an ear-tipped cat
Photo by twinschoice/iStock.com

Loree O'Hagan's new home in rural West Virginia came with four bedrooms, a wraparound deck, a view of the mountains—and a family of feral cats.

That last detail wasn’t mentioned in the seller’s disclosure report, but O’Hagan and her husband got an inkling on moving day, when they spotted a scruffy orange-and-white tom lurking on the deck.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to get him fixed,” O’Hagan says. “He just looked really beat up, and I knew enough to know that intact males would roam around and get in fights.”

She soon learned the cat she’d begun calling Floyd wasn’t the only one who needed fixing: There was also a mom cat and two teenage kittens. Her home’s former owner had been caring for the group, and another neighbor had since taken over the feeding.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to get him fixed. He just looked really beat up.”

—Loree O'Hagan

Years before, when she lived in the Washington, D.C., metro area, O’Hagan met a woman who volunteered with a local trap-neuter-return program. Area shelters, rescue groups and animal control agencies often posted stories on social media about their work to humanely manage unowned outdoor cat populations. So while O’Hagan had never participated in a TNR program, she knew enough to explain the basics.

At her first homeowners association meeting, O’Hagan cautiously broached the topic of trapping the cats for sterilization. “I wanted to make sure no one was going to have a problem with this,” she says. As a newcomer, she worried that others might see her as “coming in and forcing my views.”

Her new neighbors were surprised— they’d never considered getting the cats vetted. It wasn’t that they were indifferent to the animals’ welfare or wanted more kittens; they just didn’t realize there was an affordable alternative to taking the cats to the shelter or simply letting them breed. Later, when O’Hagan checked the website of the county shelter, she saw nothing about community cats, TNR or low-cost spay/neuter services.

It was a case of “people don’t know what they don’t know,” she says.

As it turned out, none of her neighbors objected to the plan, and many were very happy about it. Her nearest neighbor offered to help with the trapping and insisted on sharing the costs. “She’s an animal lover but was never exposed to these ideas before,” O’Hagan says.

an ear-tipped cat sitting in tall grass
Facilitating TNR means removing the barriers that prevent laypeople from doing this important work. Imgorthand/iStock.com

Tapping the trapping zeitgeist

Across the country, people from all walks of life give their time and energy to improve the lives of unowned free-roaming cats (commonly referred to as community cats).

Many had no experience with TNR before getting started. Like O’Hagan, they didn’t go looking for a cause; the cause came to them—often landing in their own backyards.

This volunteer workforce is crucial to reducing the overall number of cats living outside, says Danielle Bays, senior analyst for cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States. And since shelters are typically the first to receive the calls about backyard cats, they can play a key role in turning people’s compassion (or complaints) into action that benefits individual animals, the shelter and the community as a whole.

Bays herself became involved in TNR in 2008 after she bought a house in Washington, D.C., and met an elderly neighbor who had been feeding cats for decades. She started trapping those cats, then turned her attention to the cats being fed by other neighbors, “and the next thing I knew, I was running a TNR program for D.C.,” she says.

Facilitating TNR means removing the barriers that prevent laypeople from doing this important work.

Recognizing the connection between unsterilized community cats and high feline intakes, many shelters today offer a range of resources that make it easier for laypeople to practice TNR—from training workshops and trap loan programs to low-cost spay/neuter clinics and mentoring from seasoned advocates. More shelters in recent years have added TNR coordinators and trappers to their staff; some provide free sterilization and other medical services for community cats.

But even if your shelter can’t offer any of these services, there are people in your community who feed outdoor cats and care about their welfare. Most of the high-impact TNR programs of today started with nothing more that.

It’s something that all shelters should bear in mind, says Bays: The people who contact you for help with outdoor cats could be the future trapping superstars and leaders of TNR efforts in your community. Are you giving them the information and encouragement to make this happen?

a woman shows another how to use a cat trap
TNR advocate Jenny Schlueter shows a cat caregiver how to set a trap. Photo by Linda Kawliche/Tree House Humane Society
a doctor surrounded by cat traps at a mobile clinic
Dr. Shannon Jensen helps at a mobile spay/neuter clinic that sterilized more than 100 cats at a Nebraska ranch. Photo by Kim Cooke/AP Images for the HSUS

Inform, encourage, facilitate

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lives in your community and is feeding outdoor cats. Perhaps a feral mom cat recently gave birth to a litter of kittens in their backyard shed. Or maybe the person has been caring for a group of cats behind an apartment complex for years and is feeling overwhelmed as the numbers increase.

You likely field calls like this every week. But even if your shelter doesn’t have a TNR program, you can help people make the leap from cat feeder to cat trapper.

Just adding a page to your website with information explaining why TNR works and why you can’t simply remove the cats is very helpful, says Susan Richmond, executive director of Neighborhood Cats, a national TNR advocacy organization originally founded in New York City.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, adds Bryan Kortis, Neighborhood Cats co-founder and national programs director: You can borrow text with permission from a number of established TNR organizations or simply include links to their FAQs, online guides and how-to videos (see Resources, below).

