelter was built in 1978. It has some advantages, such as natural light, but it is very small and cramped for the staff and for the number of animals taken in, which at the time Lara started was about 10,000 per year. The contract included animal control as well as operation of the shelter. It is in a high-crime part of town, with a railroad track behind it and the county jail across the street. The live release rate in 2013 when Lara started was only about 35%.

Lara’s first thought was to stop the bleeding by making changes that they could implement quickly for maximum impact. The first thing she did was to start reaching out to rescues. There is no large organization in Atlanta that pulls lots of at-risk animals from the shelter, as Austin has with Austin Pets Alive!, Jacksonville has with the Jacksonville Humane Society, and Richmond has with the Richmond SPCA. There is the Atlanta Humane Society, but it does not take significant numbers of animals from the county shelters and does not take the behavior and medical cases that need the most help. So Lara hired two full-time rescue coordinators to make sure that any rescue that did want to pull from the shelter had all the information they needed and would receive complete cooperation.

To minimize length of stay Lara adopted a first-come, first-served policy for strays. A person who wants to adopt an animal on stray hold, or a rescue that wants to pull a particular animal, can tag the animal as soon as it comes in the door. If the animal is not reclaimed by the owner it goes to that adopter or rescue as soon as the stray hold expires. Individuals who go through the adoption process for an animal on stray hold are advised that an owner might show up, and if so their money will be refunded, but this policy prevents the problem of highly desirable animals having many people signed up to adopt them and then being disappointed if they are not the one chosen. It also gives rescues the same chance to get an animal as anyone else, which makes the rescues more willing to work with the shelter.

In addition to making the shelter as user-friendly for rescues as possible, Lara quickly instituted changes to make the shelter as inviting as possible for adopters. A large “STOP” sign that was in the lobby got pitched out. The tiny, thick plastic grill that separated visitors from the front desk was taken out, and a big, open window installed. Lara’s idea of customer service is to establish a relationship of trust with each person who walks in the door. She wants them to feel that if they adopt an animal, they can always turn to shelter staff for help and they will not be judged or criticized. The staff member who greets a visitor gives his or her full attention to the visitor, and does not make the visitor wait while answering the phone or doing other tasks.

Another policy change that Lara made was to stop having Animal Control pick up healthy outdoor cats. Soon after taking over at the Fulton County shelter she examined the applicable laws and ordinances and found that there was no requirement for the county to impound free-roaming cats. Nor was there any requirement to impound wild animals like raccoons, possums, and foxes as the previous shelter operator had been doing. In fact, when she consulted with the authorities she found that the previous operator had been violating the law by impounding wild animals since the shelter was not licensed to do so.

When people call the shelter asking to have cats picked up, the dispatcher tells them that the shelter will be happy to take in healthy cats over the counter. Animal Control will pick up sick or injured cats. Healthy cats who were found outdoors, with no known owner, are sterilized, vaccinated, and ear-tipped at no cost and then returned to their location (a three-day hold period applies to non-feral strays). The dispatcher explains to callers that if outdoor cats are taken to the shelter and killed, more cats are likely to show up and take their place. Most people are interested in the new way of handling cats and accepting of it. If a caller says that they just want the cats gone, however, LifeLine can send someone out to assess the situation and speak with the person in more detail to come up with a solution. The shelter euthanizes cats only for medical reasons.

Both of the LifeLine county shelters – Fulton and DeKalb – are running at about an 85% live release rate right now. Lara told me that the biggest remaining problem area they have in saving the last 5% of savable animals is dogs with behavior problems. The Fulton County shelter is so small that dogs have to be housed with more than one to a run. This puts extra stress on the dogs. A dog that has been traumatized in some way might be fine if it went into a facility where it could have a quiet space of its own to decompress, but it might show fear or aggression under the circumstances of the Fulton County shelter. The shelter has a full-time foster coordinator and about 150 to 200 active foster caregivers, but that is not enough for all the dogs who need help. Shelter staff networks for these dogs as hard as they can with rescues, but these are the dogs who are killed if no rescue can be found. Now that Lara has her team in place and has raised the live release rate from 35% to 85%, she is turning her attention to this last group of animals. It won’t be easy, because the county does not provide resources to cover costs for these dogs. That means LifeLine will have to fundraise for the expensive process of getting these dogs the training they need and the quiet housing they will require while they are being rehabilitated.

Lara will have been at the Fulton County shelter three years by next spring, and she has given up her idea of moving every two years to take over a failing shelter and turn it around. The challenges in Atlanta are so large, and the importance of No Kill in the city is so great, that she wants to stay there to continue the work. The work of the LifeLine team in getting Atlanta to the edge of No Kill in spite of very tough circumstances, with relatively little outside help, and in less than three years, has been one of the most inspiring stories I’ve seen in No Kill. I hope LifeLine is able to get the support it needs going forward, because Atlanta will certainly be one of the crown jewels of No Kill.

Meet the Director: Kerry Moyers-Horton

Kerry with catThis is the fourth in my “Meet the Director” series of blogs about successful No Kill shelter directors, and I’m beginning to see a pattern. All four of the people I’ve featured so far had professional careers in other fields before they got into animal sheltering, and all four gave up those careers because they were eager to be a hands-on part of shelter reform. I’ve often heard the theory that some of the best shelter directors are people who come to sheltering from other fields, and that certainly seems to hold true for our No Kill directors.

Kerry Moyers-Horton’s previous career was as an art director. She got a degree in graphic design and went to work in her home town of Chattanooga. Before she went to college, though, she had become interested in rescue work through meeting a group of people who did adoptions at a local pet store. The group was grass-roots, simply trying to help make things better in their corner of the world, and Kerry worked with them for several years. By 2002 Kerry was the leader of her rescue group, and when Best Friends held its national conference in Atlanta that year Kerry decided to attend.

