The breakthrough idea of the decade

Last weekend, I was at a symposium in Portland, Oregon, on the future of spay/neuter and the exciting possibilities that a nonsurgical option will hold for our four-legged friends — notably community cats — as reported in my previous blog post.

Yesterday, Best Friends participated in the launch of a community cat program in Baltimore, Maryland, that, in its own way, is as revolutionary as any discussed in Portland, but very much rooted in the present.

I’ll explain.

Saving cats from death in shelters has always had a Catch-22 element to it. The traditional path out of a shelter for cats has been by way of adoption to the public. For feral community cats, this has never been an option, with the rare exception of some ferals being pulled by trap/neuter/return (TNR) groups for integration into a managed colony. Adoption has not been an option for feral cats because shelters do not offer frightened, hissing ferals for adoption to the public, and that’s the Catch-22 — a fact that begged the question of why bring them into a shelter in the first place.

That feral cats have no business being in a shelter has been a mantra of no-kill advocates for years, but packaging that simple idea into a coherent program that the sheltering community could embrace was a stroke of genius.

The solution turned out to be such an obvious idea, yet it was so out of the box in terms of existing sheltering policy and practices that it took the insight and salesmanship of Rick DuCharme, founder of First Coast No More Homeless Pets in Jacksonville, Florida, to put all the pieces together and convince the Jacksonville shelter and municipal authorities to buy into it.

That was in 2008.

It was radical, and I loved it. Rick needed money to help get the idea off the ground, and Best Friends was happy to provide it to see if this breakthrough program could take flight. Rick dubbed it Feral Freedom, and within one year, it effectively reduced the killing of shelter cats by 50 percent! In brief, the new program allowed community cats to bypass the shelter by going instead to the First Coast No More Homeless Pets clinic to be fixed and then returned to the area in which they were caught, never to breed again!

Fast forward five years, and today we're announcing the launch of the fourth program sponsored by Best Friends modeled on Rick’s insight — this one in Baltimore, Maryland. We are partnering with PetSmart Charities®, and together we are committing a combined $1 million over the next three years to change the lives of community cats in Baltimore and dramatically reduce shelter killing. The program will follow the lead of the successes we've seen most recently with our community cat programs in Albuquerque and San Antonio. Best Friends staff integrated with Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) will trap, neuter and return Baltimore's free-roaming cats. Our goals are:

•    Spay/neuter 3,500 cats per year for the next three years.
•    At the end of the first year, achieve a reduction in shelter feline killing by 25 percent.
•    At the end of the second year, achieve a 10 percent reduction in shelter intake.
•    At the end of the third year, achieve a 35 percent increase in the live release rate of Baltimore shelter populations.

However, we believe we'll outpace those predictions, certainly if the success in the other community cat program cities is any indication.

We'd like to thank Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayor of Baltimore; Oxiris Barbot, M.D., city health commissioner; and Jennifer Brause, executive director of Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS). Only strong, forward-thinking leadership allows for these programs to be supported and executed with perfection. And, of course, thank you to PetSmart Charities for their continued support of Best Friends programs.

But ultimately, we want to thank all of you. Without you, our supporters, we would not be able to take these kinds of risks on programs. Programs that others said wouldn't succeed. Programs that are becoming the standard in how to lead the way to no-kill in a community. Programs that end up being the idea of the decade!

Together, we can Save Them All!