How to Address Various Complaints

Introduction

Community cat programs (CCPs) have proven to be the most humane and effective approach for addressing the issue of unowned, free-roaming (aka community) cats. And U.S. public opinion surveys reveal overwhelming support for trap-neuter-return (TNR), the method at the heart of such programs. Nevertheless, we must recognize that some people object to free-roaming cats in their community — and especially on their property. Indeed, cats can cause property damage (e.g., leaving scratches on cars, urinating on patio furniture) and some of their behaviors associated with mating (fighting, yowling, etc.) can be annoying.[1]

Keep in mind that cat-related complaints existed long before the CCP was implemented; the CCP is not the cause of most of these complaints. In fact, with the CCP in place, residents receive more helpful resources than ever. Don’t forget: We all want to reduce the number of community cats.

Spaying or neutering community cats generally eliminates “nuisance” behaviors, thereby addressing many of the most common complaints. And many of the other complaints can be resolved by using the various humane deterrents available. (See “Humane Deterrents” below.) Even so, resolving these issues requires patience, perseverance and professionalism.

This guide was created with these attributes in mind, and is intended to help CCP staff and volunteers address complaint calls effectively and efficiently. Often, a shelter’s enforcement officers and dispatch staff will be the “first responders,” but not always. In any case, it’s best if all staff can effectively address objections raised by residents skeptical of — or even vehemently opposed to — the CCP. (See “Working with Enforcement and Dispatch Staff” for additional information on this topic.)

People want to be heard

No one likes to be ignored, of course. Sometimes when we contact our local government offices and agencies — whether it’s the animal shelter or the water department — we fail to get what we consider a satisfactory response. Perhaps we receive no response at all. Naturally, this only increases our level of frustration.

Unfortunately, this is all too often the case when a resident finally reaches CCP staff. In most instances, we have no way of knowing whether their course of communication with officials has been lengthy and frustrating or short and easy. Either way, the best way to proceed is the same: Listen more than you speak.

Contrary to your natural instinct, the primary goal of the first interaction (over the telephone or in person) is not to persuade them that TNR is the best option or even that the CCP can help them. The goal is simply to listen, and acknowledge the validity of their concerns. To be clear, though, this must be “active listening,” in which you demonstrate a high degree of engagement through, for example, eye contact (if you’re communicating in person) or verbal acknowledgments. It is not merely staying silent.

If nothing else, this approach might create the foundation for future respectful, solutions-oriented conversations. And in some instances, once the complainant has had the opportunity to fully express his/her concerns, you might have an opening to explain a little bit about the CCP — its objective (to reduce the number of free-roaming cats in the community), the way it works and the services offered. The idea here is to educate, not persuade.

In fact, sometimes this is all it takes. Once a person feels heard, and learns a little bit about the CCP, he/she often realizes that we’re all in this together and that the program actually meets his/her needs, too. And once complainants know that the CCP has the broad support of their neighbors, animal services and elected officials, they might be reluctant to stand out from the crowd — and therefore a bit more tolerant of cats traveling across their property.

It takes a village

While we might not be the best of friends with our neighbors, most of us do, in fact, choose to be neighborly. After all, it’s no fun engaging in a feud with the same folks with whom we share a property line or public park, or whose kids go to the same school as ours.

It’s often helpful if a complainant knows that managing the population of unowned, free-roaming cats is more than his/her issue; it’s a neighborhood issue. Just as the problem was not created by any one resident or household, the solution will not come from any one resident or household. Some residents will be actively involved in the trapping and neutering or spaying of the cats, for example, while others will manage feeding stations. Some may choose to be involved less directly, by volunteering with door-to-door canvassing or making donations.

Residents who complain about the cats are less likely to participate in the program. However, once they understand that their neighbors are working together toward a solution that will benefit the entire neighborhood (the CCP being a vast improvement over the costly, ineffective traditional approach), these people are much more likely to at least accept the CCP.

Emphasizing best practices

Sometimes cat-related complaints aren’t so much cat-related as caregiver-related. Whether they love cats or loathe them, residents have every right to expect colony caregivers to be considerate of their neighbors. Caregivers, whether they care for one cat or a whole colony, should keep feeding stations and shelters clean, for example. (See “Colony Management and Caregiver Resources” for additional information on this topic.) It is sometimes necessary for CCP staff and volunteers to remind caregivers of their obligations, pointing out that any carelessness in this regard reflects poorly on the program — and may, as a result, put the program (and cats) at risk.

