TNR: Essential to a True “No Kill” New York City
Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with the acronym “TNR.” It refers to a method of controlling the free-roaming cat population in any given area, and stands for “Trap/Neuter/Return.”
Here’s how Neighborhood Cats (New York’s leading feral cat interest group,) and the Staten Island Feral Initiative (a Staten Island-based TNR education and advocacy organization) explain the need for TNR:
The Problem: Too Many Cats Living on the Streets
Tens of thousands of street cats live in the alleyways, backyards, and outdoor spaces of New York City. They are the offspring of lost or abandoned pet cats and, unneutered, they go on to spawn new generations. These cats often group themselves together in packs known as “colonies.” Many of their nuisance behaviors can be attributed to instinctual behaviors that would likely cease if they were sterilized. These behaviors include noise from fighting and mating, the perpetual birthing of kittens, and the smell from the spraying of pheromone-laced urine.
Because the majority of these cats are not socialized to humans, they are not candidates for adoption. The breeding of these street cats not only creates a neighborhood crisis, it also results in more cats and kittens entering the shelters — taking away cage space (for the ferals) and homes (for the friendly cats) that would otherwise go to the cats and kittens already there, awaiting adoption. Most feral cats and kittens taken in at City shelters [run by Animal Care & Control] are killed because they are not adoptable as house pets.
Beside the humane cost of needless killing, the City must shoulder higher costs for municipal animal control. Throughout NYC, TNR is proving effective in humanely managing feral cat colonies and reducing their numbers over time.”
We recently interviewed ELENA BASS, Founder and Director of the Staten Island Feral Initiative, or “SIFI,” to learn more about the importance of TNR as part of a comprehensive approach to achieving a No-Kill animal-care system. Elena emphasizes that “You don’t need to be a cat-lover to support or to practice TNR. You simply need to share the goal of fewer cats on our streets.”
Q: How and why did you get involved in TNR?
A: In 2007 my husband and I bought a house on Staten Island that came with a neighborhood full of unneutered cats. There were nightly rounds of howling and yowling; soon accompanied by mating calls. The situation needed to be addressed; both for the sake of our sleep and sanity, and to avoid the inevitable conclusion: kittens.
When people see a cat on the street, their first impulse is usually one of three approaches; rescue, remove, or feed. We knew these were not adoptable cats, and we didn’t mind them being there…but we knew that we would be feeding them, and where that would get us if we didn’t do more than just that.
We had never heard the term “TNR.” But we did the only thing that made sense; we stepped up. We did some research, discovered Neighborhood Cats, and attended a TNR-training course. One month later we had fixed 19 cats and placed 8. Through attrition, the outside cat count has dwindled from 19 to 8. And keep in mind that our success should be measured not by contrasting 8 to 19, but by contrasting 8 to what the count would have been had those 19 cats, (and their kids and grandkids and third cousins by marriage twice removed) been reproducing for the past 5 years.
We are living proof that TNR does work. My husband and I are now living on a street which has seen NO kittens since the spring of 2008
Our efforts were so clearly and immediately successful that we were inspired to create a community service non-profit with the mission of facilitating that same success in every neighborhood on Staten Island – and of eliminating the obstacles that we had faced…having to travel to secure traps, being faced with waiting weeks for surgery dates, had it not been for the assistance of Empty Cages Collective. SIFI was founded on one simple principle – that it should be easy for people who want to do the right thing to do so…go figure.
In July of 2008 SIFI’s first meeting was held at a Starbucks with 12 people in attendance…and we all agreed something needed to change. We began by making noise. We wrote to the ASPCA, the Humane Society of New York, the Mayor’s Alliance, etc. detailing our experience and impressing upon them just how under-served Staten Island was in terms of TNR resources. In 2009 we began instructing the Neighborhood Cats TNR-certification workshops on Staten Island. Today, Staten Island is home to nearly 600 TNR-certified citizens, with that number growing steadily. We manage the Staten Island trap bank (available to all TNR-certified SI residents), help caretakers network with others in the community, and maintain a website that acts as a resource both for certified trappers and for the public. We advocate, above all else, responsible compassion in the community.
