Sustainable programs that save cats

Two women standing at the back of a van, with its doors open and a cat on topOn a cold day this past February, Grace and Jessy, community cat team members for the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), saw a little cat dart through a gap in a fence behind a row of homes. Where that little cat was headed was Ms. Vivian's cat haven.

The power of community cat caregivers

Ms. Vivian is a soft-spoken woman, recently widowed, who took over the care of a local cat colony when its previous caretaker passed away. In Ms. Vivian's yard, her feline friends have found their perfect safe space: a covered area with wooden rafters to climb, picnic tables to relax on and little cat houses to inhabit. Ms. Vivian feeds the cats twice a day, provides access to clean water and always welcomes any cat finding his way there.

With her husband gone, the cats have become a comforting presence to Vivian. But their food and care were stretching her limited budget, especially since some new kittens had been born in her yard since the cats' arrival. And so, when Grace and Jessy turned up at her door and told her about the community cat program in Baltimore, Vivian was ecstatic.

Community cat team to the rescue

The BARCS cat team quickly coordinated a trapping day at Vivian's house. According to Grace, 15 cats were humanely trapped and taken to the shelter for vaccinations, spay/neuter and flea or parasite treatment, before being returned to the comfort of Ms. Vivian's yard.

Some of the cats had upper respiratory infections and stayed a bit longer at the shelter for treatment. One of them was a little white kitty named Alley, who had developed a special bond with Vivian and stayed inside the house where Vivian administered her medication. Eventually, Vivian decided that Alley could stay indoors with her for good.

The BARCS community cat program made an initial delivery of food to Ms. Vivian’s home to help with the cats' feeding. But now, Vivian regularly visits the BARCS Pet Pantry program that provides donated food to community members who need help feeding pets.

A need for community cat programs nationwide

Across the country, there are countless other cat havens like Ms. Vivian's. Each one might look a little different, but they all fall into the following two categories:

  • The cats in the colony have been spayed/neutered and are no longer contributing to the local homeless cat population.
  • The cats haven't been fixed, are rapidly reproducing and becoming a nuisance to some residents; and as a result of public complaints, they are brought to the shelter, where they likely won't make it out alive. When new unowned cats take their place, the cycle is repeated.

The factor that determines whether a colony falls into the first or second category is the absence or presence of a local community cat program.

Starting in 2012, Best Friends, in partnership with PetSmart Charities®, launched large-scale community cat programs in Albuquerque, Columbus (Georgia), Pima County (Arizona), San Antonio, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Best Friends has also operated similar programs in such cities as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Jacksonville.

Why cat programs are essential to creating no-kill communities

Siamese mix kitten in a live trap with lined with newspaper with a bowl of food

Finding animal shelters and cities open to change

In 2012, Jennifer Brause, executive director for BARCS, received a phone call from Shelly Kotter, one of Best Friends' community cat experts, about a new program available through a partnership between Best Friends and PetSmart Charities. And Jennifer's response, which they both laugh about now, was: "Are you kidding me? You want us to put the cats back?"

That was back when Baltimore's save rate for cats was 65 percent. As of early 2018, it was at 93 percent.

Embracing new ideas to keep cats out of shelters

Man from BARCS letting a calico cat go out of a humane trapThe Baltimore Community Cats Project launched in 2013, and despite a number of roadblocks along the way, it was a wild success. And that success is being sustained because Jennifer, the team at BARCS, and the Baltimore community refuse to go back.

"At the time, I just told my team, 'Let's go with it and see what happens,'” says Jennifer. “And we all were shocked. It didn't happen overnight or quite as we planned, but it did happen. We saw the impact and that made us want to sustain it."

At the onset of the program, getting shelter staff and animal control officers to adopt a new mindset was the key to success. "We needed to realize that we didn't have room to take every community cat,” says Jennifer. “It didn't matter if some were socialized or not. We needed to focus on the bigger lifesaving picture and prioritize cats."

During the three years that the initial community cats project took place, the number of cats dying in the shelter in Baltimore dropped by 61 percent. The number of cats entering the shelter dropped by more than 17 percent, and the save rate for cats skyrocketed by 28 percent. Shelter staff saw far fewer newborn kittens coming in, and the community started to notice the difference, too.

Sharing information on the benefits of community cat programs

Half the challenge of creating a successful community cat program is getting everyone on board. Community members, city council members, shelter staff and animal control officers all have to be committed to making it work.

In 2017, several newly-elected Baltimore City Council received multiple inquiries from one relentless, disgruntled community member who wasn't fond of community cats. When the issue was scheduled to be brought up at a city council meeting, Jennifer says she was worried, but not for long.

"The meeting was packed! The room was full of tons of people in the community who'd seen the benefits and supported the program, and then there's just this one single person there who doesn't like it, when everybody else does."

With the community behind the BARCS program, Jennifer used the meeting as an opportunity to share information about the program’s impact and community benefits with the new council members. "I was so proud,” she says. “The community really came out and supported it. That, to me, said a lot."

Plump tabby community cat with a tipped ear in the woods

Overcoming legislative roadblocks to trap-neuter-return

Convincing decision-makers and legislators at the county and state levels of the program benefits is often one of the biggest hurdles to implementing large-scale trap-neuter-return (TNR). "Initially, there was a state veterinarian who wasn't on board with providing spay/neuter for outdoor cats," explains Jennifer.

"So, for about a year, we focused resources on spay/neuter for owned pets in our zip codes with the highest intake. Then, after a little more educating and convincing from us, they added outdoor cats to the list, and we were able to provide TNR.

