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In Texas, Harris County just made lifesaving history with a new law to save thousands of at-risk cats

There are two qualities in this world that ensure our survival and success when facing any challenge: a collaborative spirit and a willingness to try new things. Dr. Michael White and the forward-thinking elected leaders in Harris County, Texas, are shining examples of both.

So, since we all need a little good news these days, let me tell you a story that has this amazing Texas community, all of us here at Best Friends and animal-loving folks around the country cracking open bottles of champagne.

Last week, Judge Lina Hidalgo and the bipartisan Commissioners Court unanimously approved a lifesaving program for cats once thought impossible in that area.

Harris County is the third most populous county in the country, behind Los Angeles County, California, and Cook County, Illinois. It’s also located in Texas, which happens to be the state where more dogs and cats are killed in shelters than in any other state in the country. They’re not being killed because they’re irreparably sick or damaged. They’re being killed because there are simply too many of them entering shelters and they don’t have safe places to call home.

In 2016, Best Friends and Harris County Animal Shelter struck up a relationship as part of our initial efforts to help support pets and people in the Houston area. In September 2016, Harris County Animal Shelter was saving just 24% of the cats entering the shelter. In September 2017, the entire Houston area was underwater and reeling from the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Thanks to the positive relationship that blossomed between Best Friends and the Harris County leadership leading up to and throughout Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, trust was built, new things were tried and thousands of animals’ lives were saved. Among the critical new things that were tried was a pilot community cat program to humanely trap, vaccinate, spay or neuter, and return the thousands of stray and feral cats pouring into Harris County Animal Shelter each year.

When we first started collaborating with Harris County and discussing the idea of piloting a community cat program, the odds were stacked against us — or, rather, stacked against the cats. County animal regulations prohibited free-roaming cats of any kind (owned and unowned), holding cats to the same leash laws as dogs, and county leadership was apprehensive about committing to a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program. This meant cats were being rounded up by the thousands and taken to the shelter, with no effective long-term plan for decreasing the population. In 2017, Harris County Animal Shelter brought in upward of 6,700 cats and only 57% of them made it out.

But Houston area cats had a couple things going for them: the big hearts and open minds of Dr. White, the shelter director, and the incredible Harris County shelter staff.

Together, we piloted a six-month program in three of the county’s ZIP codes, the immediate success of which translated into a commitment to running a three-year countywide pilot community cat program, launched in 2018. Now, two years into the program, Harris County Animal Shelter is saving 94% of cats, the shelter staff is happy, the community is supportive, and Dr. White has become a TNR champion for the ages.

Most important, though: All that collaborative success has resulted in a fundamental change to local laws that will save the lives of countless cats and prevent a whole lot of costly, ineffective programming going forward. Last week, Judge Hidalgo and the county commissioners changed their local animal law to permit the return of community cats and declare TNR as the preferred model for managing community cats, permanently validating the work of the program.

Changing entrenched policy and legislation at the local level can be akin to moving mountains. And over the last year, that’s essentially what Best Friends’ advocacy team and Dr. White have been doing. They’ve been carefully reviewing the previous regulation, drafting new language and diligently shepherding it through the approval process.

We had three years to show that the program was effective, gain the trust and support of Dr. White and his team, and change the law for cats. We did it in two. And for those of us who joined forces and started walking that line together back in 2016, it’s a huge deal.

Best Friends has been launching and coordinating wildly successful community cat programs in cities across the country for years. So, it’s easy for us to foresee the major impact these programs always have. But for individual communities and shelters where support and resources have been short and the light at the end of the tunnel has been dim, giving one of these programs a shot takes a giant leap of faith. Further, their belief in the program is essential if it’s going to be funded and sustained into the future.

Our friend Dr. White says: “I have to admit that, a few years ago, I was not in favor of TNR programs. But there was almost no positive outcome for cats in our shelter at that time, and I really needed a solution for saving the lives of these cats. This was really distressing for me and it’s what prompted me to take a better look at the program and consider the pros and cons. Now, I’m a true believer and supporter of community cat programs.”

A collaborative spirit. A willingness to try new things. That’s all it takes. If powerful relationships and lifesaving policy change like this can come to fruition through a catastrophic hurricane and amidst a global crisis like COVID-19, I’d say just about anything is possible.

Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society