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Cat lives and the big picture

When it comes to community cat management, is reducing euthanasia really the main goal?

Did that question catch your attention? It certainly would have caught mine—and probably raised my hackles—because reducing shelter euthanasia is such a primary goal of our field. But it is not the ONLY goal—nor is it always the best measure of our work, especially when it comes to community cat intervention.

Here’s how I see it:

We all know that reducing euthanasia benefits the animal care agencies, shelters and rescues that perform this unwelcome job, and of course the animals themselves. Reducing euthanasia has been shown to reduce compassion fatigue and costs, and improve the organization’s or agency’s image in the public’s eyes, resulting in more adoptions and donations. Reducing euthanasia even has ripple effects in a community, impacting financial and other resources. A win-win, right? I agree, but there is more to the story than immediately meets the eye.

We don’t live in a vacuum, nor do cats. Animal welfare problems exist in a context of social issues that must be acknowledged in our work. Animal welfare is a spoke in the wheel of our communities, where we are faced with all sorts of competing interests, conflicts and difficult decisions regarding where to allocate resources, and a constant give-and-take as we work collectively to reach goals. We cannot solve the problem of shelter euthanasia while ignoring the other problems in our communities, because euthanasia rates are a symptom of something much bigger. As other stakeholders work on that “something much bigger,” we will want our interests to be at that table, as real, long-lasting solutions will require all of us.

Take the stakeholder group of wildlife conservationists, for example. They feel passionately about birds, other wildlife and the natural environment, and they are working hard to address their concerns. One of their concerns just happens to be free-roaming cats. If we don’t collaborate with them or at least sit at the same table for dialogue, we miss out on opportunities for solutions that speak to all interests. Another example: public health departments. They have the difficult task of protecting public safety and addressing disease and health issues. Free-roaming cats are again on the list of concerns to be addressed. So how does our measure of reduced euthanasia jibe with their goals? Short answer, it really doesn’t. It’s not their job or mission to care about that. We have to bring solutions that combine our animal welfare goals with their goals.

In their day-to-day lives, most of these stakeholders care about cats, too. Studies have shown us that the vast majority of American citizens do, so in all likelihood many of these folks own and love cats—but in their professional and volunteer roles are compelled to represent organizational priorities and goals. As important as reduced euthanasia is to us, it often does not have the same meaning for them.  

So, are we on different paths, forced to be constantly sniping at one another? I don’t think so. I believe their goals are our goals, and vice versa. The true measure of success, the gold standard, the Holy Grail if you will, has to be reduced free-roaming cat populations, period. Think about it. A community with no free-roaming cats equals a community with less injury to wildlife, less need for disease control, fewer cats in need of interventions and more resources to be allocated elsewhere.

We know that prevention is the only way we’re going to get out from under the serious issues we face in the animal welfare world. True prevention efforts require us to be out in the community, engaging with people and organizations of parallel and competing interests, vaccinating and sterilizing every cat we can reach in a targeted, strategic and effective manner. We can’t claim victory solely by addressing what is happening in our shelters, and then forget about it. The true measure of our success is in reducing the free-roaming cat population in our communities, not just in our facilities, and being able to concretely show that impact in a holistic way.

I’m happy to say that we’ll be working hard on this issue in the coming months and will be sharing with you new tools and strategies to reach these common goals. We want to hear from you as to what tools will be most helpful. What concerns do you hear in your community? What measurements and metrics are you using to “tell your story” and show your impact to your wider community?


About the Author

Katie Lisnik is the Director of Companion Animal Public Policy at The Humane Society of the United States, focusing on raising awareness and effectiveness of pet related public policy at the federal, state and local level. Priority work includes increasing interventions for and reducing community cats populations through sterilization and vaccination programs, ending the use of gas chambers in animal shelters, ending the abusive greyhound racing industry, as well as keeping more pets in their homes and preserving a strong human-animal bond. Katie has an MS in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University; she is the Past President of the New England Federation of Humane Societies; and a former Board Member and advisor to the Maine Federation of Humane Societies.