Educating legislators about community cat programs

Yet another challenge at the state level was a misunderstanding of program logistics and concerns about property liability. "When we first started discussing this with the state, they wanted us to have signed agreements from every owner of outdoor cats," says Jennifer. "We had to explain why that wasn't a realistic approach, and then advocate for a more targeted, community-based approach. It took a lot of convincing."

For many cities like Baltimore, there's also the added challenge of getting support from animal control officers, who are often managed by a separate city department, rather than the shelter. "It really took the whole first three years of that program to get everybody on board," says Shelly Kotter. "Consistency with programming, patience and having Jennifer in her (executive director) position at that time are what ultimately made the difference."

A community cat model for other cities, counties and states

Thanks to the success of the community cat project in the city of Baltimore, and BARCS' commitment to sustaining it, Baltimore County, which was initially against TNR, has also embraced the program. "They were dead set against it," says Jennifer. But with the model provided by the BARCS city program, the county not only embraced it, but also hired a BARCS program manager to run it.

Best Friends has also sent a number of shelter team members from other community cat program sites to train with the BARCS team and learn from its success. One example is Pima County, Arizona — another community cat project in partnership with PetSmart Charities, that achieved and sustained remarkable success.

Building team consensus on how to save cats

"We also learned from Best Friends and other successful programs that you just can't continue to overpopulate shelters with friendly trapped cats," says José Ocaño, Pacific regional director for Best Friends, who was director of operations for Pima Animal Care Center when its community cat project began.

"When you first start a program like that, everybody has to agree and stick to the talking points,” says José. “Otherwise, people start making exceptions right on down the line until you have a whole room full of exception cats.”

Now, five years after the Pima County program began, the shelter has enough breathing room to sometimes house and help some of the more social community cats get adopted. And Pima County’s save rate for cats jumped from 51 percent (in 2013 when the program started) to 90 percent by the end of the program’s second year.

A white and orange community cat with an ear tip

Funding sources for sustaining lifesaving shelter programs

Successful community cat programs have a lot of moving parts and require long-term, sustained investment. "We started talking sustainability on day one (of the three-year project)," says José. "My philosophy with any grant is knowing that it will eventually end and planning for that inevitability immediately. Knowing that helps shape how you move through early decisions and implementation."

José’s experience in Pima County and Jennifer’s work in Baltimore have brought them to agreement on one thing: Finding and securing funding to sustain these programs is no walk in the park.

Pima Animal Care Center managed to tap into county funds set aside for spay/neuter. Then the following year, a community member left a multimillion dollar bequest to the shelter, which was used to help sustain the program. "When you start saving more lives, people want to support you more and give you more money,” says José. “And this program has made the single largest lifesaving impact of anything we've ever done.”

Diversified and creative funding sources for animal shelters

According to Jennifer, a winning combination of tenacity, creativity and luck is what sustains Baltimore's success. "Funding is definitely a problem," she explains, “but big cities are also where the problem animal populations often are. And that's who gets funded."

BARCS, which had to go the extra mile to diversify its funding sources (when the state would help pay for spay/neuter surgeries but not actual program staff positions), looked to options such as lifesaving grants from the Petco Foundation. BARCS hired a dedicated communications staff member to promote the program’s success through various media channels, which helped drive more donations.

BARCS also applied for a multiyear Maryland Department of Agriculture grant. "The first time they applied for it, they didn't get it," recalls Shelly Kotter. "But Jen was committed. She was not going back (to the way things were). She applied again and got it.

"You need dedicated staff to run these programs," says Jennifer. "And you need ongoing funding to do that. It really takes a lot of data, commitment and convincing.”

Putting the community in community cat programs

"Community cat programs aren't silos within a shelter," says Liz Finch, director of the Best Friends Network, made up of more than 2,300 animal welfare organizations around the country.

"So much of this is about community. Constituents need to support it, and they need to show legislators and other decision-members that they care and they want solutions that work." And even more important, community members must convince decision-makers to help get funding for what works.

"We've found that our community cat partner shelters wholeheartedly agree that the program has to be preserved in some way after the Best Friends portion of the program ends," says Holly Sizemore, Best Friends' chief national programs officer. "The return on investment is clear, but it takes work and creativity to find the resources for sustainability."

Woman bending over and letting a black cat out of a humane trap

Challenges ahead for community cat programs

In Baltimore, something else that's become evident is that great success can bring on new sustainability challenges. "We've really exhausted all the low-hanging fruit," says Grace Fellner, the BARCS community cat program manager who discovered Ms. Vivian's cat haven. "We've gotten to most of the big colonies in the city. So, now it's about the smaller colonies spread out through the city, many of which are run by some of the more skeptical and resistant caretakers in less safe areas of the city."

It now takes the BARCS team members more time to trap a smaller number of cats — which then increases both time in the field and resources required to safely support field work. But the increased challenges don't discourage the team. Ask Grace about the particularly rewarding and memorable moments that make her work worthwhile, she struggles limiting it to just one: "There have been so many of those moments, I'm hard-pressed to decide. One of my favorites to celebrate is when we manage to trap the last cat on-site or one who's been eluding us."

Like Grace and her team, Best Friends and our lifesaving animal welfare partners around the country will be celebrating when we trap and help those last few cats to reach our goal, when nationwide no-kill for cats and dogs no longer eludes us, and we can focus solely on sustainability.

How you can help cats near you

Two people with three open humane traps with two cats running away

Photos by Molly Wald, Sarah Ause Kichas and courtesy of BARCS