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Putting it into practice

A new way in San Jose helps cut cat intake, euthanasia

From Animal Sheltering Magazine September/October 2013

Intake and euthanasia rates are down at San Jose’s shelter, thanks to a program that provides spay/neuter surgeries for outdoor cats before returning them to the community.

Read part I of this article, For Community Cats, a Change is Gonna Come

Insanity has been famously described as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. The city shelter in San Jose, Calif., took that message to heart.

The staff thought they were doing all the right things to reduce cat intake and euthanasia. Low-cost spay/neuter services—$5 to neuter a male cat, $10 to spay a female—were available to the public, and the shelter did thousands of surgeries a year, recalls Jon Cicirelli, director of the city’s animal care and services department.

The shelter also worked closely with local trap-neuter-return (TNR) groups that were managing feral cat colonies, allowing colony managers to take advantage of the shelter’s walk-in spay/neuter services. The shelter also held adoption promotions and utilized foster families.

But the number of cats coming in continued to rise, and the number euthanized was holding steady, which frustrated the shelter staff. When the shelter manager heard about a “Feral Freedom” program developed by Rick Ducharme’s First Coast No More Homeless Pets in Jacksonville, Fla., Cicirelli says the shelter and its rescue group partners essentially said, “Well, we’ve tried every other darn thing, so let’s give this a shot.”

San Jose’s program began in 2010. Tweaked to fit the region’s needs and christened shelter-neuter-return (SNR), it has been a runaway success, Cicirelli says. In three years, the shelter has seen its cat intake drop by 25 percent, while the euthanasia rate is down by 65 percent.

The shelter hasn’t limited admission or told people to stop bringing in cats, Cicirelli says. What’s changed is that healthy stray and outdoor cats who would previously have been euthanized are now being sterilized, vaccinated, treated for parasites, ear tipped, microchipped, and returned to the community.

People identify “cats of concern” in their neighborhoods (those considered a nuisance, or whose welfare is at risk), trap them, and bring them to the shelter. The shelter provides the medical services, then transfers the cats to the nonprofit Town Cats, whose volunteers return the cats to where they were trapped. Town Cats also distributes door hangers (in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese) to explain the program, talks to residents, and maintains a website and phone line to address questions and concerns. To avoid threats to wildlife populations, cats are not returned to environmentally sensitive areas set aside for protected species. Cicirelli says it’s important that cat management programs take into account that wild animal sanctuaries are not a proper place for cats who are likely to kill the wildlife being protected.

“It was a big change philosophically. It was not a big change operationally,” Cicirelli says. The shelter, which has two medical clinics, was already doing spay/neuter surgeries daily. The outdoor cats—whether stray or feral—go through the same process as adoptable cats, but instead of going on to the adoption area, they go back where they came from.

The shelter-based TNR program directly targets free-roaming cats at least 4 months old throughout the community, which Cicirelli says makes it more effective than colony management on its own. While he supports colony management, Cicirelli notes that it focuses on small situations in single places—say, 20 or 30 cats living behind a warehouse—while SNR has a broader impact.

The shelter took in about 11,500 cats a year before the SNR program started, but now that number has plummeted to about 8,400. “That reduction, from our perspective, is directly due to the targeted spaying and neutering that’s occurring,” Cicirelli says.

The program has actually been more successful than could have been predicted mathematically, Cicirelli says. The San Jose shelter serves an area of 1.2 million people and about 400,000 cats, including 150,000 to 200,000 outdoor cats. The program spays or neuters about 2,500 outdoor cats per year, which Cicirelli says doesn’t sound like enough to cause a 25 percent drop in intake in three years. Shelter officials are drilling into the numbers, trying to figure out why the impact has been so dramatic.

The reality is most people are for humane solutions for controlling cats. They’re not for lethal solutions.”

Cicirelli believes neuter-and-return works better than lethal control in part because of increased competition for resources, a theory commonly applied to wildlife population modeling. You have a number of cats getting fed in a given area, he explains. Removing one and euthanizing him means the remaining cats each get a greater share of the available food, so they’ll be healthier and more likely to reproduce. But when a sterilized cat returns, he takes from the same food source as other intact cats, thereby diminishing their capacity to breed overall, and possibly causing them to have smaller litters.

The save rate for adult cats in San Jose used to hover around 30 percent; now it’s about 85 percent. It changed quickly, Cicirelli says, because the bulk of the cats the shelter euthanized were outdoor, unowned cats who were generally healthy but unsocialized. “Look at it a different way,” he says, “and suddenly your euthanasia rate is flipped on its head.”

Here, There, and Everywhere?

Similar programs exist in a variety of cities around the country. “Don’t think your community is so unique that it’d never fly,” Cicirelli says.

The first steps for shelters are to figure out how big a program you need based on your annual cat intake, then find a good partner agency and divide the responsibilities. In many cases the nonprofit gets grants or donations to provide medical services. The San Jose model—where the municipal shelter treats the cats—is less common, but made sense because the shelter is better-equipped than Town Cats to do that work, Cicirelli says.

Preparing the cats medically to return to the community involves an additional cost for the shelter, but it’s more than offset by the savings from reducing intake. The shelter is taking in about 3,000 fewer cats per year. Figuring that it costs $100 to take in, shelter, care for, and euthanize each cat—a conservative estimate—the shelter saves $300,000 a year by using the SNR approach. “That is real money that we’re saving,” Cicirelli says. “… That’s more than enough to do 2,500 spay/neuter surgeries.”

Some communities hesitate to develop SNR programs because they fear a negative reaction from the public, but Cicirelli has yet to find a region where there’s been significant backlash, and in most cases people embrace the idea. “The reality is most people are for humane solutions for controlling cats,” he says. “They’re not for lethal solutions.”

A few people might complain, for example, about cats returning to the community. But Cicirelli says he’s found that the people who complain are the same ones who were complaining about cats before, and they eventually stop when they see the program working. And the program’s impact is well worth fielding a few irate calls. “It is clearly reducing the number of cats that are in the community, it’s clearly reduced the number of cats that we have to take in, and it’s obviously improved the euthanasia rate,” he says. “I’d take that trade-off any day.”

Town Cats volunteers welcome the chance to put cats back in familiar surroundings, says executive director Rosemary Mirko. “A lot of times you’ll open up the door on the carrier, and he’ll know exactly where he is and run right back, and his friends are all there waiting for him.”

At capacity or not, shelters have traditionally taken in all cats brought to them, and wound up euthanizing the vast majority. But Cicirelli says that policy is a habit that can be broken. “Nobody ever came to us, as a matter of public policy, and said, ‘This is how we want you to manage cats in the community.’” Shelters have taught people one method of handling outdoor cats, he adds, and now they can preach a different philosophy.

“My best piece of advice is really, just do it,” Cicirelli says. “… What you will find is not only is it a lot easier than you thought it was going to be, but the results are better than you could have expected.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.