Kerry’s group had been using an adoption listing service provided by Rebecca Guinn’s LifeLine Animal Project in Atlanta. Kerry got better acquainted with Rebecca at the 2002 conference and also had her first contact with the national No Kill movement. She was impressed with the people she met from all over the country who were working on innovative ideas to save more shelter animals. Kerry had always tried to give her rescue work the same time and attention that she gave her day job, but after the conference she came to the realization that she no longer wanted her life to be divided in two.  She wanted to be able to do animal welfare work without distraction. Giving up her job as an art director was not an easy choice, but she felt sure it was the right decision for her.

Kerry admired the work that LifeLine was doing, and asked Rebecca to let her know if a paid position became available. Soon after that Rebecca opened the LifeLine “Dog House,” which was a short-term boarding facility where rescue organizations could hold dogs who were waiting to go into foster care. This was a natural for Kerry, with her years of rescue work, and Rebecca offered her the job of manager. Kerry worked for LifeLine from 2003 to 2008, and the Dog House added a Kitty Motel and then developed into a rehabilitation center. Kerry loved the work and never regretted her career change.

In 2008 a group in Chattanooga started an ambitious No Kill project that included a state-of-the-art shelter building. Kerry wanted to be a part of this new effort, and she moved back to Chattanooga to work on it. The No Kill effort was successful, and Kerry moved on to serve as executive director of a humane organization near Chattanooga. Then in early 2013 she got a call from Rebecca. LifeLine had just won the contracts for animal sheltering in both Fulton and DeKalb counties, serving over 1.5 million people, and Rebecca was calling in the troops for the historic task of making Atlanta a No Kill city. She asked Kerry to come help, and of course Kerry said yes. Kerry initially supervised several programs at the Fulton County shelter, but earlier this year she moved to the director’s position at the DeKalb County shelter.

I visited the DeKalb County shelter a couple of weeks ago and got to meet Kerry and tour the shelter. The shelter was built in the early 1980s and is typical of shelters built at that time. It is next to a railroad track, and was built on a landfill. It has little natural light inside. The administrative offices were built with both heat and air conditioning, but the kennels had no built-in air conditioning system. In the old days during hot weather fans had to be used to provide a little relief to the animals. Today, the kennels have air conditioning through a jerry-rigged system that uses what looks like giant balloons. The dog runs were built with grates instead of flooring, and built in such a way that retrofitting with solid flooring would be prohibitively expensive. The only good thing about the building is that it is fairly large, so it has sufficient space for current needs.

One would think that operating a municipal shelter in a large, rapidly growing southern city that is financed by the county government and housed in a badly outdated building would be quite a challenge, and it is. What surprised me during my visit, though, is how smoothly everything seems to work. A large part of that is because of Kerry’s management style. Like other LifeLine managers she has an open-door policy and stresses that they work as a team. She encourages staff and volunteers to come to her with their ideas and concerns, and relies on them to develop new approaches. The shelter has volunteer coordinators, rescue coordinators, and a trained photographer who helps each pet put its best foot forward on social media. The photographer takes amazing portraits of animals looking for homes:dog

LifeLine right now is running at about an 85% live release rate at both the Fulton and DeKalb shelters. They are no-kill for cats, and the biggest challenge for them in continuing to raise their live release rate is dogs who are not suitable for a typical adopter. The rescue coordinators work with dozens of rescues to try to get these dogs into a situation where they can be trained and given the time they need. LifeLine is working very hard to achieve a 90% or better save rate, and they hope to be there by 2016.

As with all private organizations that have a contract to run a municipal shelter, LifeLine does not have any guarantee of what will happen in the future. DeKalb County could decide not to put the shelter contract up for bid again when the current contract expires, or it could grant the contract to another organization. Another layer of uncertainty is that DeKalb County is building a new shelter in a nearby location. The design for this project was already in process when LifeLine got the contract, so while Kerry is hopeful that the new building will be an improvement she is not expecting it to be a panacea.

With all the difficulties and problems, and even though No Kill in Atlanta is something of a high-wire act, the feeling I got from Kerry and from everyone associated with LifeLine is that they are quietly confident in their ability to do this. What we have seen with other cities that have achieved No Kill is that the citizens really like it and that over time more and more supporters join the effort. I think the future for No Kill in Atlanta looks very bright, thanks to the efforts of Kerry and the whole LifeLine team.

The Decline in Feral Cats

A great debate has been raging for several years now about how to control the number of feral cats. On one side of the debate we have wildlife conservationists who argue that the domestic cat is an invasive species that is slaughtering native species and must be eradicated in the same way that other invasive species are eradicated – by killing them all. On the other side we have No Kill advocates who argue that trap-and-kill programs do not work and that feral cat numbers can be managed and gradually reduced by trap-neuter-return (TNR). The two sides have been battling for years, with wildlife biologists successfully opposing TNR in some places.

Underlying this debate is an assumption that has, as far as I can tell from reading the non-paywalled literature, never been addressed in any systematic way. That assumption is that feral cats in the United States are like other “invasive” species such as starlings and Burmese pythons, in that their numbers are rapidly increasing. We see projections that one feral cat can have hundreds of thousands of offspring in a few years, for example. The label “invasive” itself designates a non-native species that comes into an environment and takes over, squeezing out native species by its rapid reproduction. Think kudzu.

What do we know about feral cat population numbers in the United States? The most accurate answer to that question is “nothing.” Over the years various estimates of feral cat populations have been made, often in the range of 60 million. One recent study that attracted a lot of attention estimated that there were from 30 to 80 million un-owned domestic cats in the United States. This estimate was made in a 2013 article by Scott R. Loss, et al., published in the journal Nature Communications. It is often referred to as the Smithsonian study. The Smithsonian study did not report any original research on the number of un-owned cats in the United States; instead, it made estimates ostensibly based on five other studies. The authors of the paper acknowledged, however, that: “No precise estimate of the un-owned cat population exists for the United States . . . .” Because they had no good data on numbers of un-owned cats in the United States, they used data from other countries to estimate what the population might be in the United States. The wide range in this estimate, and the lack of data from the United States, resulted in numbers that I would characterize as “guessing.”