Q: What is an example of “irresponsible” compassion?
A: The most common example of irresponsible (or at least uninformed) compassion is, unfortunately, one we encounter almost every day in the community – that is, feeding without fixing. People like to feed because it makes them feel good. And it should, there’s no disputing that. We firmly believe that having enough to eat is a basic right of all life, human and animal alike. The last thing we want is cats going hungry on the street, or anywhere. But we also know that feeding, in and of itself, is not enough…and that in fact if it isn’t accompanied by sterilization, only worsens the issue. The reality is that if you are feeding cats, you are already significantly affecting their lives…you’ve already established some sort of relationship to them in the ecosystem. The most relevant effect you will have is that by feeding them, you will enable the females to birth larger litters than they might otherwise…as the feline reproductive nature is based on availability of resources…that means more food = more kittens born.
Cats have lived outside for thousands of years, acting as natural rodent control for nearly every civilization on the books. The cat primarily as a companion animal is actually a pretty recent phenomena…and it’s humans that decided to “fine-tune” the domestic cat to pop out litters of kittens far faster and in greater numbers than resources and the environment can support them…so ironically, yes – colonies which have no caretaker may experience a higher rate of kitten mortality…but colonies which are “lucky” enough to HAVE a human caretaker (even an accidental one – in other words, those who have found access to a regular food source not necessarily intended for them, such as a restaurant or supermarket dumpster) will reproduce significantly faster, and with a lower mortality rate than those without. That is why it is ESPECIALLY important that we practice RESPONSIBLE compassion…the second you think to put down a food dish, you should be planning to put down a trap. Otherwise one is, albeit unwittingly, contributing to the very issue (collective animal suffering) that they aim to alleviate by providing food, shelter, and a watchful eye.
The bottom line? Feeding=Breeding unless you are fixing.
Q: Okay, so how does TNR work?
A: The goal of TNR is to take an already-existing phenomenon (feral cat colonies) and responsibly manage them into smaller, stabilized, healthy populations rather than breeding populations subject to starvation due to scarcity of resources or those subject to disease as a result of non-vaccination and those illnesses passed through fighting, mating, and birthing of kittens.
There are two basic steps, as detailed on the Neighborhood Cats website:
Free-roaming cats are humanely trapped, evaluated, spayed or neutered (sterilized) by a veterinarian, given a rabies vaccination, left eartipped for identification, and then returned to the familiar habitat of their original colony. Ideally, those that are friendly or socialized to humans or young enough to be socialized are removed for adoptive placement in permanent indoor homes.
Individuals in the community provide ongoing care of the cats, including daily food, water, and clean-up of the area, shelter, and monitoring of the cats’ health. This ongoing surveillance is vital, because it will ensure that any new cats that find their way into the colony will be removed if they are tame, or TNR’ed if they are feral. This allows the number of cats in the colony to diminish over time through natural attrition, as cats get old and die from natural causes.
Quite simply, TNR is like turning off the hose…it cuts down on the production or supply end of the issue, to the same extent (or perhaps more so) that “pet” spay neuter does. An unfixed pet cat might end up outside and have an opportunity to breed, or end up at the shelter due to behaviors normally exhibited by unneutered cats (spraying, going into heat, etc.) regarding which their human guardian may be uninformed. However, one can practically guarantee that every single un-spayed free-roaming female will be pregnant at least once if not several times over between the months of March and September in NY. That’s a whole lot of kittens being born on the street. And whether they flow into the shelter as kittens (kittens under 8 weeks old are too young to adopt out, and kittens over 8 weeks of age are seldom place-able as they are very hard to socialize as they get older, and any kitten is more susceptible to illness…so either way they are more likely to be killed) or as adults (who are less in-demand even when they are friendly, and certainly doomed if they are feral), the end result is the same…more needless deaths. The only sure way to reduce the collective suffering and to prevent the death toll from growing is to prevent the births in the first place.