Communicating the details of this role to complainants can help them believe that you’re not “taking sides” or interested only in the welfare of the cats. Everyone wants a solution that works for the entire community.

Incoming calls

Some CCPs field complaint calls directly, while others rely on calls being forwarded via a shelter’s dispatch staff or a community-based 311 system. Regardless of which system is employed, it’s important that all staff and volunteers responding to calls use a clear, concise description of the CCP for every call. This way, residents receive accurate, consistent information. (See the appendix for an example of such a description.)

It’s also helpful if residents see the same information elsewhere (e.g., on the shelter’s website, in news stories, included with utility bills). This can be an effective form of community outreach, and may reduce the number of complaint calls.

“Complaints” from good Samaritans

Sometimes what initially appears to be a complaint call is actually a call for help from a resident who has unwittingly taken on more than he or she can truly handle. Although many people feed stray cats (or cats they believe to be stray), not all of them ensure that the cats are spayed or neutered. This may be due to a lack of knowledge (e.g., that cats as young as four months of age can become pregnant), a lack of resources (e.g., money, transportation) or another reason.

Such situations can quickly spiral out of control — in some cases, even prompting somebody who’s been feeding cats to surrender them to the shelter. It’s important to recognize that these people are interested in the welfare of the cats and, generally speaking, can become trustworthy, compassionate caregivers with just a little bit of assistance. (See “Colony Management and Caregiver Resources” for additional information on this topic.)

Similar calls may come from caregivers who, for any number of reasons, have been unable to spay or neuter every cat in their colonies. The appearance of even one or two litters of kittens, for example, can be overwhelming — prompting a caregiver to reach out for help. In such cases, it’s important to recognize what sort of help is needed — and whether or not CCP staff can provide that help. Sometimes, collaboration with
shelter and/or enforcement staff will be necessary to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse. For this reason, all incoming calls must be accurately assessed and prioritized accordingly. (See “Working Toward Positive Outcomes” for additional information on this topic.)

When the complaint has little to do with the cats

As anybody with years of experience handling complaint calls can attest, some calls that appear to be cat-related are, at their core, actually disputes between neighbors, roommates or even spouses. In these situations, one party uses the cats as leverage against another party. Obviously, there’s little that CCP staff (or the shelter’s enforcement staff) can do to resolve such disputes, and attempts to do so (e.g., issuing citations, removing the cats) may actually backfire, with the case appearing to be closed when in fact the dispute is unresolved and growing more contentious.

It’s important, therefore, for staff handling complaint calls to recognize, to the extent that’s possible, the true nature of a complaint and to know when assistance from other agencies (e.g., law enforcement, social services) might be needed. When in doubt, it’s best to check with experienced enforcement staff.

“Be sure to provide plenty of information and resources for both parties, not only to assist the feeder but also to help satisfy the complaining party. For feeders, provide contact information for the CCP staff and information on the process and how the program works. For the complaining party, provide humane resources to help deter the cats from their property and provide honest information about how the community cat program works. You don’t want the complaining party to find out that the cats will be returned after the fact.”

-Lt. Christopher V. Romero, Animal services field supervisor, Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department

Follow-up

Because of the busy nature of shelter operations — and the generally low priority given to complaint calls — staff rarely follow up with residents who have called with cat-related complaints. More often than not, no news is considered good news. However, making follow-up calls and/or visits part of a CCP’s standard operating procedures helps prevent bad situations from becoming worse — and taking up far more staff time and energy. Following up also offers the opportunity for CCP staff to improve the overall process for handling complaints. Staff can gain a better understanding, for example, of which humane deterrents (see below) are most effective in a particular situation or which outreach materials residents find helpful.

At a minimum, follow-up work should be done in those instances requiring future visits to a particular residence or property (e.g., targeted trapping to achieve the desired 90 percent spay/neuter threshold within a colony).

Measures of success

The number of incoming calls can increase following the implementation of a CCP, as residents feel more comfortable calling for assistance when they know the cats won’t be in danger. Some will call simply out of curiosity about the new program. This means that the number of incoming calls alone won’t show the actual impact a CCP is having on cat-related complaints.

