Community cats: The Tweety vs. Sylvester debate

Dilute tortoiseshell community cat with tipped ear in front of a vehicle
By Julie Castle

Novelist Jonathan Franzen recently wrote an article for The New Yorker titled, “How the ‘No Kill’ Movement Betrays Its Name.” While he only indirectly and inaccurately examines no-kill through the narrow lens of two independent cat trappers in Los Angeles, a recently appointed shelter director, and a representative of notoriously anti-no-kill PETA, the real focus of his attention is cats — outdoor cats to be precise — and their real and imagined impact on native birds. His is the latest in a series of biased articles in the long-running Tweety vs. Sylvester debate. Franzen is an award-winning writer and finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. I should point out that former Best Friends resident Tomato the Cat was a Pulitzer Prize winner for journalism in a category created just for him. I can only imagine what Tomato would have to say about a finalist dissing a winner’s friends and relatives!

Let’s discuss.

He tawt he taw a puddy tat!

Mr. Franzen’s long-established position on community cats is well known. He is a board member of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the leading voice in opposition to the humane, non-lethal management of community cats. Their view on the subject is that community cats pose an existential threat to bird populations in the United States and that there is no viable humane solution for managing their population growth. I must assume that his chosen title for the article references his belief that by protecting cats, the no-kill mission endangers birds.

We don’t argue the fact that cats are predators. However, the speculated numbers of community cats nationwide and the toll they take on other species — rodents, birds, lizards, grasshoppers, frogs, etc. — are based on random studies, selective interpretation, and who is funding the study.

Best Friends is not casual or uncaring when it comes to the protection of wildlife, and we recommend that families keep their pet cats indoors for their safety and the safety of wild species. We also believe that it is possible to find common ground with birders and conservancy groups to manage community cats if killing is taken off the table as a solution.

Like all naysayers in this arena, Mr. Franzen offers no viable alternative to trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR). Remember that we have arrived at the current state of play following more than a century of catch-and-kill as the official management policy for community cats. It was a failure on all fronts. It didn’t reduce community cat populations and was wildly disapproved of by the taxpaying public. It is wishful, magical thinking to believe that we are going to eliminate cats from the natural environment by whatever means currently available, but we can manage their population growth very simply by fixing as many cats as possible. The more cats you fix, the fewer kittens are born. It’s Biology 101. This argument is the crux of the New Yorker article and wider public debate about cats who live outdoors, many of whom are people’s pets.

He did, he did taw a puddy cat!

Jonathan Franzen is an accomplished birder and member of one of the organizations that attempted to prevent city-sponsored community cat programs in Los Angeles.  He is very forthcoming about his adversarial opinion concerning outdoor cats, and his biases are very clear in the New Yorker article. The piece was conceived with a foregone conclusion in mind rather than as a fact-finding exercise. It is an opinion piece, and his opinion, like his colleagues at ABC and PETA, is that community cat programs don’t protect either cats or local wildlife, which is a demonstrably false conclusion.

Franzen takes a snapshot in time of the state of TNVR in Los Angeles to draw what he presents as a complete picture of the viability of humane solutions to stabilize community cat populations everywhere. His snapshot is taken after a 10-year court-ordered injunction barring the city from offering support of any type for TNVR — and at a time when post-COVID veterinary shortages nationwide are struggling to rebound.

The injunction issued in 2009 was the result of a lawsuit brought against LA Animal Services by, among others, the American Bird Conservancy for promoting TNVR without first completing an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act, an exercise previously required only for major commercial and industrial projects in the state. The court supported the ludicrous assumption that removing the reproductive organs from community cats already living in niche colonies around the city might have an adverse effect on the environment. So, just like a corporation building a powerplant on wetlands or the state constructing a highway through endangered species habitat, the city of Los Angeles was obligated to conduct a report on the theoretical environmental impact of sterilizing community cats — an expensive and time-eating procedure — before LA Animal Services could as much as mention a humane alternative to catching and killing community cats to the public.

Extrapolating from the perspective of two dedicated but stressed-out cat trappers, a recently appointed shelter director who is under a microscope and an ardent opponent of the no-kill movement is hardly rigorous analysis even for a gifted storyteller like Jonathan Franzen. He also interviewed Best Friends founders and gives a fair recitation of those interviews, which had no impact on his conclusions because, again, his ideas were fixed going into this assignment. Speaking with Best Friends was simply checking a “due-diligence” box.

His observations are not, as he implies, a reflection of the general failure of community cat programs because a program hasn’t been tried in Los Angeles at a scale that would have a meaningful impact. It should not be the sole responsibility of good Samaritans and nonprofits to implement the programs necessary to humanely address this public policy question, no more than it should be the sole responsibility of the private sector to solve other public health and community issues. As an absurd example to illustrate the point, imagine slack in the city’s electric grid maintenance being picked up by a self-appointed team of volunteer electricians! In the not-too-distant future it will be equally absurd to imagine a self-appointed team of animal welfare volunteers picking up the slack in expected services provided by LA Animal Services.

Mr. Franzen’s limited time spent trapping in Los Angeles is a peek into the world of very dedicated individuals working to make a difference. However, when Best Friends talks about TNVR as a viable alternative to catch-and-kill, this type of personal initiative, laudable as it is, represents only a few threads of a much larger tapestry. The city of Los Angeles has the resources to be a critical partner in such efforts should it choose to empower and fund them through LA Animal Services now that the injunction barring such activity has been lifted.

His portrayal of a city-supported TNVR program in L.A. as a few scrappy volunteers with traps in the dark of night, scrambling for scarce veterinary appointments and paying out of their own pockets, illustrates how little the city has done since the injunction was lifted and the need for local governments along with corporate, veterinary, and private partners to fully embrace the public’s demand for no-kill policies.

Organizations like Best Friends unashamedly want a no-kill nation and are proud of the astonishing progress that has been made. In the 1980s, there were zero no-kill animal control shelters in the U.S. while an estimated 17 million dogs and cats were being killed for the simple lack of a home. Today, 57% of shelters in America had achieved no-kill status by the end of 2022, and the number of homeless pets killed in shelters was down to 378,000. That’s good news but still 378,000 too many.

As I said above, this is just the latest in a series of alarmist articles about the depredations of cats on wildlife. I do not intend to be rude when I say that they are all a waste of time. It’s true, because they offer no solutions acceptable to the pet-loving public — i.e., taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for any solution. So rather than trying to gin up hostility to the world’s favorite pet, they could be spending their research grants on how to multiply the effectiveness of TNVR or developing a new, innovative, and humane alternative to their implied support of catch-and-kill.

Habitat loss is the biggest overall driver of the decline in bird populations with habitat degradation in second place, but those are amorphous targets with big development money and social housing needs as headwinds. It’s always good to have a villain as your target, and the cat is being served up as the villain of this particular piece. But that is a losing strategy that is wasting time and costing the lives of birds and cats. Pet-loving Americans will just not buy it, and the birder/conservancy community needs to go in another direction.

The unstated reality is that both the no-kill movement and the conservation movement want the same result: a reduction in the numbers of community cats across the country. The disagreement is about how we get there. Best Friends is eager to sit down with all stakeholders if killing is off the table. We can save cats and protect wildlife. Sylvester and Tweety Bird can live happily ever after.

Together we will Save Them All.


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Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society