Dispelling The Myths
©Homeless Animal Lifeline (halrescue.org).
November, 2003. Revised December, 2005.


“Trap-Neuter-Return” (TNR) is the process of trapping feral cats in humane traps, having them altered and vaccinated, and returning them to their original location. In a TNR program, a feral cat colony caretaker, who is usually a volunteer rescue worker, feeds the cats on a regular basis and brings them to a veterinarian if they require medical assistance. The resultant group of cats, including any new cats entering the caretaker's sphere, is known as a managed feral cat colony.

Some locales have passed, or are trying to pass, ordinances that will cause the suffering and death of homeless cats by eradicating TNR.

The empirical evidence is indisputable that TNR is the most effective way to help reduce the number of homeless feral cats in both urban and suburban areas. For example, in Hamilton, New Jersey, TNR has resulted in Township health department statistics showing that the number of homeless cats killed last year is less than 20 percent of the 571 cats put to death in Hamilton five years ago. Numbers also indicate that fewer strays are brought to the shelter each year. Township spokesperson Rich McClellan attributed the decreasing number of cats killed in shelters to the work of TNR caregivers. Gwyn Sondike, who for the past year has served on a NJ state task force appointed by Gov. James E. McGreevey to examine animal welfare, stated: "It's actually more expensive to have animal control officers go out and find these cats and have them euthanized than it is to have members of these (cat welfare) groups trap, neuter and release them." According to Lucinda Tucker, who operates the TNR plan, trapping and killing a cat can cost a township between $75 and $125, while TNR costs about $50 and is paid for by volunteer organizations.1

Traditional, agency-run attempts to trap and kill cats have historically resulted in greater numbers -- and greater suffering for that reason alone -- of stray animals, than have well-planned systems to trap, neuter, and return cats. TNR, in conjunction with public education and low-cost spay/neuter clinics, stabilizes numbers and facilitates the eventual elimination of colonies of homeless cats.

Moreover, there is great public resistance to the killing of homeless animals. Compassionate people actively interfere with efforts to harm cats. Costly trap-and-kill attempts cannot work without public support.

How should the animal advocate dispel the myths associated with TNR?

Animal advocacy groups who have opposed TNR rely on misguided arguments.2 Here is the reality:

Myth: Feral cats are wild animals.

Fact: Calling these cats wild is a misnomer. They are homeless domestic animals who have no choice but to surive "in the wild."

Myth: Animal advocates should oppose TNR because they receive "countless reports of incidents in which cats-'managed' or not-suffer and die horrible deaths because they must fend for themselves outdoors."

Fact: Cats are subject to illness and death just as we are, even when cared for in loving homes. The solution is not to kill any living being who might suffer and die, but to treat any sentient individual with kindness and respect.

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Myth: TNR should be ended because "highly contagious diseases such as rhinotrachitis, feline AIDS, and rabies are common in 'outdoor cats.'"

Fact: Rabies is not commonly found within feral cat colonies.3 Where humans are concerned, the danger of rabies is relatively slight. During 2001, 49 states and Puerto Rico reported only 1 case of rabies in a human, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Canada did not report any cases of rabies in human beings during 2001.4

During the TNR debate in Florida, Dr. Julie Levy spoke on behalf of feral cats at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) hearing and stated, "In 2002, cats represented less than 4% of the rabid animals identified in the state.... Regardless, feral cat TNR programs routinely immunize cats against rabies." Dr. Levy also addressed other infectious diseases such as Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) by stating that, "A report published from the University of Florida on more than 1,800 feral cats demonstrated only 4% to be infected with feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus, which is similar to that found in pet cats."5


Myth: Advocates should oppose TNR because although altering feral cats prevents the suffering of future generations, it does little to improve the quality of life of the cats who are left outdoors. Allowing feral cats to continue their daily struggle for survival in hostile environments is not usually a humane option.

Fact: TNR was created to solve this problem. A properly managed feral cat colony provides the cats with daily food, water, shelter, and medical care when needed. Therefore, the very people -- feral cat colony caretakers -- that some groups oppose are actively working toward minimizing the "daily struggle." Granted, the "struggle" is not completely eradicated, but TNR is working toward that by spay/neutering all feral cats, thus phasing out feral cat colonies.


Myth: TNR programs are acceptable only when the cats are isolated from roads, people, and other animals who could harm them; constantly attended to by people who not only feed them, but care for their medical needs; located in an area where they do not have contact with wildlife; and located in an area where the weather is temperate.

Fact: There are virtually no feral cat colonies that fulfill all of these conditions. Although TNR caregivers provide food and necessary veterinary care, colonies are often located in urban areas where people dump animals, and any animal who spends time outside is at risk of harm from roads, people, or other animals, including wildlife. Do not accept any group's insistence on these impossible conditions when they claim that they do not oppose the practice but rather want it to be done only under utopian conditions. There are no utopian conditions. Support for the work of feral cats and their caretakers means opposing TNR bans.


Myth: State wildlife agencies should decide because feral cats are "wild animals."6

Fact: Feral cats are not "wild animals." A bobcat is a wild cat; a feral cat is a homeless domestic cat who is afraid of humans.

