"Trap-neuter-release" programs for feral cats may do more harm than good, experts say

For decades, public health authorities would spay feral cats and release them. Experts say this doesn't work

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 20, 2022 9:00AM (EST)

Stray Cats On The Street (Getty Images / James Lumibao / EyeEm)
Stray Cats On The Street (Getty Images / James Lumibao / EyeEm)

Ever since cats were first domesticated by human beings, human society has been permeated by feral cats — namely, domesticated cats that do not have owners and avoid human contact. While domesticated cats love humans and enjoy our company, feral cats are defined by how they behave more like wild animals.

In the twentieth century, with the rise of the idea of the welfare state, feral cats were recognized as less of a nuisance and more of a public health menace. As with other invasive species — they kill native wildlife and spread diseases — humans have struggled to find compassionate ways of reducing their population. One popular approach is known as trap-neuter-release (TNR) or catch-and-release, in which feral cats are captured, rendered unable to reproduce, and then sent back out on their way.

This approach has become a mainstay of many policymakers, although non-governmental organizations often perform the "service," as it were. And though trap-neuter-release programs have become normalized, and might seem like a comparatively harmless way of controlling feral cat populations, experts say the practice is actually quite cruel.

How could that be? After all, the feral cats remain alive and roaming, while the population of future feral cats goes down. Yet by keeping feral cats in environments where they don't occur naturally, humans are unknowingly preserving an invasive species in the ecosystem — one that effectively kills many other animals in the environment, thus upsetting the balance of nature.

In other words, the practice of catch-and-release fails to "remove an invasive predator from the landscape so they are still able to predate and harass native species and spread diseases and disease vectors for which they were not vaccinated for," explained Stephen M. Vantassel, owner of Wildlife Control Consultant, LLC and author of "The Practical Guide to the Control of Feral Cats."

Vantassel said that catch-and-release also creates future problems. "TNR creates cats that will be harder to capture the second time if there is a need to capture them such as revaccination and/or other issues," he noted. "Trapped cats that have negative experiences are more difficult to capture thereby raising the cost of control."

"It doesn't matter whether a cat enjoys human company or not—all cats are domesticated and incapable of surviving on their own for long."

In an email to Salon, Vantassel also dismissed the notion that the practice is somehow humane.

"They suffer fights, disease, injuries, and earlier death," Vantassel added, noting that while he does not align with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on all issues, he agrees with them on their opposition to feral cats.

Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), concurred in Vantassel's assessment about TNR programs.

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"Trapping, neutering, and re-abandoning (TNR) cats outdoors leaves them to suffer and die painfully and does not reduce the homeless-cat population," Newkirk wrote to Salon. "It doesn't matter whether a cat enjoys human company or not—all cats are domesticated and incapable of surviving on their own for long. They depend on humans for everything—including food, water, veterinary care, shelter, and protection—and suffer badly when they don't have these necessities."

There are a number of ways in which feral cats suffer by not having human companions. Their life expectancies are much shorter as they are left vulnerable to diseases, parasites, freezing weather, lack of food, hostility from other animals, being hit by cars and other threats to their survival. Even worse, the popularity of TNR reinforces the mistaken belief among many cat owners that it is okay to abandon their pets because they will do just fine.

"It makes the public believe—wrongly—that cats can survive on the streets and that someone else will take care of them if they're abandoned on the side of a road or behind a business," Newkirk explained. Not only is this untrue for the cats, but it is also untrue for the other wildlife in their area.

"Even if they're fed and sterilized, cats retain their instinct to hunt. They are not native wildlife—they are an invasive species. They terrorize, maim, and kill animals who don't stand a chance against them."

"Leaving cats outdoors also spells suffering and death for billions of birds and other vulnerable species," Newkirk pointed out. "Even if they're fed and sterilized, cats retain their instinct to hunt. They are not native wildlife—they are an invasive species. They terrorize, maim, and kill animals who don't stand a chance against them. No one who claims to care about animals can ignore the carnage they're unleashing on other species by dumping cats outdoors."

The underlying issue, as Vantassel pointed out, is that policymakers and NGOs involved in trap-neuter-release programs are using an approach that is the worst of both worlds between simply killing feral cats and letting them run rampant.

It makes sense that society would be reluctant to kill feral cats, but there is no reliable evidence that TNR makes any kind of serious dent in the problems caused by their existence. If the public wants to get rid of the feral cat problem, however, they need to be realistic about what will work.

"Trap and kill or trap and adopt," Vantassel suggested when asked about alternatives to TNR that could work. He added that advocates should suggest legislation "that prohibits the feeding, care, or translocation of cats and empowers wildlife control operators and pest control operators the ability to remove cats captured in the environment." He noted that in some communities people who feed feral cats are held responsible for them "thus the liability for injuries caused by the cat flow to the feeder. This helps stop this behavior."

He proposed prohibiting free-range cats or using the resources currently spent on TNR for something more productive.

"Use the time and money to help homeless and disabled veterans," Vantassel added. "Amazing how people have money for an invasive species but not for suffering people."

Newkirk pointed out that, while advocates of TNR believe that not killing feral cats automatically makes them more humane, this is simply not the case.

"This magical thinking considers any 'life' at all — even if it is short, is full of suffering, and ends miserably — preferable to a painless and dignified end by euthanasia," Newkirk argued. "Animal shelters, which should be safe havens that work to get animals off the streets, are increasingly complicit in cat abandonment by advising people who find strays (even newborn kittens) to leave them on the streets, rather than bringing them to the shelter." This is cruel rather than kind, Newkirk argued.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Animal Rights Catch And Release Cats Feral Cats Public Health Reporting Science Trap-neuter-return