TNR is also self-sustaining, in the sense that TNR’ing one colony creates a stabilized territory which will then make TNR’ing the colony next door much easier.
Q: You previously mentioned that the AC&C kills a large percentage of the ferals that are brought into its shelters. Has anyone suggested to the AC&C that it reconsider its approach: meaning, not to kill ferals but to institute a TNR program?
A: Yes, it has been repeatedly suggested over the past decade by numerous organizations. And we will not give up our efforts. Unfortunately, there are a few antiquated notions, such as the threat of a rabies epidemic (let’s keep in mind that TNR includes rabies vaccination) that prevent New York State from repealing its mandate against the release of feral cats back into the community. Anyone interested in the degree of truth behind these fear statistics should do the homework for themselves on the actual number of proven cases of cat-to-human transmission of rabies virus in the United States in the past four decades.
For a little while now the AC&C has upheld an unofficial agreement with Neighborhood Cats that has the AC&C notifying NC of any ear-tipped (that is, already TNR’ed) cats that arrive at their facilities. The gist of what usually happens is that Neighborhood Cats sends out what is called an “ear-tip” alert to the list of 4500+ TNR-certified individuals in NYC, and a valiant attempt is made to reunite that cat with his or her original colony. If this is impossible, for whatever reason, every effort is made to find that cat a new situation. We fervently hope that someday an ear-tip will prevent a cat from entering the shelter system to begin with, but that will take much more widespread education than is in place at the present time.
Another factor standing in the way is that ferals aren’t part of the “pet” equation for the AC&C. Even though cats as a species are domestic, the AC&C treats ferals with the same protocol they treat wildlife (which we also oppose, by the way) – that is, extermination. By definition, the NYC shelter system classifies ferals as “unadoptable,” and are therefore fair game to be put to death as a matter of course. Nor do those deaths currently stand in the way of NYC claiming to be “No-Kill,” because under the current definition of “No-Kill,” no animal labeled “untreatable” or “unadoptable” needs to be included in the official death toll.
Q: How would you try to persuade the AC&C to change its policy toward feral cats?
A: Killing an animal – any animal – when a feasible alternative exists is categorically unacceptable. And frankly, it’s been tried…it doesn’t work. In fact, the cataclysmic failure of systematic killing is evident through one fact…it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. It’s just like trying to wear all the ridiculous reindeer sweaters your mother gives you for Christmas, but she just keeps giving them to you. Any human being should agree that less death is a positive thing – even more so when that death is needless to begin with. The simple truth is, a feral cat is the easiest cat to place – he already has a home…that is, the colony he came from. He can be returned healthier, and unable to reproduce, and will help maintain the stability needed for the continued success of TNR. He won’t take up a cage that could be given to an adoptable cat in need, or could be used to save the life of a nursing mother and her kits not yet ready for placement. I do agree with the AC&C and some NYC governing bodies on one count — TNR is indeed a public health issue – that is, it improves it. TNR has a direct and immediate positive impact on quality of life both for the cats and for the community. The ultimate aim of TNR is a smaller, healthier, managed population. This means fewer cats on the street and in the shelter, lower costs for Animal Control agencies, and fewer complaints from the public largely because TNR also eliminates the source of most of those complaints – raging hormones!
If the claims made by some of the foremost animal advocates in NYC and our city officials are true…that they DO want to “stop the killing,” then it only stands to reason that they would wholeheartedly embrace the most immediate, effective alternative available. If you want to stop a flood, the first step is to plug the holes in the dam, yes?
And I’m all for truth in advertising, so yeah, let’s face it – the “R” part of “TNR” is often a hard sell (“What??? Why would you bring them BACK?”) The average person who notices a cat on the street and “calls it in” is aiming to have the cat “gone.” Not that they necessarily mean the animal any harm, they’re just often not aware that there is a much happier, and more effective, medium…that is, a middle ground between inaction, and categorical annihilation. It is has been our experience, however, that when you give people the truth, empower them to make an informed decision, and offer a workable solution, they usually appreciate it.