But in spite of the lack of data on the feral cat population nationwide, there are useful things we can say about feral cat distribution and their numbers over time. First of all, as to distribution, domestic cats are a commensal species, and as such their numbers are heavily dependent on the human population. As a commensal species, feral cats live primarily in the cities and suburbs. This is an extremely important fact about feral cats that has been given virtually no attention in connection with control measures. There is no evidence whatsoever that feral cats exist in sufficient numbers to cause damage to populations of native species in wild areas of the territorial United States, away from human habitation. Nor is there any evidence that feral cat numbers in wild areas are increasing. The commensal nature of the cat, and its dependence on its association with human habitation, means that feral cats are not an invasive species in the classic sense of over-running natural habitat and crowding out native species. Since feral cats require resources that they find in human habitations to reach high populations, efforts to control those populations must concentrate in cities and suburbs. We do not need to be concerned about most wild areas, because they have very few feral cats.

In the cities and suburbs where feral cats live, there is not a black-and-white line between feral and tame cats. Although feral and tame cats may be very different behaviorally, they are denizens of the same urban habitat and their populations intertwine. In many colonies you will find feral and tame cats living side-by-side. Therefore, what we are really interested in for purposes of designing control programs is the number of free-roaming cats (aka community cats), whether they are feral or tame.

The two important facts discussed above – that cats are commensal and that the population we are interested in for control purposes is free-roaming cats, point us to an important data source that has been completely overlooked in discussions about the feral cat “problem” – historical animal control data. That data shows us that the population of free-roaming cats in the urban areas where cats actually live has been plunging since the early 1900s. All we need to do to “control” the free-roaming cat population is to figure out what we have been doing right and do more of it.

Free-roaming cats were apparently not considered a problem in American cities until the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, there are references in historical documents to cat shortages. Large numbers of horses and dairy cows were stabled in cities throughout the 1800s, and you could find cats in every stable. Horses ate grain, and cats deterred rodents from getting to the expensive grain. It was not until around the end of the 19th century that the number of cats grew large enough in New York City, Boston, and other large cities that systematic efforts to control their numbers were made. In New York City, that job fell to the ASPCA.

The ASPCA has made their intake and euthanasia numbers available for selected years in the period from 1894, when they were awarded the responsibility for animal control in New York City, to 1994, when they gave up that responsibility. During that 100-year period, the vast majority of animals who were taken into shelters in the city were taken in by the ASPCA. The ASPCA is to be congratulated on their willingness to make this data available, because it is the sole source of shelter intake data that we have that goes back to the early 1900s.

The cat-intake numbers from the ASPCA official reports are astonishing. In 1895 the ASPCA took in 24,140 cats. That number rapidly went up as the ASPCA ramped up its animal control operation. In 1914 the intake number was 177,234, and in 1928 it was 217,774. In 1934 the cat intake number peaked at 219,506 cats. According to unofficial reports, the numbers in some years may have been even higher. One report was that the ASPCA killed 303,949 cats in 1911 (Forbush, The Domestic Cat). But the number of cats impounded by the ASPCA fell sharply from 1934 to 1946, and in 1946 the ASPCA impounded 155,312 cats. The decline continued, and in 1965 the number was 75,858. In 1994, the number was 27,366. The number of cats impounded in New York City continued to decline after the city took over animal control in 1994, and in 2014 cat intake was 18,784. Meanwhile, the human population of New York City increased from 5.6 million in 1920 to 8.5 million today.

If we pick 1920 as a base year and compare it to 2014, we see a dramatic fall in cat intake numbers in New York City, both in absolute numbers and numbers relative to the human population. The number of cats impounded by animal control fell from about 200,000 per year in 1920 to 18,784 in 2014. That is a decline of 91% in absolute numbers. The decline relative to human population was from 36 per 1000 people in 1920 to about 2 per 1000 people today, a 95% drop.

Now, some people (particularly wildlife biologists, I suspect) would criticize these numbers as meaningless. They would argue that the numbers are for only one city and that enforcement as to cats may have changed over the years. These are valid criticisms, but I do not think they invalidate the evidence of a plunge in free-roaming cat numbers.

As to the objection that the numbers are from only one city, we have quite a lot of national data showing a fall in shelter intake across the United States. This fall in intake has been particularly well-documented for the years 1970 to 2000. It is not the quality of data we would ideally like to have for scientific study, but it is consistent across a large number of shelters. Those estimates are that shelter intake nationwide, of cats and dogs, was some 26.5 million in 1970 and about 9 million in 2000. As to the objection that animal-control enforcement may have changed over the years, changes in enforcement up to at least the year 2000 were in the direction of more enforcement against cats, not less. And in any event, we are not looking at a subtle finding here. Plunges in the number of cats impounded on the order that we have seen in the United States is hardly likely to be solely due to changes in enforcement.

Additional evidence that the number of cats in cities has cratered comes from ecological studies that were done in the 1980s. Cat densities of from 725 to 1813 per square mile were found by researcher James Childs in Baltimore neighborhoods in the early 1980s. I am not aware of any more recent ecological surveys of cats in cities, but such numbers of free-roaming cats would surely be very rare in cities today.

So, what happened? Why did the number of free-roaming cats in our cities fall off a cliff? One thing that did not cause the decline in numbers was shelter killing. In spite of massive killing, the numbers of cats impounded in New York City throughout the early 1900s continued to rise. The explanation for the fall in the number of cats was changes in the environment. The great decline in cat intake that we saw in New York City from roughly 1920 to 1945 correlated with the period of time after horses and dairy cows disappeared from the cities. Cats lost their jobs protecting stables, and as the stables disappeared a huge chunk of the food and shelter resources that cats had relied on disappeared with them. Also in the early 1900s, cities began to make organized efforts to improve public health. In addition to getting livestock out of town, cities made big efforts to clean up the streets and get rid of abandoned buildings. Less trash in the streets and fewer abandoned buildings equaled fewer resources for free-roaming cats.

Another enormous change happened in the 1970s as safe, humane techniques for spaying and neutering were perfected and veterinarians began to recommend sterilization for owned pets as a routine part of healthcare. This trend accelerated in the 1990s as pediatric spay-neuter became accepted, and today a very high percentage of owned cats – estimates are over 90% – are sterilized. As more and more owned cats were sterilized, there was less and less seeding of the free-roaming cat population by owned pets. Another factor in the period from 1970 to 2000 was that residences began to secure their trash better. Photographs of Baltimore from the 1970s show alleys full of metal trash cans tipped over by dogs, with the lids scattered around. Today we have garbage cans with locking lids that are much harder for animals to open.

