View all blog posts

Putting the community in community cat

Many people who know me well know that two powerful experiences as a young person propelled me into a career in animal welfare. My mind occasionally goes back to those two experiences as I continue to learn lessons in compassion, blame and change, and I think about where I was, where animal welfare was, where I want to be and where animal welfare wants to be. Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Back in 1991, I was working as a restaurant server, finishing up an internship and readying myself to go to graduate school in a few months. I became familiar with a group of cats living in an area behind the restaurant in which I worked. (The cooks would congregate there on smoke breaks and often would bring treats from the kitchen to the cats, so the cats had become regular smoke-break pals.)

I noticed one cat was pregnant, and I started knocking on neighbors’ doors in an attempt to find her owners and hopefully convince them to spay or neuter their cats. I learned that the cats weren’t owned. In fact, no one could touch them, but most of the neighbors appreciated them for their help in deterring mice, and generally enjoyed having them around. A couple of the neighbors complained about the cats yowling at night and spraying.

Next, I called my local shelter, hoping they could help me help these cats. When I described the situation, I was basically told that it was against the law to feed the cats (punishable back then by a $50 per day fine!) and that they needed to be trapped and taken to the shelter, where they could be “reunited with their owners.” I reiterated that they had no owners and were feral, and I knew then that the cats would be killed if I took them there.

My first reaction was anger and blame toward the shelter. What a stupid policy, I thought. Criminalize compassion and kill perfectly healthy cats who the neighbors generally enjoyed and valued. Sure, I needed to figure out how to stop more kittens from being born, and work with the neighbors who didn’t like the cats on their property, but that seemed highly preferable to rounding up the cats and killing them.

So that’s what I did. I met a restaurant patron who was also concerned about the (now lactating) mother cat. Together, we rolled up our sleeves and humanely captured all the cats and got them sterilized and vaccinated and returned them to the area in back of the restaurant. We captured, socialized and found homes for the kittens. We started the first trap-neuter-return (TNR) group in the state of Utah. We reached out to our local shelter (despite a severe lack of trust) and strove to understand their perspective and asked that they strive to understand ours. We formed a mutually respectful relationship, despite our major differences.

It took years and years, but the shelter slowly changed their thinking as our relationship grew and as other resources and alternatives arose. First, they allowed us to rescue cats with tipped ears (the universal symbol of a fixed feral cat). Then they enacted a feral cat colony permit process (which turned out to be a grossly inefficient way to attempt to regulate people caring for feral cats, but it was a start). And they formed a public-private partnership with what was by then my employer — No More Homeless Pets in Utah, a program of Best Friends Animal Society.

Under that program, the shelter gave us stray cat impound information and allowed us to attempt to identify the feral cat caregivers of impounded cats. If we found the caregivers, we’d ask if they would allow the impounded cats to be sterilized and returned to them if we helped to fix other cats for whom they cared. Then the shelter began allowing all impounded healthy cats successfully living outdoors to be returned to the location from which they came without needing to identify a caregiver in advance, a practice now referred to as return-to field or RTF. (This was thanks to a ton of data that showed that the vast majority of cats from our prior partnership had not one but multiple people who helped feed and care for them.)

Aha! Finally, after years of incremental progress and trial and error, the shelter discarded the fundamental practice of taxpayer-subsidized round-ups and killing of healthy stray cats. Instead, they saw that TNR was effective in reducing the number of cats in a way that trap-and-kill never was. They saw how providing resources for cat caregivers, as well as for people who don’t want the cats on their property, addressed the root cause of the issue in a comprehensive, community-based way.

Together, we were able to get to a new level of consciousness and truly solve the problem. That shelter was one of the first in the country to reach no-kill status, helping to pave the way for me to work with and learn from hundreds of other shelters and stakeholder groups on this issue.
What I have learned:

  • Rounding up stray animals and killing them could have been more easily justified back in the day when virtually no spay/neuter resources were available, when rabies was widespread, and when there actually was a pet overpopulation problem. Now we know that there are enough homes for them all; we just have a distribution, shelter housing and marketing problem. These are hard, but solvable, problems.
  • Blaming shelter workers for the continuation of outdated policies harms, rather than helps, the creation of change. Supporting our shelter workers is as important for our success as saving pets’ lives.
  • We must demand of our elected officials, who oversee the policies necessary for shelters’ success, that they help create a road map of success for their local shelters. Government officials are often overlooked as key influencers and, sadly, the shelter staff often takes the misguided blame for outdated policies put forth by elected officials.
  • There are thousands of no-kill communities, so we know what works. We know achieving no-kill is hard, and we know how to help.
  • It is never one person or one entity that creates a new level of consciousness (or new “best practice”), but a culmination and evolution of various ideas and actions spurred by a commitment to curiosity and an openness to new ways of thinking.
  • An ability to learn from our failures is key to success.
  • Community members will help, but we must ask them to help and we must be specific about how they can help.

The best practice of today is for shelters to combine RTF with targeted community TNR (identifying any remaining cats in the area where RTF was being performed and performing TNR for any other cats in those areas). I am confident that this is the best practice of today, but I’m also pretty sure it will be the wrong answer sometime in the future. Someday, I hope a young server at a restaurant says, “What a stupid policy, this RTF/TNR thing. I have a better way that will help more cats and more people.” I think Einstein would have been proud.

Holly Sizemore, Chief national programs officer, Best Friends Animal Society Holly Sizemore
Chief mission officer
Best Friends Animal Society