Ask your public-facing staff to skim the materials and watch a few videos so they can explain the process, and put some brochures or handouts in your lobby. It’s a good bet that many of the people who deliver community cats and kittens to your shelter don’t know that there’s another alternative, and you may be surprised by how many will choose TNR over surrender.

Next, do some research on regional resources. Where can people borrow traps, where can they get the cats vetted, is there anyone who can advise them if they’re having trouble trapping or negotiating with neighbors, what are the typical costs and is there any funding assistance available? If there’s a grassroots group, rescue organization, or some unaffiliated individuals doing TNR in your community, find out what help they can provide to the public. One organization may be able to loan traps, one may be able to subsidize costs, one may already transport animals to a nearby clinic and be able to add spaces for a certain number of cats. Adding this information to your website and handouts will save people time and prevent them from feeling discouraged.

When researching resources, don’t underestimate how far people will go to help the cats they care for. If there are few TNR resources in your area, look at what’s available in neighboring counties or even states. When O’Hagan came across the cats at her home in West Virginia, she contacted a rescue organization near her former home in Maryland. From that group, she was able to borrow traps and schedule spay/neuter appointments at a clinic run by a different nonprofit; the fact that the clinic was almost three hours from her house didn’t deter her.

a man sets out food on his deck for community cats
Jim O’Hagan sets out food for the community cats his wife, Loree, trapped for sterilization. Photo by Loree O'Hagan

Cultivating the grassroots

You may not yet know them, but there are likely people already doing TNR in your community, if only on a small scale. Your shelter can do a lot to nurture their efforts without spending money.

When Kortis came across a group of about 30 cats and kittens living in a vacant lot near his New York City apartment in the 1990s, none of the local animal welfare organizations could provide help with trapping, funding or finding homes for the kittens. Following directions from the small number of organizations around the country that were doing TNR at the time, he and a few likeminded neighbors purchased their own equipment, negotiated discounted services with private veterinary clinics and paid out of pocket.

From that effort, Neighborhood Cats was born, and it would eventually revolutionize the city’s approach to managing community cats.

But in the early years, Neighborhood Cats was a grassroots effort with a tiny budget and no facility, run out of group members’ homes. Kortis approached leaders of the city’s shelters and discovered that while they didn’t have funds for TNR, they could contribute to the cause in other ways.

One shelter enabled the group to do more mass trappings by providing warehouse space where cats could be held before and after their surgeries. Another offered free use of its training room for Neighborhood Cats to hold group meetings and TNR workshops for the public. “It seemed like a small thing but turned out to be a big thing,” Kortis says. Having the trainings at the shelter “lent us credibility and helped draw people to the workshop.”

“It also solved a logistical problem,” Richmond adds. “Where to have workshops when you have no money. We couldn’t afford to rent space in New York.”

Today, Neighborhood Cats is a national leader in the TNR movement, with hands-on programs in New York, New Jersey and Hawaii. But Kortis is regularly reminded of the group’s early days when he reads posts in an online discussion group for feral cat advocates. “How do I get started?” is a common question, he says, from people in places where TNR has yet to take hold in a big way.

One of the most important ways shelters can help cat advocates, he says, is to simply treat them as allies working to solve a common problem. Any organization that is taking in cats has a “vested interest in lowering intake,” he says. And even if your shelter doesn’t take in cats, overpopulation is going to impact your organization in the form of calls from community members upset about the nuisance behaviors of unsterilized cats or the suffering of sick kittens.

You may not be able to provide all the resources you’d like or to solve everyone’s cat problem, he says, but even seemingly inconsequential things like encouragement and appreciation can go a long way to jumpstarting TNR efforts in your community. If you don’t have time for hand-holding, simply point novice trappers to Facebook groups where they can connect with experienced TNR advocates and get advice on trapping, colony care, neighborhood diplomacy and more.

O’Hagan echoes the importance of moral support and admits that when she first spoke to her neighbors about TNR, she acted a lot more confident than she was. “I felt a lot of trepidation and anxiety about putting the puzzle pieces together on doing TNR.” Through email and Facebook, she connected with some seasoned trappers in Maryland. “Just knowing someone was available with an answer to a question kept me relatively calm.”

Her contacts also kept her motivated after a trap malfunctioned on her first trapping attempt. It took two tries, but when O’Hagan caught the last cat, euphoria set in.

“It was a great, great feeling,” she remembers. “I was jumping up and down and calling my neighbor.”

Months after their surgeries, Floyd, the mom cat she named Missy, and teenagers Bridget and Marco are thriving. Knowing that the cats are vaccinated and won’t be producing more kittens gives O’Hagan “a feeling of safety for them.”

When her local shelter announced that it had received a grant to launch a TNR program, O’Hagan quickly signed up as a volunteer. She plans to use her newfound knowledge to spread that feeling among other cat caretakers in her community.

About the Author

Julie Falconer

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of the Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.

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