Community cat playbook

By Holly Sizemore

I started doing TNR (trap-neuter-return) when I was in college in 1991. It wasn’t called TNR back then, and I didn’t have a manual or an online resource to guide me. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Anyway, I wasn’t going to follow the instructions I received from the local animal shelter when I called about some stray cats I saw eating near a dumpster in back of the place where I worked. The shelter told me it was my responsibility to trap them and bring them to the shelter to be “euthanized.”

Wrong answer!

With the help of a friend, I trapped them, had them fixed and returned them to their niche in the community where residents continued to care for the little colony of community cats.

Those kitties changed my life and steered me into the world of animal welfare. I started a local Salt Lake City rescue group called CAWS (Community Animal Welfare Society), which is still doing great work long after my departure.

Those dumpster cats were just the tip of an enormous iceberg that I have become more and more familiar with since then.

We have known for decades that if we are not relating to community cats as a category of animals in need, then we are not seriously relating to the shelter capacity problem. As the no-kill movement has grown and deaths in shelters have declined, community cat populations as a driver of shelter killing have been thrown into stark relief.

In California, for example, according to the newest data available, 76 percent of the more than 106,000 animals being killed annually in the state’s shelters are cats, and the majority of these are community cats. Sadly, while this seems to be an extreme case based on available data, California is in no way unique. As we expand and refine our animal sheltering data gathering, we are seeing the same story across the country.

Tragically, this kitty carnage is entirely unnecessary. There is a silver bullet, a virtual magic wand that disrupts the endless catch-and-kill cycle that has characterized traditional animal control’s relationship to community cat population management.

The answer is a natural evolution of TNR, generically known as return-to-field (RTF). TNR is the province of individuals and small cat rescue groups that occasionally grow to become quite sophisticated operations (e.g., Neighborhood Cats in New York and Stray Cat Alliance in Los Angeles). In contrast, RTF is owned by local animal control/sheltering agencies as a non-lethal management policy that diverts community cats headed to the shelter for holding to a spay/neuter clinic. After being fixed, the cats are returned to their neighborhood homes, bypassing the typical impound process and instead offering up a lifesaving alternative. In the clinic, cats are also checked for general health and vaccinated to promote colony well-being and to protect owned outdoor cats.

RTF is usually a joint venture between the shelter and a no-kill animal welfare organization, although a number of shelters are offering this alternative themselves as part of their humane approach to community cat management. At Best Friends, we call them community cat programs (CCPs) and we operate more such programs in coordination with animal control/sheltering agencies than any other organization in the country.

In 2006, when I was with No More Homeless Pets in Utah, we initiated the first return-to-field program in the country in cooperation with the animal shelter in West Valley City, Utah. It was an entirely new and untested idea, and it was a bit clunky, given the city-imposed procedures that we had to follow to ensure the shelter’s comfort level while departing from “old school” ways. The program proved itself, though, saving lives and dramatically increasing the shelter’s save rate while at the same time reducing complaints from the public about community cats.

Best Friends has gone on to operate or fund CCPs across the country (in San Antonio, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Tucson, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Columbus, Georgia, and other places) and the results have been the same. Tens of thousands of community cats have been spayed or neutered while flipping the script on how traditional shelter operators relate to community cat management. Best Friends also now provides mentorship opportunities for shelters looking to start similar programs in their own communities, and the demand for such services is growing exponentially.

Not only that, but the positive benefits have continued after the formal Best Friends–funded program times out (usually a period of three years), with save rates remaining near, at or above the statistical jump achieved during Best Friends’ operation of the CCP.

We have known that these programs work and have been singing their praises for over a decade, but now more and more animal control officers are joining the chorus. The old truth still holds true – if you are not relating to community cats, you are not seriously relating to the shelter capacity problem. Happily, more and more communities are adopting the progressive RTF model and now the initiative for these programs is coming from local animal control/sheltering agencies.

Please check out the list below for our current CCPs.

Together, we will Save Them All.


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society