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Sending cats home

Danielle Bays, community cat program manager for The HSUS, explains that given the nuances of return to field, community engagement is key to success

Engaging with your community is important in overcoming challenges of return to field

Sometimes the goals of an animal shelter aren’t the same as the goals of a community cat program.

We’ve talked about this before—how using shelter intake and euthanasia numbers to gauge the effectiveness of a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program is off the mark because it doesn’t detail trends in the population of cats outside. The shelter data provides us a marker for how well we, as an animal welfare field, are doing at saving lives. We can say the same thing about tallies of cats TNR’d, because we know that for a hundred years the prevailing policy for controlling outdoor cat populations was trap and kill. We all agree on saving lives. That’s the origin of Feral Freedom, the landmark effort in Jacksonville, Florida to send feral cats brought into the shelter back to where they came from (sterilized, vaccinated and ear-tipped).

The concept has grown as more shelters adopt the practice and witness the benefits. The shelter is not a good place for a feral cat. It’s not a good place for most cats, which is why return to field (RTF), or shelter-neuter-return, has expanded to include non-feral cats. Anyone who does TNR—anyone who lives in a community for that matter—knows there are friendly cats living outside, being cared for by people who don’t consider the cats their own. So why overcrowd our shelters with cats who aren’t actually homeless? Besides, we know lost cats are more likely to find their way home on their own, not by coming to the shelter. So if a stray cat is healthy, simply neuter and return him to where he was found.

I really wish return to field was that simple.

Let’s take a step back and recall that the shelter aims to have fewer cats in its care and more live outcomes. The primary objective of TNR programs is to sterilize the cats currently living outdoors so that they don’t create more cats living outdoors, thus decreasing the population over time. Do you see where I’m going? That fewer cats at the shelter do not necessarily mean fewer cats outdoors? RTF and TNR are two different tools we utilize for different reasons.

But wait—these cats came from outdoors, didn’t they? Let’s remember that cats don’t come to the shelter on their own. Some person brings the cat in, be it a concerned resident or an animal control officer responding to a request from a concerned resident. You need to listen to the people in the community and learn if the cat really does come from outside. The information you get may factor in to a decision to RTF.

Abandonment is a real problem. A cat may appear healthy because she’s only been on the streets for a short time. If a resident tells you she looks like the cat from apartment B and that family moved out last week, this may not be a cat you want to send back to the outdoor population. Or maybe five new cats show up at a colony at the same time the apartment complex sent notices to residents about their no-pet policy. Here’s where knowing your community can help you decide if you are really returning a cat suited to his or her territory or if, under a strict RTF policy, you may just be putting back a cat who really does not belong there. It also gives you an opportunity to talk to community members about their options when they feel they can no longer keep their cat and why letting him out to join a community cat colony is not the solution.

What about the litter of ten-to-twelve-week old kittens? You know there is a caretaker for their colony and the neighbors don’t currently complain about the six cats who live there, but will putting those four kittens back overwhelm the community’s carrying capacity? Are ten cats too many for them to handle when you’ve told them you are working to reduce the population of cats? Is the feeder a senior on a fixed income who can only afford that one bag of food each month, regardless of how many mouths there are to feed? Here is where you need to decide if your RTF policies can balance the goals of the shelter and the community cat program, and not just shift the problem from one side to the other.

And of course, you should never return cats to critical wildlife habitat or areas where there is known, ongoing violence towards community cats. You may not see this if you are super-focused on what happens within your shelter walls. Remember, we talk about community cats because the community is important. Engage the community in overcoming challenges to RTF. Can neighbors help find a new home for the abandoned cat or the litter of kittens? Can they socialize the kittens so that they can be more readily adopted? Will they watch over that one you’re not sure about and call you if he needs help? It’s ok to struggle with this. It’s OK to ask ‘What is the best I can do for this cat today?’ Getting information on the cat—just as you would for a managed intake of a surrendered housecat—can help you make that decision.

Not every RTF program is going to look the same. Adapt yours to fit your shelter and your community. Yet make sure to keep the goals of community cat management in your sights. On the plus side, information on cats coming through RTF can inform needs for targeted TNR, so share notes with those who implement TNR in your community. If only one cat from a colony comes into your shelter, sterilizing and returning that cat isn’t enough to make an impact on the population. We need to work together, combining many different pieces of the puzzle, to demonstrate that TNR does work to reduce outdoor cat populations, not maintain them.

What is your experience with return to field?


About the Author

Danielle Jo Bays is the Community Cats Program Manager for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), utilizing her skills in public policy, hands-on TNR, networking and resource development to expand The HSUS’s community cat work nationwide. Prior to rejoining The HSUS, Danielle served as the Program Manager for the community cats program at the Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C. and continues to be a strong and passionate voice for community cats in her neighborhood and city.