What part did TNR have in all this? TNR did not become widespread until recently, and it may be too early in the process to evaluate long-term effects of TNR on the population of cats in cities and suburbs. However, TNR should further decrease the seeding of the free-roaming cat population. If we could do TNR on a substantial percentage of the population of free-roaming cats in the cities and suburbs, we should see the same type of decline that we saw in feral dog populations from 1970 to 2000.

What more can we do? A 1989 paper by Calhoon and Haspell found that it was the availability of shelter that limited the number of cats in Brooklyn, and that supplemental feeding did not increase cat numbers. If we are serious about reducing the number of feral cats, we need to reduce urban blight, including getting rid of abandoned houses, garages, cars, etc. In the suburbs people must secure their outbuildings. TNR can help transition cats who are affected by these measures so that they can live out their lives in comfort. For example, when people complain about feral cats in their neighborhoods, we could trap, sterilize, and relocate the cats to a safe place, and then counsel the people to secure anything on their property that could potentially serve as shelter for cats.

But really, probably the best thing we can do is just relax. The trend in the number of free-roaming cats has been sharply down, and that trend is continuing. Since cats live mostly in the cities and suburbs, and since populations in those areas have been falling precipitously, we have a system that is actually working very well. We just need to be a little patient, and keep doing what we are doing.

The only thing that might slow us down is the bird conservationists. The bird conservationists see what we are doing as all wrong, and they want us to be forced to throw out everything we’ve worked hard for since 1970 and replace it with catch-and-kill programs. This reminds me of the people who advocate mandatory spay-neuter. Mandatory spay-neuter actually results in fewer animals being sterilized, because such rules drive people underground. Similarly, catch-and-kill programs will result in people hiding feral cats, and being afraid to reveal their presence to anyone. This will mean that fewer feral cats will be sterilized, thus setting back all our gains. Large numbers of feral cats live on private property, and the bird conservationists do not seem to realize that no government can give them the right to go on private property to kill feral cats.

The most effective way to protect our current success from the bird people may be to continue to grow our networks of feral cat caregivers. The reason the bird people have not succeeded so far in setting the clock back is that no mayor or city councilmember in his or her right mind is going to propose a mass extermination of cats. As long as our network is strong, that will continue to be the case. Wildlife conservationists have succeeded in derailing TNR efforts in some places, and that is a shame, but TNR, since it can be done by people on their own property, can exist even where formal programs are banned.

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Happy Cats

Today, as the end of 2015 approaches, we can say with confidence that no healthy cat should be dying in a shelter. That includes feral cats, bad-tempered cats, and older cats. If a shelter is killing healthy cats today – any healthy cats at all – they are doing it wrong. I say this not as an ethical observation, but as a purely practical statement of fact.

The new ideas that are saving cats are simple but revolutionary. They stemmed from people within the shelter establishment coming to the realization that because cats are so different from dogs, the procedures for sheltering them should be different too. Over just the last 5-7 years, new ways of sheltering cats have been developed that entirely threw out the old methods.

The old methods of sheltering cats involved treating them like dogs. They were impounded, put in cages, warehoused during the holding period, and then killed if they were not adoptable. And because there were so many of them they were very often killed even if they were adoptable. The only thing that kept the situation from being yet more dire was that in many places cats were considered to be free-roaming and were not picked up by animal control. Shelters still took in cats that people had trapped, though, and they took in owner surrenders. Many places had people doing TNR, but TNR caregivers usually tried to steer clear of the shelter because a feral cat in a shelter was probably a dead cat.

The old method of sheltering cats did not work at all. Take hold periods, for example. Hold periods work pretty well for dogs because dogs generally don’t hide and are impounded by animal control fairly quickly. An owner with a missing dog has a good chance of finding it at the shelter. Cats, by contrast, often disappear for days at a time, and an owner may not even become concerned until after the hold period has expired. And since cats hide, a lost cat may not be picked up by animal control for weeks or months. Even a diligent owner will have stopped visiting the shelter by that time. Cats tend to look alike except for coat color, so photographs and descriptions of lost cats are not of much help in lost and found. In traditional shelters that impounded cats, the reclaim rates tended to be around 1-2%. Even a No Kill shelter that worked very hard at return-to-owner was unlikely to have a double-digit cat reclaim rate.

Traditional shelters are horrible places for cats. A traditional shelter building is hard on a dog, but it is hell for cats. Even a well-designed modern shelter is not the ideal place for a cat. Cats are very attached to their territories, which is why most people quickly learn to hire an in-home pet sitter for their cat when they go on vacation rather than taking it to a boarding kennel. The sweetest, most sociable cat may turn into a hissing basket case in a shelter and act for all the world like it is feral. Terrified, frantic cats do not make good adoption candidates. The stress that cats feel in shelters sets them up for sickness too.

So a logical first step in saving cats was to try to cut down on the time they spent in shelters. One natural way to do this was to expand the concept of TNR. Many pet cats are like feral cats in that they are perfectly capable of living outdoors. Cats stay out of trouble by hiding from people, and they can forage in the trash and catch rodents. Many cats are only loosely attached to their homes, and look at their “homes” as merely one source of food and shelter among several that they have to choose from. Cat advocates realized that the same semi-wild instincts that made it so hard for a cat to be in a shelter could help that cat survive and thrive outside the shelter.

Over time and by trial and error, a new paradigm emerged. One principle of the new paradigm was to handle all healthy outdoor cats (“community cats”) using modified TNR techniques called Return to Field (RTF). A cat that was found outdoors in good condition could be presumed to be a cat that could take of itself, regardless of whether it was friendly or feral. It did not need rescue, it did not need rehoming. It just needed sterilization, a rabies vaccination, and to be returned to the outdoors as quickly as possible so that it did not have to be subjected to the terrible stress of the shelter. Another principle was that cats who are loosely homed are almost certain not to be reclaimed, and so returning those cats to the place where they were found gave them the best chance of maintaining their ties with that home. A third principle was that since the situation of healthy outdoor cats was not broke, we didn’t need to fix it. If the shelter was full and taking in more cats would mean killing some cats, then healthy outdoor cats were better off left where they were.

