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Tawny Flechtner/MEDILL

Pimiento, a one-time stray and a resident of Chicago's Tree House Humane Society animal shelter, is one of the lucky ones. Half a million strays populate the streets and alleys of Chicago.

Curbing stray cats through volunteer 'trap-neuter-return' programs

by Tawny Flechtner
Jan 12, 2010

Over 500,000 stray cats roam Chicago streets, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

For all of Cook County, the estimate is 700,000. Some of these animals were born in the urban jungles while some took to the "wild" after pet owners abandoned them. 

“Primarily, they are feral, cats who were not socialized when they were young. They can’t be handled, they don’t want to be inside, they’re not candidates for adoption,” said  Susan Robinson, community outreach manager of PAWS Chicago, the city’s largest no-kill humane organization.

The solution for these cats, say Robinson and others, is the “trap-neuter-release” (TNR) practice of feral management. With TNR, feral animals are caught in harmless traps by volunteers, who are also often their designated “caregivers” sponsored by a variety of local organizations. The sponsoring facilities provide spaying, neutering and other basic medical care before animals are returned to their respective outdoor colonies. 
PAWS Chicago and the five other official TNR sponsor organizations in the city are empowered in their efforts by a Cook County ordinance. 

Passed in 2007, the ordinance makes it legal for caregivers, registered through the official sponsoring agencies such as PAWS, to attend to the needs of a feral colony. Care includes giving food and shelter in addition to  spaying, neutering, vaccinations and “ear-tipping” and even micro-chipping for identification purposes. 

Individual caregiver volunteers pay for the low-cost spay and neuter packages themselves. TNR advocates point out that, in contrast, the taxpayer pays the tab for euthanizing strays.

Last week, Alley Cat Rescue, a national cat advocacy group, announced a “Free Feral Cat Spay Day” in an effort to draw attention and resources to the struggle against what the organization bills “the senseless killing of cats.”

The event, planned for April 27, 2010, calls for participating veterinarians across the country to offer at least two free spays or neuters of stray cats, who would then be released.

Dr. Jeffrey Clinebell of Bellson Animal Hospital in Columbia and Dr. Susan Albright at Chenoa Veterinary Clinic in Chenoa are the first two Illinois veterinarians who volunteered to participate in the event.

Stray cat populations nationwide have burgeoned in the wake of the financial crisis, and, more than ever, need effective management, explained Louise Holton, president and founder of Alley Cat Rescue.

“People are turning their cats out because they can’t afford to take care of them anymore,” she said. “They don’t want to take them to the shelter, because they know they’ll likely be killed, and they figure the cats can fend for themselves."

"These cats then go on to join communities of other cats in an area or even to start their own feral colonies," she said.

Rabies and distemper vaccinations and parasite treatments—included in low-cost spay and neuter plans—are some of TNR’s more obvious health bonuses.

Dr. Ajaz Alvi, president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association, also suggested that cats might be screened for viruses such as feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia when they’re brought in for the spay/neuter procedure.

Though, according to Jenny Schlueter, director of development at Tree House Humane Society—one of the Chicago’s official TNR sponsoring organizations—altered cats are less likely to contract those diseases anyway.

Despite all of the benefits, TNR has detractors. Schlueter said that in her experience, some find it hard to believe euthanizing the animals isn’t a better alternative. 

“They just don’t believe that TNR works,” she said.  

Animal rights activist organization PETA, for one, has taken an anti-TNR stance.  PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“PETA's experiences with trap-alter-and-release (abandon) programs and ‘managed’ feral cat colonies have led us to believe that these programs are not usually in cats' best interest…we cannot in good conscience advocate trapping, altering, and releasing as a humane way to deal with overpopulation and homelessness,” according to the PETA Web site.

The organization instead advocates for “humane euthanization”:

“Because of the high number of unwanted companion animals and the lack of good homes, sometimes the most humane thing that a shelter worker can do is give an animal a peaceful release from a world in which dogs and cats are often considered ‘surplus’ and unwanted.”

Others are skeptical of the effectiveness of TNR in reducing numbers. Stan Temple, University of Wisconsin professor emeritus of conservation, forest and wildlife ecology, said he hasn’t seen evidence TNR is the answer to the feral/stray problem.

“If you look at the information, it’s easy to see that something like neutering cats and then releasing them again only works to bring down the population if you can trap and neuter an unrealistically high proportion of the cat population,” he said.

Temple doesn’t advocate for euthanasia for some of the same reasons he finds TNR impractical.  Rather, he supports efforts like the American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign, which calls for pet cats to be kept inside, and for strays and ferals, when possible, to be confined.

Still other opponents of TNR, according to Schlueter, have the wrong idea about the practice.

“Contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, it’s not a program for crazy cat people,” Schlueter said. “TNR is a population management program that’s meant to decrease the population of outdoor cats—but it recognizes they exist, and that there’s a way to humanely manage them while slowly reducing their population.”