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Myth: Feral cats are responsible for bird and wildlife decline.

Fact: While we acknowledge that outdoor cats do occasionally kill birds and other wildlife, the main cause of decline is habitat loss, which is caused by humans, not cats. National Geographic News reports that the declining bird populations reflect growing threats to many bird species resulting from habitat loss and fragmentation caused by development and other human activities.7 Moreover, conservation groups and government biologists estimate that communications towers (cell phone, television) kill from 4 to 50 million birds a year -- and at least 50 species are threatened or endangered. The construction of new towers creates a potentially significant impact on migratory birds.8 Furthermore, two French researchers Moller & Eritzoe examined birds killed by cats vs. those that met accidental deaths by crashing into windows. They examined the birds for various factors, the most significant of which was the health of the bird. They found that while windows were non-discriminating and killed healthy and sickly birds equally, the birds cats killed were significantly sicklier than those who crashed into windows.9

A study in 2005 predicts that reducing cat populations would actually cause more harm to birds due to a resulting increase in rat populations.10

A Columbia University study found that "reducing cats'effect on the ecosystem may actually have a negative impact upon some native species due to the possibility of 'mesopredator release effect'. The study also recommended that we confront the cat population problem with a combination of methods: "enlist the "trap-neuter-return" style of feral management and combine it with incentives for owners to sterilize their pet cats."11

Wildlife biologist Roger Tabor, who is considered by his peers to be one of the world’s leading experts on cats and has studied feral cats for over 30 years, is quoted as saying, "The clear leading animal that’s really putting wildlife at risk is the human population. We just don’t like to acknowledge that it is our fault. It’s not a case of the cat being the worst offender. It isn’t even remotely the worst offender. It’s us."12

Most important of all: Even where cats might be observed hunting, killing the cats fails to address this issue because trap and kill does not set its sights on the long-term goal -- ending the homeless cat crisis.

Myth: Feral cats pose a risk to public safety.

Fact: A study conducted by Stanford University's Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) found virtually no risk to humans from feral cats and diseases associated with cats. EHS also concluded, after consultation with the Santa Clara County Health Department and Stanford's Department of Comparative Medicine, that there was a general consensus that feral cats pose virtually no health and safety risk to individuals.13

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NOTES:

[1] See “Group deals with feral cat problem,” Trenton Times, July 6, 2003.
[2] For an example of such erroneous thinking, see "Feral Cats: Trapping is the Kindest Solution," peta-online.org, claiming: "Because of the huge number of feral cats and the severe shortage of good homes, the difficulty of socialization, and the dangers lurking where most feral cats live, it may be necessary and the most compassionate choice to euthanize feral cats. You can ask your veterinarian to do this or, if your local shelter uses an injection of sodium pentobarbital, take the cats there. Please do not allow the prospect of euthanasia to deter you from trapping cats. If you leave them where they are, they will almost certainly die a painful death." The other myths addressed here are taken from e-mail correspondence, "PETA position on feral cats" (September 26, 2003, Bobbi Short, BobbiS@peta.org, PETA Correspondent).
[3] "Rabies Control And Feral Cats In The US," Alley Cat Allies. Available at http://www.alleycat.org/pdf/rabies.pdf. Accessed September 29, 2003.
[4] "Public Veterinary Medicine: Public Health - Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2001," John W. Krebs, MS; Heather R. Noll, MPH; Charles E. Rupprecht, VMD, PhD; James E. Childs, ScD. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies/Professional/publications/Surveillance/Surveillance01/text01.htm. Accessed September 29, 2003.
[5] Statement from Dr. Julie Levy, read at the hearing of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) on the proposed policy to eradicate feral cats in Florida. May 30, 2003. Available at http://www.bestfriends.org/nmhp/ferals26-02.htm. Accessed November 23, 2003.
[6] Many feral cat advocates, including Alley Cat Allies, erroneously refer to feral cats as "wild animals."
[7] "Quarter of U.S. Birds in Decline, Says Audubon," National Geographic News, November 5, 2002
[8] "Towering Troubles: Bird Collisions With Communications Towers." Journey North, 2002
[9] No More Homeless Pets Forum, September 8-12, 2003, Guest: Nathan Winograd, Topic: Ferals, ferals everywhere, and not sure what to do?. Available at http://www.bestfriends.org/nmhp/forumarchive/qa908to912nw2.html#five. Accessed October 23, 2003.
[10] Fan M, et al, Bull Math Biol, 2005
[11] "Introduced Species Summary Project: Domestic Cat" Danielle LaBruna, Columbia University, January 29, 2001. Available at http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Felis_catus.html. Accessed November 23, 2003.
[12] "Living in the Gray Zone," Estelle Munro. October 2003. Available at http://www.bestfriends.org/features/ferals2_101203/grayzone.htm. Accessed November 5, 2003.
[13] "Feral Cats and Public Safety," Animal Care Services, 2013 Second Street, Berkeley, CA 94710. Available at http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/animalservices/feralpubsafety.html. Accessed February 3, 2005.


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