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Why activists are fighting over feral felines

January 22, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
With an estimated 80 million feral cats in communities across the United States, there is growing a controversy on how to deal with them. Euthanizing cats has been the traditional approach, but many animal rights activists believe that approach is cruel and inhumane. Adithya Sambamurthy of Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting has the story.
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BY RICHARD COOLIDGE

With an estimated 80 million feral cats in communities across the United States, there is growing a controversy on how to deal with them. Euthanizing cats has been the traditional approach, but many animal rights activists believe that approach is cruel and inhumane.

An alternative approach — called “trap, neuter and return” — involves setting traps for cats, taking them to a clinic to be spayed or neutered, and returning them to the area where they were trapped. Four hundred cities and counties across the country have adopted “TNR” over the past 25 years, and some pet retailers have supported the initiative.

But a study of one county’s statistics by Dr. Patrick Foley at California State University in Sacramento suggests that the cat population re-produces far too quickly.

He explained it this way: “Imagine introducing a single pregnant female to an island. She could produce three female kittens plus herself by the end of the year. That means the population will multiply by four in one year. Next year, if the same thing happens, then there’ll be 16. The year after that 64. If you had money in the bank at that kind of rate, you would be delighted. You would, in fact, be owning the world after a very few years. And so would cats.”

Foley calculates that in order to be successful, 75 percent of the female feral cat population would need to be spayed, which is ten times the number the county is currently able to support.

In addition, feral cats hunt and prey on other animals. According to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, feral cats kill around 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals each year. Researchers say feral cats continue to hunt wild prey, even if they are well-fed.


Read the full transcript of this segment below:

HARI SREENIVASAN: And now a story about cats, not the ones living in homes, but stray and feral cats that live outside.

By some estimates, there are 80 million feral cats in this country. And the question of how to control them is sparking controversy. Animal rights activists, who want to save stray cats, say there is an alternative to euthanizing feral cats, a method they say will control the cat population that’s more humane and effective. But will it work.

Adithya Sambamurthy from our partner “Reveal” at the Center for Investigative Reporting has the story.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY, Reveal: Americans have long been obsessed with cats in commercials, cartoons and, of course, on the Internet.

But for every cat in our homes, there’s a stray one on the loose, roaming parking lots, alleyways, fields and backyards. They’re everywhere, and, increasingly, it’s a problem.

Take Antioch, California, about 40 miles east of San Francisco. The town is home to about 17,000 strays, one cat for every six citizens.

At the local animal shelter, Monika Helgemo is overwhelmed.

MONIKA HELGEMO, Animal Shelter: This one’s here obviously is saying, pet me, pet me. This cat here, see the ears go back? That’s a feral cat.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Feral cats like this one are basically wild animals, and so they’re not candidates for adoption.

MONIKA HELGEMO: We will do what we can and see if we can find a place for her and go live her life. If not, we’re going to end up having to put her to sleep, euthanize her.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Antioch is typical. There are an estimated 80 million stray and feral cats in the U.S. Traditionally, the only way to deal with this overpopulation was to euthanize them. More than a million cats are killed in animal shelters every year. And that’s made some cat lovers so mad, they have gotten organized.

ACTIVIST: Are you guys ready to save some more cats?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: This is a national gathering of feral cat advocates near Washington, D.C.

It’s hosted by Alley Cat Allies. They run a network of a quarter-million activists that fight for feral cats.

BECKY ROBINSON, Founder and President, Alley Cat Allies: We changed the community. We brought neighbors together. We changed cat care forever.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Becky Robinson is the founder and president of Alley Cat Allies. She helped pioneer a population control method called trap, neuter, return, or TNR.

Instead of killing them, it’s about sterilizing cats and letting them live the rest of their lives outdoors.

BECKY ROBINSON: Trap, neuter, return for feral cats works. And what we mean when we say it works is that it stops the breeding of a cat, so there’s no more litters of kittens.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: In Antioch, Susan Smith shows me how trap, neuter, return is done. She’s supported by Alley Cat Allies, and she’s trying to get the city to embrace TNR.

SUSAN SMITH, Activist: I’m going to bait the trap with some wet food, and then some tuna, some albacore.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: The cats are spayed or neutered at a local clinic, given rabies shots, and the tips of their ears are removed to show that they have been fixed.

Then Smith returns them back to the streets where they were trapped. She continues to feed them in what are known as cat colonies. The feeding is key. Without it, she couldn’t attract other cats in the area to trap them and get them fixed.

TNR is catching on. More than 400 cities and counties have adopted this method over the past 25 years. Even pet products retailers have signed on, creating nonprofits that have donated millions of dollars to TNR groups.

Bryan Kortis spent the last five years managing TNR grants for PetSmart Charities.

BRYAN KORTIS, PetSmart Charities: PetSmart Charities, in wanting to end cat overpopulation, has embraced trap, neuter, return as the most effective way to make that happen.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: TNR’s expansion alarms wildlife conservation groups.

GRANT SIZEMORE, American Bird Conservancy: This is an emerging conservation crisis.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Grant Sizemore directs the invasive species programs at the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C.

GRANT SIZEMORE: There were zero domestic cats in North America in 1492, which means that we now have well over 100 million invasive predators roaming the landscape, killing wildlife.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Sizemore cites a study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute that estimates cats kill around 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year.

On Jekyll Island in Southern Georgia, Dr. Sonia Hernandez and her research team are seeing this from the cats’ perspective. They’re putting cameras on cats.