When considering an approach to manage the free-roaming cat population, there are only three choices: (1) “remove” (which essentially means wipe them out,); (2) TNR, or (3) do nothing. Removal doesn’t better the situation for either cats or humans, for a multitude of reasons. And we know where doing nothing gets us. TNR is not some bleeding-heart, feel-good band-aid solution to the crisis at hand…it’s the only approach that actually TNR makes sense; we know this both as animal advocates and as pragmatists. It is time for New York City to stand behind a firm plan to improve the situation today and stop kicking the can by repeatedly extending the “No-Kill NY” deadline, and by pretending that there will ever be such a thing without adopting Trap-Neuter-Return across the board.
Q: What would you propose be a firm plan for TNR in NYC?
A: It’s really very simple…
FIRST: Take killing off the table as an acceptable method of addressing the feral and free-roaming overpopulation crisis in NYC. Mandate TNR instead…and make no exceptions. This includes cats on City property, Parks Department land, airport installations, etc. Rule out extermination as an option.
SECOND: Stop expecting immediate gratification. This goes as much for the public and rescuers as it does for the decision-makers in NYC. TNR is often a hard sell because the results are not as clearly calculable as they are in Rescue. It’s much easier to grasp the impact of “Our organization has saved 723 lives this year,” than it is to understand the full implication of “We’ve fixed 723 cats this year, translating into __ number of births prevented.” Will the situation improve overnight? Maybe… Will that improvement be measurable? Probably not. TNR 100 cats and you are still left with 100 cats. You will not see fewer cats on the street tomorrow than were there the day before – but you will see fewer cats than would have been there had TNR not been implemented.
THIRD: SUPPORT TNR, PROMOTE TNR, DO TNR. As most New Yorkers are well aware, lip service never solved anything. Turning back the tide of needless death plaguing our city’s animal CARE and control services is not going to happen just because “we the people” think it would be nice. Nor will the cats on the street suddenly up and neuter themselves (wouldn’t that be nice.) It will take commitment and, yes, good old fashioned effortIf you see cats on your block, don’t assume someone else will take care of it.
To those who are able-bodied; get trained and get fixing.
To those already doing Rescue; PLEASE learn more about TNR, and enlighten your colleagues and every member of the public you come in contact with…YOU are the cats’ best resource. I am constantly amazed at the number of long-time rescuers who know very little about ferals as a part of the animal welfare equation. Keep in mind that if you pull young kittens or friendly cats from a colony, and don’t implement TNR, you’ve just taken one step forward and about ten steps back. Take kittens from one person that contacts you for help, and don’t encourage them to fix, and you can be assured they’ll have you on speed dial from then on to take the latest litter.
To the community in general; make it abundantly clear to your elected officials that it’s time for a more effective approach, and demand that they listen and take action. We don’t need to convince the public that street-cat overpopulation is an issue…the public tells US every day that it is.
Those who have the power to effect positive change through legislation and through large-scale approbation must do so. Institute (yes, here it is) honest-to-goodness FUNDED Trap, Neuter, Return services for those citizens who are NOT able bodied. The entire responsibility for solving NYC’s free-roaming cat issue should not fall on the shoulders of unpaid volunteers already overwhelmed and struggling to make ends meet for their own families, kids, pets, etc. Maybe the fact that so many people are under the mistaken impression that there is a city-funded service to address the issue is an indication that there should be. Just a thought…the money saved were the shelters not housing, killing, and disposing of feral cats could be re-directed to fund just such a program.
And we’re not starting at square one. There are many “on the ground” resources (training courses, transportation, clinic services) already in place. Now TNR requires the official (and clearly audible) support (in the form of funding and policy) of those that claim to share the goal of fewer animal deaths, and less crowded streets and cages. Hearts and minds may not change overnight, granted. But we have to start somewhere.