One of the offshoots of these principles has been that more and more shelters are advising people who find kittens to just leave them where they are unless they are obviously deserted and in distress. The mother of such kittens is usually lurking nearby, but won’t show herself out of fear. Scooping the kittens up and taking them to the shelter may be a natural reaction to seeing them by themselves, but the fact is that they are much more likely to survive if they are left with mom. Even better is if the shelter can provide a hotline for people to report such kittens. Then the shelter or a referral organization can go out and assess the situation and make sure mom and kittens get sterilized. This approach, if it becomes widely accepted and understood by the public, could help keep shelter intake down during kitten season. Most people already know not to pick up a fledgling bird but instead to watch it or report it, so getting the same message out about kittens should be possible.

By not impounding healthy outdoor cats, the shelter will have more space and time to help the cats who really need it. The shelter can identify categories of cats who are not eligible for RTF, such as owner surrenders who are used to living indoors, declawed cats, young kittens, and cats who have health issues. With only this limited number of cats to care for, the shelter should have enough space for quiet rooms and colony housing to keep the cats as happy and healthy as possible. And with fewer cats to adopt out, hopefully their length of stay will be less.

Some people have objected to these new techniques. They may be concerned that even though the reclaim rate for cats is very low, people should nevertheless have an opportunity to find their lost family member. This is an appealing argument, but studies have shown that cats are many times more likely to get back home if they are left alone rather than impounded. In fact, impounding cats is what tears families apart, because it destroys the cat’s best chance of getting home. Another objection to the new sheltering principles for cats comes from people who think that leaving cats where they are will result in them suffering. Cats suffer when they are taken from their territories, though, so a quick sterilization and return to their territory causes healthy cats a lot less suffering than impoundment.

But what about the hold period? If local laws or ordinances require all impounded cats to be held for a certain number of days, those rules should be modified to allow for return of the cat as soon as possible following sterilization. There is no point in having a cat sit in a shelter for five days or seven days when it will be happier back in its territory as soon as it is safe to return it. Some people protest getting rid of the hold period for cats, thinking that shelters want to use that as an excuse to kill cats sooner. Instead of just abolishing the hold period, some jurisdictions have tried to ease those fears by providing that a cat cannot be killed by the shelter for a certain number of days (with an exception for cases of untreatable suffering), but can be returned to the field without a hold period.

Other obstacles to the new techniques come from the same sources that can make TNR difficult. If TNR has never been implemented in a community, there may be laws that prohibit TNR that would also prohibit RTF. And of course the bird people are always ready to squawk about anything that even suggests that any cat should ever be allowed outdoors. These are probably the most serious obstacles that stand in the way of the new paradigms, but fortunately this type of opposition is gradually losing its effectiveness.

The new paradigms are being rapidly accepted by both No Kill shelters and traditional shelters. Partly that is because almost all of the national animal welfare agencies that are involved with animal sheltering have signed on to them. Partly it is because the Million Cat Challenge and Maddie’s Fund have been promoting the new paradigms very effectively. Partly it is because the new approach has been proven to work in several places, most notably Jacksonville. And partly it’s because what’s not to like? The new approach is cheaper, since donations and volunteer labor can be used to do RTF. It’s more pleasant for shelter staff because they no longer have to kill healthy cats or deal with stressed-out cats who get sick all the time. No Kill advocates love it because, with shelters having more time and space for cats, they can treat the treatables and get them healthy and adopted out.

So as we approach the end of 2015, there is no longer any reason why a healthy cat should die in a shelter. The new paradigms seem simple and obvious when you think about them, but they are revolutionary. It used to be that for a cat, going to a shelter was like the entrance to Hades, with the sign overhead saying “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” That no longer has to be the case. Hopefully by the end of 2016 we will have at least the seeds of these new paradigms in place everywhere.

The San Francisco No-Kill Model

When people talk about the San Francisco model of No Kill, they are usually referring to a set of programs that were developed by Richard Avanzino and his team at the San Francisco SPCA in the 1980s and early 1990s. The team developed lots of programs, but some of the most important were fostering (1980), mobile adoptions (1980), animal behavior (1983), pediatric spay-neuter (1989), landlord-tenant assistance (1991), and Feral Fix (1993). Underlying all of these programs and extending through the 1980s and 1990s were the volunteer program, modern marketing, community engagement, provision of veterinary care, and spay-neuter efforts. Avanzino says that the volunteers were particularly important because many of the programs grew out of ideas originally suggested by volunteers.

A lot of attention has been devoted to the San Francisco programs, and rightfully so, because they have proven to be the foundation of No Kill. We can accurately say that No Kill, as far as the programs were concerned, was in place in San Francisco by 1993.

But there is another piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked by people who focus solely on the programs, and that is the importance of cooperation in making No Kill work in San Francisco. Up until 1989 the San Francisco SPCA held the contract to provide animal control and sheltering for the city. In that year, the SPCA gave up the contract and the city created its own agency to do animal control and sheltering. From 1989 on, the role of the SPCA was to support the city shelter, not to be the city shelter.

It turned out that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The two agencies – the San Francisco SPCA and the new city Department of Animal Care and Control – were so effective that the live release rate for the city increased substantially. In 1994 Rich was able, in spite of initial resistance, to get the city to agree to sign the historic Adoption Pact. The Adoption Pact guaranteed a home to every adoptable dog and cat that entered the shelter system in San Francisco. “Adoptable” meant healthy and of reasonably good temperament. Animals who were old, blind, deaf, or handicapped were considered adoptable if they were medically healthy.

The fact that the city agency did the work of animal control and basic sheltering meant that the SPCA could focus on saving the animals who were not adoptable due to health or behavior conditions. In addition to taking in overflow of healthy animals that the city shelter could not place, the SPCA saved many of the treatable animals as well. The combined system had more resources (because the city was paying its share), and the division of responsibility allowed the agencies to increase their efficiency.