DR. SONIA HERNANDEZ, University of Georgia: So far, we have been able to collar 31 cats. We know that a majority of them do hunt, despite the fact that they get fed.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: The cat camera footage shows that even well-fed cats in TNR programs hunt anything they can get their paws on. They’re just hard-wired to hunt. And the food used to attract the cats and trap them also draws in other predators that can cause problems. Raccoons, skunks, and possums compete with the cats for food.

DR. SONIA HERNANDEZ: We want to be very careful that we don’t encourage a lot of wildlife coming together, sharing pathogens, and then potentially bringing that to people.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Back in Antioch, California, public health concerns prompted the city to propose a ban on feeding cats on public property.

WOMAN: The cats are not the villains in this.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: There was stiff opposition.

GIRL: They don’t deserve to starve. They deserve to have a right to live.

MAN: I’m not afraid of a cat urinating on my foot. I’m afraid of the meth heads that go around my building and threaten me.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

DR. JULIE LEVY, Operation Catnip: How are things going over here?

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Dr. Julie Levy is a professor of veterinary medicine and is considered the preeminent feral cat researcher in the country. She runs one of America’s largest trap, neuter, return programs. It’s called Operation Catnip, and it receives support from PetSmart Charities.

DR. JULIE LEVY: I’m very confident we’re going to see this nationally as a successful model for cat population control.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: In many ways, Operation Catnip is the best-case scenario for trap, neuter, return. It’s well-funded, with a steady stream of volunteers.

But when a population biologist analyzed Operation Catnip’s numbers, the results came up short.

DR. PATRICK FOLEY, California State University: Cat populations were not significantly going down. And that’s probably the single take-home lesson here.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Dr. Patrick Foley teaches at California State University in Sacramento. He says there’s no proof TNR reduces large populations of cats. They just reproduce too quickly.

DR. PATRICK FOLEY: Imagine introducing a single pregnant female cat to an island. She could produce three female kittens, plus herself, by the end of the year. That means the population will multiply by four in one year.

And, next year, if the same thing happens, then there will be 16, the year after that 64. If you had money in the bank at that kind of rate, you would be delighted. You would, in fact, be owning the world after a very few years. And so would cats.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: According to Foley’s calculations, Operation Catnip would need to spay about 75 percent of the female cats in the county in order to make this work. That’s roughly 10 times more than they’re able to do right now.

I asked Bryan Kortis why PetSmart Charities is involved with a nationwide campaign, when the research doesn’t show that it works on large cat populations.

BRYAN KORTIS: I’m totally comfortable with trap, neuter, return moving forward on a much larger scale than it has in the past, even though we don’t have 100 percent scientific proof that’s been peer-reviewed and published that it works on that large of a scale.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: While Kortis remains committed to the trap, neuter and return of feral cats, his employer is reconsidering. Since we recorded this interview with Kortis, PetSmart Charities announced late last year that it was laying off its entire staff.

In a statement sent to us, a spokesperson said: “The organization is reassessing its programs, including its support of trap, neuter, return, but they will honor all existing grant commitments.”

Although one of the biggest funders of trap, neuter and return is having second thoughts, the feral cat movement continues to gain political clout. Last month, after a long standoff, Antioch’s cat feeders prevailed. The city council granted Susan Smith and her allies the right to feed as part of an official trap, neuter and return program.

When it comes to controlling cats, it’s not only about science. It’s about our emotions. And in the court of public opinion, it seems that America will always back the cat.

For PBS NewsHour, I’m Adithya Sambamurthy in Antioch, California.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, earlier this week, I was in New York and spoke with Adithya Sambamurthy.

As your piece points out, there is still some question about the effectiveness of this approach. So, why are companies and charities putting money behind it?

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Well, it’s a good question. And it’s one that I put to PetSmart Charities.

And the response that I got is that the founders of the company want to end homelessness — cat homelessness. They want to end the euthanasia of cats in shelters. And they believe that this is the best approach.

When you look at it through strictly a, you know, animal rights, animal welfare perspective, I think there is something to be said for it. The problem is that, at the city level, at county level, when you’re talking about many thousands of cats, the research just doesn’t show that it’s working at that level.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, so let’s talk about the societal impact. How significant of a problem is this in different communities?

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: The study that I reference is the University of Georgia’s cat camera study. And what’s really interesting here is that, even if you feed cats on a daily basis and you spay and neuter them, they are still going to go out and hunt. They’re instinctual predators.

The University of Georgia shows that cats are not just killing mice and rats. They’re killing frogs, a surprising number of them, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and birds. And so if you have vulnerable species in your community, it’s a problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there any way to domesticate a feral cat if you catch them young enough?

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Yes, I did that. We — I have adopted a kitten that was born to a feral mother. And he’s doing really well and he loves humans.

So he’s definitely tame now. But, for adult feral cats, it’s very rare. And it’s not a policy prescription. We’re not going to adopt our way out of this problem.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You talk a little bit about the law of large numbers here. How do you ever get control of a population that’s multiplying as quickly as these cats are?

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: It’s really difficult.

And the one thing that I found is that this is a largely volunteer-driven effort. The movement to, you know, sterilize these cats and put them back outside is largely driven by volunteers, who are incredibly hardworking. They have jobs. They have families. And they do this work.

Unfortunately, as I’m finding, it’s not proving to work at that scale. It’s just a really difficult endeavor.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Adithya Sambamurthy joining us from San Francisco from “Reveal” and the Center for Investigative Reporting, thanks so much.

ADITHYA SAMBAMURTHY: Thank you, Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on this story, visit “Reveal,” the investigative public radio show, at RevealNews.org.

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