Declaring a victory for community cats

What if I told you there is a program that has proven it is possible for a community to go from a 60 percent live release rate (LRR) for cats to 90 percent within three years? Would you believe it? Well, you’d better because it’s true!

The end of March signaled the end of an innovative three-year project in two U.S. cities. In 2012, Best Friends, in collaboration with our valued partner PetSmart Charities®, launched two Community Cats Projects (CCPs) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas. We’re confident in saying that these programs have set a new standard for sheltering procedures when it comes to cats. The numbers referenced above are the actual numbers for Albuquerque.

Trap/neuter/return (TNR) is the only effective, humane solution for free-roaming cats. If you read this blog often, chances are you’re on the same page with us about that statement. But unlike a stand-alone TNR program in a community run by a private 501(c)(3) rescue group, this program partners directly with the municipal shelter. So any stray or free-roaming cat entering the shelter is assessed for project eligibility and (if eligible) is turned over to Best Friends for spay/neuter and vaccinations, and then returned to the location where the cat was picked up.

It’s an agreement by the very facility that usually has to carry the burden of such things — to refrain from killing healthy cats who are living successfully outdoors. Return to field (RTF), as these types of programs have come to be known, is not a new idea, but executing it on such a comprehensive scale with such committed partners makes the CCPs unique. CCPs also include a follow-up by the Best Friends team. When a cat is returned to his or her outdoor home, Best Friends staffers and volunteers make sure that any other unfixed cats in the colony also get spayed or neutered. The results speak for themselves.

You can see the radical difference from 2011, before the program began, through the end of last year. Community cats, many of whom are under-socialized and not likely candidates for adoption, really don’t belong in shelters. A return-to-field program such as the Best Friends–PetSmart Charities collaboration makes sense and saves lives. When community cats are not admitted to the shelter, but only pass through for spay/neuter services, cage space can be allotted to more appropriate candidates for adoption. And, of course, not killing community cats also means euthanasia drops. It’s a win across the board.

Perhaps most important of all for the long-term success of such programs is the very high level of satisfaction reported by the residents of the community. Prior to implementation of a program like this, people were reluctant to step forward to report a cat in their neighborhood because of the high likelihood that the cat would be killed upon entering the shelter. They are now confident that such a report will not result in a death sentence. And there is the added benefit that cats who pass through the program are no longer producing litter after litter of kittens.

One of the most popular photos ever posted on the Best Friends Facebook page was this one, showing the empty kennel space at the Albuquerque shelter following the first year of the program:

While we’re sad to say goodbye to our shelter partners, it doesn’t mean the work is finished. These programs were designed to be run eventually by local groups. We have always believed that organizations like Best Friends and PetSmart Charities play an important role as innovators and teachers for local communities, and this is a perfect example of that. We want to maximize our ability to help as many communities as possible, and we’ve equipped both of these communities with all the necessary tools to continue saving lives.

And we’re certainly far from finished partnering with PetSmart Charities on Community Cats Projects. Right now we have CCPs working their magic in Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pima County, Arizona; and Columbus, Georgia. In the future, we are committed to finding new cities that are also committed to ending the killing of cats.

Together, we can Save Them All.

Francis Battista