The years since 1994 have shown us that the San Francisco programs by themselves can work well in smaller communities, especially if those communities are progressive and the shelter is a private humane society. In a community of up to 150,000 or so people, a single organization can do very well just by implementing the programs. Examples that come to mind are the shelters in Otsego County (MI), Charlottesville (VA), Lynchburg (VA), and Tompkins County (NY), all of which operate as the sole shelters in their communities.

In larger cities, though, what we usually see is a cooperative effort with at least two large agencies working together. A few example are Jacksonville (the city agency works with the Jacksonville Humane Society and First Coast No More Homeless Pets), Washoe County (the city agency works with the Nevada Humane Society), Austin (the city agency works with Austin Pets Alive! and the Austin Humane Society), and Richmond (the city agency works with the Richmond SPCA). Informal consortiums of many organizations and agencies working together have also been effective. Examples are New York City and the metro areas of Denver and Portland, Oregon.

The bottom line is that the San Francisco programs are important, but efficiency derived from sharing of tasks is also an important component of No Kill success, especially in larger communities. Indeed, cooperation may be the fastest, surest way for most large communities to get to No Kill. No Kill advocates who are frustrated with a slow pace of progress in their communities may want to look at the structure of sheltering locally. Does the agency that handles animal control and sheltering have enough support? If not, what can advocates do to provide that support? No Kill seems to require an infrastructure that is strong enough to allow the No Kill programs to be deployed, and in larger cities that may mean that the shelter should not have to go it alone.

The Importance of the Animal Shelter Building

Until recent years, public animal shelter buildings were designed with the idea that a high percentage of the dogs and cats taken in would be killed. In a traditional, high-kill shelter the owner surrenders were often killed immediately, and unclaimed stray-hold animals were killed after a few days. Many traditional shelters made a small number of select animals available for adoption, but even those animals were killed if they did not get adopted quickly.

Under such circumstances, the thinking was that the health and comfort of the animals was not a big concern because they would not be in the shelter for long. Efficiency was more important in shelter design than concern for the animals. That meant locating the shelter near a landfill and building a big loading dock in the back to make it as easy as possible to load dead animals and haul them away. In fact, this blog’s title, “Out the Front Door,” is taken from a phrase that Rich Avanzino used in the San Francisco SPCA’s 1995 Adoption Pact brochure. The brochure characterized No Kill in San Francisco as a change from animals being “quietly euthanized and taken out the back door” to “going out the front door” into loving homes.

As the mission of animal shelters changed, their design began to change too. Sheltering animals with the purpose of having them leave the shelter alive required much more attention to disease control. This meant that animals could no longer be packed together into small spaces, and that quarantine areas were needed. Air exchange became very important. In old-fashioned shelters cats were often kept in banks of small cages near or even in sight of the dog runs, something that could not be tolerated in a modern shelter. Cleaning methods included hosing down runs with dogs in them, or housing animals on grates, both of which are unacceptable in a well-designed building. The old style of shelter building made it very difficult to provide a good customer experience. All these defects of traditional shelter buildings had to be changed in shelters built for No Kill.

Today, No Kill shelter design has become a thing. LHS lobbyThere are companies that offer shelter design consultation. Organizations that have built good, modern shelters are usually happy to share their experiences with others. These new shelters offer lots of natural light, entry areas that welcome the public, frequent air exchange, more space per animal, colony housing for cats away from dogs, and noise control. They often have open areas for behavior training and play time. Rooms and yards where potential adopters can get to know an animal are popular. The medical clinic is an important part of the modern shelter. Other amenities are a Help Desk and space for volunteers.

The cost of a new shelter can be substantial – even relatively small shelters can cost in the $4-5 million range. But these costs can frequently be offset, and private humane societies in particular have been extremely successful at fund-raising for new shelters. It is more challenging to persuade municipalities to invest in a new shelter, since cities and counties today have many infrastructure needs. It isn’t hopeless, though. One possible answer for a city or county is to have a non-profit organization raise money to turn over to the local government for a new shelter. Another would be a ballot measure to approve a millage earmarked for a new shelter.

For shelter operators that cannot afford a new building and where fund-raising is not practical (for example, if the city or county owns the land and the building and is not interested in building a new shelter) a lot can be done to cheaply retrofit the existing building. An outdoor space can be landscaped as an area for adopters to get to know dogs or to see how their current dog gets along with a potential new family member. The entry to the shelter can be expanded and transformed from institutional to welcoming. A shelter I visited last week opened up one wall in the entry so that visitors can see into the operations area and be quickly greeted. In the opposite wall a large window was added to give a view into a cat playroom, which had been converted from storage closets.

One area where retrofitting an old shelter seems to fail in many cases is with “grey area” animals. At around an 80% live release rate, the difficulty level in saving animals seems to ratchet up. As I’ve heard from more than one shelter director, after 80% the job of getting to No Kill can get exponentially harder because the animals remaining to be saved are ones that have serious issues. The goal of No Kill is to save all healthy and treatable animals. What seems to happen around the 80% or 85% mark is that the answer to whether a remaining animal is treatable may be “yes, but . . . .” These animals may need extensive rehabilitation for medical or behavioral issues, or need a special home.

Grey-area animals can include those who are more susceptible to infections, such as young kittens and animals with skin disease. The ideal thing is to get those animals out of the shelter and into foster homes as quickly as possible, but fosters are not always available. Even with retrofitting it can be very hard to save those animals in an old-fashioned shelter. In such cases a modern shelter designed with disease control in mind can be a lifesaver. This was the result with the Lynchburg Humane Society when they built their new shelter (see photo above).

Dog behavior cases are another group of grey-area animals who are hard to accommodate in an old, poorly designed shelter building. A crowded, older shelter may have to co-house dogs, and some dogs cannot tolerate this. Even if the shelter has enough space to allow a dog to have its own run, the dog may still deteriorate from stress and noise. A dog that might have been just fine behaviorally in a modern shelter may become aggressive or a stressed-out basket case in the environment of an old-fashioned shelter. People can be amazingly creative in making an old shelter building work in the world of modern sheltering, but there are limits to retrofitting.