Q: Last year the City Council passed Local Law 59 which provided, among other things, that the City Department of Health issue regulations to govern TNR groups. That provision was hailed by the bill’s sponsors as a great advance for TNR efforts. But 11 months later, LL59 was amended to relieve the DOH of that obligation. What happened?
A. I would imagine it’s very difficult to institute appropriate regulations for a practice in which one has no personal experience. On top of that, the plain truth is that regulation would add nothing to the equation. Our honest belief is that when it came down to the wire, DOH realized this. According to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Alliance, when the DOH got together with the Alliance to draft regulations they just couldn’t come up with any “good” ones. TNR groups were relieved that LL59 was amended. Having the DOH (which is not an animal welfare entity) regulate the practice of TNR in NYC would have been disastrous, in our opinion. It would serve only as one more obstacle for TNR-certified citizens trying to effect positive change in their own neighborhoods.
Oversight without infrastructure will get us nowhere as a community.
Q: What do you mean by “infrastructure”
A: Any successful TNR program must include the following components*:
(1) Trained people to do the actual trapping, and to provide pre and post-surgery care for the cats. We advocate small-scale effort on the part of individuals – that is, just fix the cats in your own backyard, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. The scale of the issue is too large to be addressed by merely one group or a handful of people. TNR is not rocket science, although the potential may be just as impressive.
(2) Transportation to and from stationary Spay/Neuter facilities and/OR mobile Spay/Neuter clinics. Up until this month [September 2012] the main resources for high-volume Spay and Neuter surgeries for ferals were the ASPCA clinic in Glendale, Queens, and the stationary clinic sponsored by the Toby Project and “Ferals in Peril” (FIP) in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. For TNR-certified people living in the other 3 boroughs, the logistics have been frustratingly difficult. For the past year or so we’ve advocated for so-called MASH S/N (for a day turning a community building into a temporary S/N facility to perform operations on a large number of animals) on Staten Island.
(3) Consistent access to high quality, high volume, low cost services including sterilization surgery and vaccination. Recently, the ASPCA has indeed begun conducting MASH S/N. If done properly, I know the MASH approach can be extraordinarily effective and I hope it can be applied in all the other boroughs.
(4) Publication of resources – that is, information regarding the program must be broadcast in the most highly visible method available. This means the NYC.gov website and 311 should have accurate, up to date information, and refer residents to the appropriate resources (why, when TNR has been in NYC for over a decade, has this JUST even begun to happen?) Residents shouldn’t have to go on a scavenger hunt to find out what to do about cats on the street in their neighborhood.
TNR shouldn’t be NYC’s best kept secret, with links appearing only on websites that people have to find first. How about a PSA? Posters at bus depots, reading, “Got Cats? Get TNR!” Radio, Television…a blimp, maybe?
*And equally as important as all this, an EDUCATED staff at every city-contracted NY Animal Care and Control facility. A standard part of staff or volunteer training should be a section of basic info on ferals/TNR/ear-tipping, especially as these cats comprise a large percentage of animal intakes.
The effort on the part of the shelter/city not to kill already TNR’ed feral cats (referenced previously) is sort of a given in my mind…the first baby step to real progress. It needs to be taken further. Those in a position to most often interact directly with members of the public must be well-informed. Staff should be prepared to enlighten others, as well; to say to someone bringing in a trapped cat, “Sir/Ma’am, I notice that this cat has been ear-tipped, which means that he/she has been sterilized and Rabies vaccinated…are you at all familiar with the practice of Trap, Neuter, Return in NYC?” How long does it really take to speak those words, and to hand someone a pamphlet?
And this principle applies to satellite entities involved in animal-related issues in NYC as well, especially if they are exercising their authority in a manner which may mean the difference between life and death to an animal, or the distinction between success and failure for the effort to end the killing in this city. It bears mentioning, for example, that we (SIFI and NC) met with the Borough Commissioner and members of her staff on SI on November 1st of 2011 regarding the issue of feral cat colonies in public parks on Staten Island. This meeting was at the Commissioner’s own request. To date, we have heard NOTHING from the office regarding any of the issues discussed that evening.
