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Last Updated:
7/24/2014 6:10 PM
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How to change views on euthanizing ferals

Question from Denise:

How did you go about ending the euthanization of feral cats? In Nevada, our state law requires local animal services to "deal" with at large animals. The general feeling is that property owners have a right to not have feral cats on their property.

The rescue group I work for and our local SPCA (great folks) collaborate to TNR as many cats as possible. We have neutered more than 1400 in the last two years and expect to more than 1000 this year. Animal Services is aware of the program and are spreading the word but we would like to do more. Any suggestions on helping our animal services to reduce the number of feral cats euthanized?

Nathan's response:

As the animal control authority for Tompkins County, we also accept all stray cats and ferals are no exception. Tompkins County is what I would describe as a semi-urban/rural community. There are a number of large farms who do not mind the cats and are willing to feed them so long as the cats are vaccinated against rabies and altered. So while we do get feral cats in and sometimes the folks do not want them back, we manage to find an alternative release location. All we ask the farmer to do in return is to leave food out for the cats in a barn or other location.

Having said that, let me take it one step further. If you do not live in a rural community or you do not have a known caretaker, should the feral cat be released back to his/her habitat anyway? The answer is YES.

When I first moved to upstate New York, I was asked by a local SPCA about releasing ferals. They were interested in starting a TNR program but were hesitant because they bought into the old garbage that "feral cats live short, miserable lives" and that TNR amounted to nothing more than "subsidized abandonment."

I asked her to do what I ask all SPCAs to do. For every feral cat who comes into your shelter, keep a list and document whether the cat is healthy and robust, or thin and sickly--regardless of whether there is a known caretaker. What I told her was that after 6 months or so of doing that, she would probably find that the vast majority would fall into the former category. Well guess what? In fact, the vast majority were healthy and robust--and she became a true believer.

We try to categorize everything to make sense of our world. But too often we fall into the trap of mistaking the category for the reality. In biology, for example, we divide living beings into two kingdoms--plant or animal. Plants do photosynthesis. Animals can walk/fly/move. But what happens when you have a living being that can walk but also can photosynthesize? Is it plant or animal? Reality is much more complex than our categories.

Take the feral cat. Is a feral cat a domestic animal that is not socialized? Or is the feral cat a wild animal? We don't have "caretakers" for wildlife and would never think about "euthanizing" a wild animal for his or her own good, even if they do not lead extraordinarily long lives or are subject to dangers in the outside world (take mice, foxes, deer, etc. for example). But because we see feral cats as domestic animals that happen not to be socialized, somehow the humane movement thinks it is OK to kill them because life outdoors is filled with risks. Is this fair? In reality, feral cats are extremely hardy survivors even without caretakers and the fact that the vast majority who enter shelters are healthy and robust proves this. Try it in your own shelter.

At one point, I too believed that only feral cats with caretakers should be released under a TNR program, but I believe that view is also outdated, even in harsh winter climates like upstate New York. Although we do NOT release ferals without some caretaker, if you live in a state where this is not prohibited, I think you should.

If feral cats are offspring of former pets who were abandoned. And if they are reproducing and thriving. If they come into the shelter healthy and robust even without a known caretaker, then they seem to have found a niche. So why not release them without a caretaker since TNR makes them healthier and better able to survive since they are not longer mating and nursing?

The notion that you should kill feral cats NOW because some of them will suffer LATER is--whether we are talking about feral cats, field mice, deer, foxes, or other animals--yet another cruel deception of a bygone era.