An accurate sense of what is and isn’t working to resolve complaints requires a more nuanced approach. Careful tracking of the number of calls requiring a visit by an ACO, for example, will likely provide valuable insights. Periodic meetings for front-line staff (including ACOs and dispatch staff) to share results can also prove valuable, as they allow staff an opportunity to learn what others find effective. Although such efforts place an additional burden on already scarce resources, the potential return on investment is worthwhile. (See “Working with Enforcement and Dispatch Staff” for additional information on this topic.)

Tools

Letters of support: It may be useful to remind complainants that a CCP complies with all relevant laws and has the support of the municipal shelter and city or county elected officials. A simple one-page letter (e.g., from the shelter director or city manager) explaining this can be valuable when communicating with residents. (See the appendix for an example of such a letter.)

Humane deterrents: There are a number of humane deterrents on the market, and we recommend that a CCP have a few on hand to loan to residents interested in keeping cats off their property. A successful experience with one of these products can transform a complainant into one of the program’s most enthusiastic ambassadors. Here are two effective humane deterrents:

  • ScareCrow: With this motion-activated sprinkler, an infrared sensor responds to motion and releases a three-second blast of water. The sprinkler, which “fires” 1,000 times on one nine-volt battery, covers an area approximately 45 feet by 35 feet. To purchase ScareCrow, search online or call Contech, the manufacturer, for the nearest retailer: 800-767-8658.
  • CatStop: This deterrent uses a motion sensor and emits a high-pitched, ultrasonic alarm that can’t be heard by humans but will frighten most cats and small dogs. You place the unit facing the area you want to protect and it covers about 300 square feet. CatStop can operate up to nine months on one nine-volt battery and is a good choice for areas where children may be at play. To purchase CatStop, search online or call Contech, the manufacturer, for the nearest retailer: 800-767-8658.

Here are a few other ideas for deterrents:

  • Concrete pavers, river rocks, large pine cones, chicken wire (sharp edges down) or large pieces of bark can be used to cover loose soil, discouraging cats from eliminating there.
  • Plant the herb rue or Coleus canina (often called the “scaredy-cat plant”), decorative plants that repel cats.
  • Generously sprinkle any of the following on the ground in areas where you want to deter cats: cayenne pepper, mothballs, coffee grounds, pipe tobacco, lemongrass oil, citronella oil, eucalyptus oil or mustard oil.

Additional information is available in “Solutions to Cat-Related Issues.” It’s useful to print out copies and give them to intake personnel and enforcement officers to share with residents. Also, see Best Friends’ humane deterrents video.

Additional resources

Appendix

Example: Description of CCP for responding to incoming calls

This summary about how to respond to incoming calls is from Pima County, Arizona.

It’s critical that CCP staff — as well as shelter and enforcement staff — understand the key aspects of our CCP when communicating with the public. The following outline is intended to provide all staff with a clear, concise guide, which will ensure that staff are providing residents with accurate, consistent information.

  • Our program is called the Community Cats Project. It is a public-private partnership of Best Friends Animal Society, PetSmart Charities™ and the Pima Animal Care Center.
  • We provide free spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations for unowned, free-roaming cats in the following ZIP codes: 85705, 85706, 85710, 85711, 85712, 85713, 85714, 85716, and 85719. (Depending on the availability of resources, we can assist residents outside these ZIP codes on a case-by-case basis.)
  • Eligible cats (see below) who come through our program are spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies and several other diseases, ear-tipped (for easy identification in the future) and treated for any obvious illness or injuries. After the cats recover from surgery, we return them to where we found them.
  • This method is called trap-neuter-return, or TNR, which is the most humane, effective way to control the number of community cats.
  • Eligibility requirements are as follows: (1) cats are unowned, free-roaming (not pets), (2) originate in one of the target ZIP codes, (3) are healthy and injury-free (as determined by our staff), (4) have not been declawed, and (5) are at least 2 months of age and 2 pounds in weight. For kittens under 3 months of age or 3 pounds, we cannot vaccinate against rabies, but will be happy to vaccinate these kittens once they have reached that threshold.
  • Our program does not accept pet cats for surrender, but in some cases we may be able to help rehome a cat through Pima Animal Care Center’s adoption program.

Example: Letter of support from a municipality

Check out the entire Community Cat Programs Handbook:

Administration

Operations


[1] This does not, however, mean that the mere presence of community cats constitutes a nuisance under the provisions of local ordinances. Please see Best Friends’ Community Cat Programs: Public Policy and Legal Considerations for additional information.


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