Since the purpose of animal shelters has changed so dramatically in the last 25 years, one of the goals of No Kill should be making sure that the local shelter building is reformed along with the mission. Shelter animals deserve safe, humane housing while they wait for placement. And a new shelter building can be the capstone of a community’s effort to go No Kill. A new shelter building can symbolize, in bricks and mortar, the community’s commitment to the type of sheltering that sends animals out the front door alive, healthy, and happy.

The Commensal Cat

Cats are commensal animals. This fact has some very important implications for trap-neuter-return (TNR) and for the battle to save cats from bird conservationists.

black catThe term “commensal” refers to a creature that benefits from its association with another animal without directly hurting or helping that animal. Some of the most common species that live in a commensal relationship with humans are bacteria, rats, mice, and medium-sized carnivores (mesocarnivores). Examples of mesocarnivores are raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and the domestic cat. Domestic cats have a commensal relationship with humans that ranges from pet to feral. Another term that is sometimes used to describe the relationship between domestic cats and people is “mutualism,” which refers to a relationship between two species where both benefit.

The mesocarnivores who live in a commensal or mutual relationship with humans generally combine scavenging with predation in order to survive. Their populations differ from populations of wild animals in several respects, including higher numbers, smaller territories, opportunistic feeding, and a tolerance of human presence. The literature about the domestic cat in the United States contains very little information on the implications of commensalism. Most studies on control of feral cat populations and cat predation seem to assume the commensal nature of the cat without really addressing its implications. This is a mistake, because management of commensal species is, or should be, completely different from management of populations of wild animals who seek to avoid contact with humans. The commensalism of the domestic cat presents us with both problems and opportunities in controlling their numbers.

There is so little that has been written specifically about commensalism in domestic cats that I had difficulty finding anything that was available to the general public on the issue. I finally found an excellent book by an English professor of archeology, Terry O’Connor, that deals with the subject of commensalism in general and has a section on cats. The book is called “Animals as Neighbors: The Past and Present of Commensal Species.” Although the book does not connect the dots between the commensalism of the cat and control techniques such as TNR and Return-to-Field (RTF), it does provide a broad general background on commensalism itself – how it developed over human history and where the various types of commensal animals fit into the scheme.

As O’Connor notes, feral cats “rely on our built environment and garbage for protection and food.” In other words, feral cats thrive in environments where there are a lot of vacant, unused structures and accessible trash. This has been confirmed by ecological studies that were done in Baltimore and Brooklyn in the 1980s. So what does this mean for our feral cat programs?

First and most obviously, feral cat overpopulation is primarily an issue of the urban environment, specifically the blighted urban environment. Although feral cats can certainly exist in the wild by hunting, that does not appear to be their preferred habitat. In the wild, food becomes much more of a limiting factor for cats. Therefore, if we solve the problem of feral populations in the cities, we will have solved the great bulk of the overall problem. There are many people who argue that TNR is not the answer to the feral cat problem because we cannot possibly do TNR on enough feral cats to make a difference. Yes we can. We just need to concentrate on the areas where conditions exist that can maintain a large feral population, which means blighted urban environments. We do not need to do TNR on every feral cat in every jurisdiction in the United States to solve the problem, because in places where empty buildings and garbage are not available feral cat populations are likely to be self-limiting.

Second, we might want to see if we can coordinate TNR with programs to reduce urban blight. This will not only attack the problem at the roots, but it re-directs the public’s attention away from the feral cat “problem” and to the conditions from which the problem originates – the availability of empty structures and garbage. As an added benefit, attacking urban blight will reduce the rat population too. Simply removing cats from an urban area where they are thriving will likely result in a large increase in the rat population, since the same conditions favor both species. Coordinating blight-reduction measures with TNR could mean that colony caregiving must begin to include managed shelter as well as managed food sources.

Third, we need to confront bird conservationists with the implications of commensalism. As O’Connor discusses at length, birds are commensal species too. Some of the most successful commensal birds are pigeons, sparrows, and crows. Bird conservationists, oddly enough, are not interested in saving pigeons, sparrows, and crows from cat predation. In fact, they appear to hate the successful commensal birds as much as they hate cats. This is strong evidence that bird conservationists are more concerned about their view of “nature” than about animal welfare. Crows are among the most intelligent animals on the planet, yet bird conservationists tend to see them solely as pests. The idea that the life of an individual animal has value seems very foreign to the thinking of the typical bird conservationist.

Not all types of birds are commensal, and some live in the wild far from humans. These are often the rare species that bird conservationists love – not for themselves as individuals, of course, but because they represent that ideal, pristine version of nature that conservationists value. As far as I can tell, there have been few if any studies on feral cat presence in remote, wild regions of the United States like the swamps of Louisiana. I suspect that is because there are few feral cats in areas that are truly remote from human habitation. (The exception is on some oceanic islands where cats have been introduced and then the humans left, but that is a whole different story.)

So bird conservationists are barking up the wrong tree, so to speak, when they blame feral cats in the United States for killing the type of birds they care about. Since feral cats live primarily as scavengers in human settlements, the birds they kill are very likely to be the commensal species that bird conservationists hate anyway. Feral cat supporters need to press bird conservationists to be more specific about just what birds cats are killing. Are they killing bluebirds and goldfinches, or pigeons and sparrows? Is there decisive evidence that, in the United States, cats are a significant predator of rare bird species? And if such evidence is lacking, then they need to, in the immortal words of Trey Gowdy: “Shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about.”

No Kill advocates, unlike bird conservationists, care about the lives of all animals, including starlings, pigeons, and crows. That is why we advocate for TNR, because managed cat colonies reduce whatever bird predation may exist (since managed colonies are provided with food) while also preserving the lives of the cats.

