TNR: Eliminating the whack-a-mole factor

There’s no question about it. Trap/neuter/return (TNR) is the only humane approach to managing community cat populations. And despite the fact that TNR is widely accepted all across the U.S., it feels like we are in a never-ending war of words over the right way to reduce the number of community cats.

Opponents of TNR programs are largely wildlife supporters who claim that cats alone are responsible for killing up to 85 percent of all of North American land birds each year. It’s such an out-there, absurd claim that I can’t believe they can say it with a straight face.

Fueled by this flawed science, the latest whack-a-mole debacle is in Washington D.C., where the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) suggests as part of a “Wildlife Action Plan” that TNR programs in the nation’s capital should be “revisited.” Revisit means they would like to end successful TNR programs that control the cat population, and instead transport the cats to adoption facilities in the D.C. area. Of course, most community cats are unsuitable for adoption, so they would be summarily killed; however, TNR opponents (for obvious reasons) are wary of advocating openly for the killing of stray and free-roaming cats.

Washington D.C. has a long and important history with TNR programs. One of the first TNR projects in the U.S. was launched in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in 1990. That effort subsequently led the trappers, Louise Holton and Becky Robinson, to start an organization called Alley Cat Allies, which since its inception has been one of the leaders of the TNR movement. So to see this happening in D.C. is disappointing, but somehow not surprising.

Thanks to the solid foundation laid some 25 years ago, D.C. has strong, effective TNR programming in place. The Washington Humane Society runs a very successful program, that includes a return-to-field (RTF) component for healthy community cats who are brought to the shelter. Cats that meet the requirements are fixed, vaccinated and returned to where they were found. This common-sense, humane approach not only saved millions of lives over the last few years in D.C. and across the country, but it also spared the many more who were never born. These types of programs have had phenomenal success around the country.

Best Friends Animal Society, in partnership with PetSmart Charities™, has deployed these high-volume, targeted, RTF programs in several U.S. cities. The results speak for themselves.


  • Within three years (2011-2014), the San Antonio, Texas, community cat program increased its live release rate from 29 percent to 84 percent.
  • As a result of our three-year (2011-2014) community cat program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, feline intake fell 39 percent, from about 9,800 to about 6,000. Intake of kittens under eight weeks of age dropped by approximately one-third, a strong indication that the program is reducing the overall community cat population.
  • In 2014, Baltimore, Maryland, 25 percent fewer kittens (up to four months in age) entered shelters compared with 2012, the year before the program started.
  • Just one year into a community cat program (during the first quarter of 2015), the feline save rate of the Pima County (Tucson, Arizona) Animal Care Center doubled — from its 2013 baseline of 46.8 percent to 92.1 percent.

There was a hearing this month where representatives from Best Friends and other organizations spoke out strongly in favor of TNR, asking that the two troublesome sections of the 200-page document be removed. There’s no question the DOEE is now aware just how much support TNR has. The final recommendation is due October 1, so we’ll see how this plays out and keep you in the loop. If they keep those two sections, it’s very likely we’ll need your help to take action. If you’re not a member of the Best Friends action network, click here to join. It’s quick and easy, and we will alert you when you can take action to help advocate for the animals.

One thing I will never understand about this seemingly endless battle is that, ultimately, we all have the same goal. Both wildlife advocates and TNR supporters both want to see fewer free-roaming cats. And we both know from decades of animal control agencies implementing catch-and-kill policies across the country, that they just do not work.

I believe that someday TNR will be widely accepted by wildlife proponents as the only choice for managing community cat populations. Until then, we’ll just have to keep playing whack-a-mole all across America and push back against the pointless killing of homeless pets.

Together, we can Save Them All.



Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society