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Why our good intentions might be killing more than 1,000 cats and kittens every day

My cat Maggie is the Simone Biles of the feline world. Her athletic and acrobatic feats are unrivaled; when I think I’ve seen it all, she does something even better. Of course, everyone thinks their cat is the most remarkable one. This is what makes cats awesome. They have personalities that sparkle. They’re more entertaining than anything on TV. They’re self-cleaning and super zen. They know how to own whatever room they’re in and they make for the best viral video content. Basically, they’re marvels of nature who are everything we wish we could be and more. Sadly, we’re killing more than 1,000 of them in shelters every single day when we don’t have to.

Last year, around 625,000 dogs and cats were killed in America’s animal shelters. Despite the fact that more dogs are entering shelters, nearly 70% of those pets killed were actually cats. That’s two cats for every dog. So, what’s the deal? Well, right now, a lot of people still believe that scooping up any cats they see outdoors and bringing them to shelters for admission (and ultimately adoption) is the best option for saving their lives.

But that’s often not the case. For years, Best Friends and so many others around the country have been saving cats and kittens and preventing them from entering shelters through proven programming. It’s something we know how to do, and we do it well. But for it to have an impact on the scale that we need it to, animal-loving folks around the country must acknowledge and embrace one simple, lifesaving idea: The best home for a cat doesn’t always mean a house.

In that spirit, here are three reasons that every animal lover, no-kill advocate, community member and policy maker should embrace trap-neuter-return (TNR) style programs for our communities’ cats, feral and friendly alike.

Some of our best intentions are killing kittens and cats

Most animal-loving people assume that taking a stray cat (who often isn’t really “stray” at all) to a shelter will lead to the best possible outcome for that cat. But that instinct is often doing more harm than good. With more than two million cats entering shelters every year and hundreds of thousands of them never making it out alive, cat lifesaving efforts need to focus on the best possible outcome for individual animals, which includes cats thriving as community pets and not just as household pets. If cats are already at home and thriving in our communities, and kittens are already being cared for by their mother, we should leave them there and not try to save a life that doesn’t actually need saving.

Instead, let’s be smart and focus on programs and resources that keep those cats safe and healthy, and that responsibly reduce their numbers over time. Cats and kittens are more at risk of developing and dying from stress-induced and communicable diseases in shelters, which means that most of the time admitting them to shelters (which are often overcrowded and underfunded) as a lifesaving solution should be a last resort. Let’s let our local shelters be the expert lifesaving resource centers for our communities that they want to be and we need them to be, and not just our go-to places for dropping off every cat we see. Here’s a fabulous video from Best Friends kitten and cat expert Leah Long explaining what to do if you find kittens.

That friendly cat you found is friendly because he’s loved

Cats have been part of the fabric of our communities for hundreds of years. They’re beloved by the people who feed and care for them, and most often they are safe and already at home, even when living outdoors. Community cats are owned collectively, meaning that certain people and organizations within a community have taken collective responsibility to love and care for them. I love this quote from our community cat program manager Destiny Haney in that spirit:

“I used to be a person who, anytime I saw cats outside, I felt like I needed to rescue them in some way. Then I realized they really didn’t need me to be rescuing them. Most of the time, I was taking them from a community where they were happy and safe.”

While a lot of cat-loving folks assume that any friendly cat found living outdoors should be taken to the shelter or a rescue group and put up for adoption, we often assume the opposite. Our years of experience observing, supporting and saving community cats has shown us that when some of those cats are friendly toward humans (as opposed to feral) it’s because somewhere nearby in that community is a person (or group of people) who loves and cares for that cat.

When we default to “rescuing” that cat, oftentimes we’re in fact breaking a cherished bond by removing that cat from the place he calls home and the people (and fellow cats) he calls family. And it totally breaks my heart to know that some folks are still doing that in the name of animal welfare.

Community-based cat lifesaving is the key to achieving no-kill

Best Friends has been partnering with animal shelters and other community stakeholders to run large-scale TNR programs — aka community cat programs — for over a decade. These programs are animal-friendly, veterinarian-approved, cost-effective and common-sense. And they are wildly successful. To be specific, the improvement in overall cat lifesaving at shelters that Best Friends has partnered with on cat-related programming is 12 times greater than those without it. Let me say that again: 12 times greater!

That kind of major impact has been seen by others doing that same work. The Million Cat Challenge is the ultimate example. Between 2012 and 2019, the overall number of cats dying in participating shelters decreased by 74%! In a nutshell, community cat programming works and it is the key to achieving no-kill nationwide by 2025. It’s also the right thing to do. Here’s a great read on Baltimore’s cats that really digs into the power of these programs for the communities where they’re implemented.

Today, animal lovers and advocates understand that local shelters and community members should be working together to take collective responsibility for saving lives and creating safe, animal-friendly communities. For dogs, this often means returning lost dogs to their homes, providing resources for people with dogs and supporting foster programs. For cats, this means doing all of those same things we do for dogs, but also supporting TNR-style programs and ensuring that cities, counties and states have cat-friendly ordinances and policies in place.

It also means providing other related resources like enough veterinary support for high-volume spay/neuter and support for local community cat caregivers. Community-supported sheltering is the new name of the lifesaving game for Best Friends and other compassionate animal organizations around the country. Community cat programs are the quintessential example of that.

If we can get goofy videos of cats squeezing their fluffy butts into tiny boxes to go viral, we can easily do the same for data-driven programs that save their lives and keep them safe in the communities they call home.

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