Feral cat advocates have some very strong arguments available to us in favor of TNR. We need to start pushing back harder on the bad science that bird conservationists have been rolling out to support their “kill cats” agenda. We need to stop trying to address their inadequate studies one by one and develop our own comprehensive picture of the relationship between cats and birds. One of the components of our picture should be that cats and birds co-exist extremely well in the suburbs (see my blog post about cats in the suburbs). Another should be that cats in urban areas, to the extent that they are preying on birds at all, are likely preying on commensal bird species that are not endangered and that many people regard as pests. Another part of the picture should be that the cat, since it is a commensal animal, is a highly unlikely predator of the rare bird species that live in areas remote from human habitation. And the final piece of the puzzle is that since cats are commensal, TNR can work to control populations where control is needed most.

Bird conservationists have for the most part been getting a free ride with their simplistic claim that “cats kill birds, therefore cats are bad for bird populations.” They have even had the cheek to ask the taxpayers to fund their “kill cats” programs. Feral cat advocates have been slow to push back on the science because we, for the most part, are not scientists. That needs to change. As Bob Dylan said: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Jacksonville Update

The southeast part of the United States used to be a graveyard of No Kill hopes. Communities in the southeast have traditionally lagged behind in funding and supporting their shelters. The warm climate with lots of rain and vegetation provides an ideal habitat for feral cats. Practices such as keeping dogs confined and spaying and neutering pets have been slow to catch on. And cities in the southeast are not generally thought of as the most progressive in the country.

But recently a minor miracle has occurred. Now we have Atlanta, Tampa, Gainesville, and several other southeastern cities making rapid progress to saving all of their healthy and treatable animals. The southeast appears to be going through the shelter revolution that happened in the northern part of the country 10-15 years ago. Particularly noteworthy is Jacksonville, Florida, which in the past two years has exceeded the 90% live release rate goal.

dog sunset beachThe Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services Division (ACPSD) is a city-run department that handles animal control and sheltering for the city and Duval County. The combined population of the city and county is close to 900,000 people. The metro area has about 1.4 million people and is the fourth largest in Florida after Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Orlando. ACPSD accepts owner surrenders with no noted restrictions except for a small fee. It does not perform owner-requested euthanasia. People who request euthanasia for an owned pet are referred to a veterinary hospital, which can perform euthanasia if medically necessary.

ACPSD works closely with two large non-profits in the city. The Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS) takes in some strays and owner surrenders and pulls animals, including behavior and medical cases, from ACPSD. First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) is known for its spay-neuter and community cat programs.

There are three aspects of the Jacksonville coalition’s program that stand out as especially effective. First, the coalition makes every effort to keep pets in their homes. The city shelter has a help desk. JHS reports a 60-70% success rate for its pioneering “safety net” initiatives. FCNMHP operates a low-cost veterinary clinic that does not turn any pet owner away, even if they cannot pay, and JHS has a similar program at their clinic. Low-cost and free spay-neuter services are available at multiple clinics, with FCNMHP alone having performed almost 15,000 low-cost and free surgeries in the previous year. The FCNMHP food bank gives out over 200,000 pounds of pet food each year to low-income pet owners.

The second highly noteworthy aspect of the Jacksonville program is their cutting-edge approach to community cats. FCNMHP collaborates with ACPSD and Best Friends Animal Society in a program called Feral Freedom that has made Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) the default solution for feral cats in Jacksonville. And FCNMHP was one of the pioneers of the comprehensive approach to community cats that first appeared on the national stage in late 2013 and has been so successful in the Million Cat Challenge. This has been a revolution in cat management, and it’s hard to overstate the national importance of this new paradigm.

The third outstanding aspect of Jacksonville’s success is their mega-adoption events, which contribute to the coalition’s high adoption numbers. These events have become a way for Jacksonville to help its neighbors, with shelters from the surrounding areas invited to participate. Each year, neighboring jurisdictions place about 2,000 animals in adoptive homes at Jacksonville’s mega-adoption events. Nassau County, which is just north of Duval County and is an FCNMHP partner, achieved a live release rate of over 90% in its most recent reporting year. You can read more about Jacksonville’s programs in the playbook they presented at the 2014 Best Friends national conference.

Perhaps the underlying reason for Jacksonville’s success is the close working relationship that the three agencies have had for years now. They jointly promote events such as the mega-adoptathons that Jacksonville is famous for, and share resources. As Denise Deisler, head of JHS, says, “we are flying in formation towards the same goal.”

So now for the results. The combined statistics for ACPSD and JHS for the year ending in September 2015 show a live release rate, by the standard calculation, of 96%. The modified live release rate (including all deaths at both shelters) was 94%. These percentages might be very slightly lower if intra-coalition transfers were subtracted out, as I prefer to do, but it appears to me based on the statistics and information that were sent to me that subtracting out intra-coalition transfers would make a difference of less than one percentage point in the combined ACPSD and JHS live release rate.

Historically, ACPSD’s live release rate was 35% or less from the year 2000 up until Scott Trebatoski was hired as director in late 2008. The live release rate climbed to 50% in 2009, his first full year as director, then went to 74% in 2012 and 85% in 2013. Trebatoski left ACPSD in March 2014 to become director of the Hillsborough County (Tampa) shelter, and was replaced by Nikki Harris. Harris previously worked for the Nebraska Humane Society and FCNMHP before moving to ACPSD as shelter manager. Harris recently resigned from ACPSD and went to work for JHS, and the city is interviewing candidates to replace her.

I want to say a word about the recent allegations involving Nikki Harris. News reports about the number of complaints against Harris and the nature of the complaints have been somewhat confused, but apparently the main complaint comes from a former employee and alleges falsification of ACPSD records. The city investigates all such “whistleblower” complaints, and it is investigating this one. Euthanasia drugs are controlled substances and they are subject to strict reporting requirements. As far as I can tell from the media reports (the full substance of the complaints has not been made public that I’m aware of) there has not been any allegation that more euthanasia drugs were used than were accounted for. Under these circumstances, and given that ACPSD performance did not improve more than one would expect under Harris’ tenure based on previous trend lines, I think Harris is entitled to the benefit of the doubt while the investigation is proceeding. Moreover, Harris is only one small part of an effort that has been going on for many years in Jacksonville and encompasses several agencies. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the progress in Jacksonville is undeniable.