No one expects everyone to be an expert on everything…but if we cannot expect the paid staff of an animal care facility to be even a smidgen as informed as the unpaid volunteers, or to be willing to extend at least the opportunity to take a better route to addressing the issue to the public whom they serve, I’m honestly not sure what we CAN expect…certainly not a “No-Kill” NYC any time soon.
Q: Yet, we continue to hear that NYC is “on track” to be no kill by 2015. Can NYC be “no kill” while the AC&C continues to kill feral cats?
A: Well, “on track” is an absurdly subjective term – especially if you consider the comparative light-speed with which other cities across the country have achieved real No-Kill success. But ultimately, I suppose it depends on who you ask … or, more precisely, who defines the term, “No-Kill.” But it shouldn’t “depend” on anything. There is no such thing as “no-kill” while there is still unnecessary killing taking place – this is the plainest of all conclusions. And there is no realistic alternative to killing ferals without TNR. As long as kittens are born on the street – as long as people continue to dump their unwanted cats, there will ALWAYS be an endless flow of cats and kittens into the AC&C shelters AND into the arms of independent rescuers, who already shoulder the majority of the City’s homeless pets. And this is provable by pure statistics: the more kittens a rescue group takes (and the vast majority of these kittens are coming from the shelter or the street, NOT from homes), the less room they have to house adoptable adult cats pulled from the AC&C…many of which will end up sick, and then on the kill list…and then gone from this world.
So by the simplest and the saddest of logic, as long as NYC’s animal care system refuses to implement a comprehensive program which INCLUDES Trap, Neuter, Return as the standard policy regarding feral cats brought into the shelter, NYC will NEVER achieve no-kill.
I know this is a written piece, but I want to say that again.
Until NYC implements TNR as the only acceptable method of managing the free-roaming cat population, NYC will never be a No-Kill city.
Q: Any idea of just how many feral and free-roaming cats there are in NYC?
A: Too many. I genuinely wish I could answer this question. Estimation of the scale of the free-roaming cat population in NYC is made near impossible by so many factors, not the least of which is that the number of cats one sees is only representative of a small percentage of the cats actually on the street at any given moment. The only overview I can offer is based on the fact that I have not spoken to a single person over the past 5 years that has said, “Nope, I’ve never seen cats in my neighborhood.” And I’ve spoken to a lot of people.
Q: Over the past 7 years, Maddie’s Fund gave the Mayor’s Alliance $900,000 to subsidize spay/neuter and TNR services, but that funding ended earlier this year. Then on August 30, the Alliance announced it had received a new grant for TNR. Did the Alliance identify the source of those grant monies, and the amount of the grant?
A: Unfortunately, I have no idea — we haven’t been filled in on the specific details. I was under the impression that the grant was made to the ASPCA, but no one’s ever very clear about the origins of money in NYC – a phenomenon hardly limited to the animal welfare arena.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about NYC’s TNR.
A: Any time.
NOTE FROM SRAC: Check out these websites (Staten Island Feral Initiative, Neighborhood Cats, NYC Feral Cat Initiative) for a wealth of information, resources, handbooks, and videos. Visit the Neighborhood Cats Events page for details and the complete TNR workshop schedule (a one-time, 3-1/2 hour training course authored by Neighborhood Cats and presented regularly in every borough.)
And then sign up for a class to become TNR-certified. You’ll also gain access to low cost S/N and vaccination services, along with free equipment loan and ongoing support and guidance. One of Shelter Reform’s board members recently attended a TNR class conducted by Jessie Oldham of the ASPCA and hosted by the Mayor’s Alliance. It was an eye-opener and will make you want to learn more.
In closing, what SIFI’s Elena Bass said bears repeating:
“The bottom line? Feeding=Breeding unless you are fixing.”