Cat drama: A new tool for helping policymakers separate feline fact from fiction

By Julie Castle

High drama. Suspense. Unexpected plot twists. The kind of stuff that makes you want to look away at times, but you can’t. Am I talking about the latest releases on Netflix and Hulu? Nope! I’m actually thinking about the local city council meetings in states around the country that Best Friends’ legislation and advocacy team members have started binge-watching over the last few years.

OK, perhaps “high drama” is a stretch. However, even in the most humdrum, uneventful council meetings, things can get pretty intense when there’s an animal welfare issue on the agenda. And when that issue is cats living outdoors in the community, said meeting can easily take on that surreal, reality TV feel that keeps so many of us watching. Honestly, my heart goes out to elected officials who are tasked with sorting through the entrenched opinions and general noise that surround the topic of community cats. With so much misinformation out there about “feral” cats and trap-neuter-return (TNR), how can they possibly be expected to make the right decision?

This is where separating fact from fiction and reason from emotion becomes so essential in our work. We often view issues like this through whatever our own personal or professional lens might be. But for policymakers, it’s about understanding an issue from multiple perspectives and representing their constituency to the best of their ability as they make decisions and take action. So, when it comes to helping policymakers make smart decisions about local community cats, peeling away the drama and conflict and simply presenting them with the facts around those multiple perspectives is the way to go.

This is exactly what a paper recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Urban Affairs does. “Managing Free-Roaming Cats in U.S. Cities: An Object Lesson in Public Policy and Citizen Action” examines the issue of community cat management as a matter of public policy (along with the three common management options available) and methodically marches through the empirical evidence for the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

The authors — Peter Wolf, Best Friends research/policy analyst and his co-author, Dr. Frank Hamilton, an associate professor of management at Eckerd College — crafted the paper with decision-makers in mind. They provide a type of decision matrix that helps elected officials consider all of the available information as they determine how best to manage the unowned, free-roaming cats who call their communities home.

Essentially, it’s a “Just the facts, ma’am” approach to the issue to make policymakers’ jobs easier to do. Because for those policymakers, the question at hand is simply: What are the available options for managing our community cat population, and what are the pros and cons of each?

When you frame the question this way and examine the available evidence, the answer consistently shows that TNR is the best option available in nearly every scenario. Best Friends and other organizations have been managing TNR programs for cats for more than a decade, and we know how to do it and do it well. When these programs are allowed to be implemented and run the way they were designed to, outdoor cat populations are reduced, community members are happier, and fewer cats are killed in animal shelters. Win, win, win.

TNR also costs less money than other options and, as we’ve learned through national surveys, about seven in ten Americans prefer TNR for managing the cats in their neighborhoods. TNR is also supported by the National Animal Care and Control Association — an important endorsement from the folks providing animal control services in communities across the country.

So, what about the other two options for managing free-roaming cats? Well, there’s the “eradication campaign,” which has commonly been used for years to exterminate cats  on small islands. Obviously, this isn’t an option that animal welfare groups like Best Friends are super jazzed about. But if we set aside the cruelty involved for a moment, this approach has been a non-starter in the U.S. The costs are astronomical, ranging from $1,200 per square mile to more than $130,000 per square mile. And even the most “successful” campaigns can backfire, as illustrated in the now notorious case of Marion Island near South Africa.

At 115 square miles (approximately the size of Salt Lake City), this is the largest island from which cats have been “successfully eradicated.” What did that success look like? It took more than 19 years to exterminate about 3,000 cats. Ignoring the inhumane methods that were involved (which is hard to do), the inevitable result of this 19-year war against cats was the island’s mouse population exploding, which then led to the mice actually invading the nests of seabirds and killing them. Why is this important? Because the cat eradication campaign was justified by the desire to protect those seabirds. And, as you’d expect, the new super villain on the island that everyone wants to eradicate now is the mice. And the revolving door just keeps spinning.

The third option for addressing community cat populations is commonly referred to as “trap-and-kill” or “catch-and-kill,” a method that many have attempted to do with cats and several other species in our country.  It has consistently proven to be ineffective and a waste of taxpayer money. The rounding up and killing of cats via animal shelters  lacks any empirical evidence to support its effectiveness and is often cited specifically to highlight an example of failed public policy.

Similar to eradication, this option is inhumane and costly, with an additional and less visible price associated with it. Our nation’s animal shelters, which are often already underfunded and overwhelmed, are forced to handle the killing of cats they can’t get adopted because, in many cases, uninformed community members are choosing an ineffective approach to cat management over a wildly effective and coincidentally humane one. This isn’t fair to the dedicated staff and volunteers at our shelters, it isn’t fair to trusting community members, and it certainly isn’t a good deal for the cats involved.

So why is there still such a battle over TNR in some communities, a battle that leads to heated city council meetings? Often, it’s because the issue just isn’t well articulated. It should be presented as a public policy issue with clear options, each supported (or not) by empirical evidence. Sadly and frequently, however, the discussion is derailed by arguments about the potential risk that cats pose to wildlife or public health. Or whether it’s simply too dangerous “out there” for the cats and they’re better off dead. Or any number of other unproductive, emotionally-charged arguments that plummet everyone down a rabbit hole and away from any reasonable decision or solution.

This is why I love the no-nonsense, fabulously methodical article that Peter and Frank have offered us. It’s a peer-reviewed, evidence-based tool that gives some much-needed clarity on one of the most important animal welfare issues facing us today. Last year, around 625,000 cats and dogs were killed in America’s shelters. And despite the fact that more dogs entered shelters, nearly 70% of the pets killed were cats. That’s two cats for every dog.

Let me say it again: We’re killing two cats for every dog in our shelters right now.

Of course, many of the communities in our country where this isn’t the case are the ones that have implemented sustainable TNR programs. As Peter and Frank note in their conclusion, it’s hardly surprising to see communities across the country turning to TNR. “Properly implemented,” they explain, “these policy decisions have proven to be effective at reducing free-roaming cat numbers and related nuisance complaints, while being also economically sound and popular with a broad range of stakeholders (including taxpayers).”

Sometimes, routine city council meetings really can make for great viewing and even better decision-making, and yes, even a rigorously reviewed academic journal article can sometimes make for great reading … even for a cat lover.


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society