Method for dealing with cat overpopulation raises concerns among some

Published 12/5/2022 6:00 a.m. EST

Illustration of cat mom with kittens on left side, three adult cats who have been neutered on right side, with row homes in background

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It was 11 p.m. on the day before Labor Day when the call came about the kitten seen dragging herself across a field in Middle River with two broken legs.

Dawn Cannella, a community cat caretaker from Baltimore County, came to the rescue. It was the end of an already long day for the Essex woman, who makes at least six stops across the county daily to tend to 70 outdoor cats that rely on her for food and other needs. After surgery, Cannella took the now three-legged kitten, Sweetpea, home.

But in general, Cannella will return older and more aggressive cats back where she found them, a state-sanctioned practice called “trap-neuter-return” that she and other caretakers say is conserving taxpayer dollars, keeping more animals out of shelters and saving them from being euthanized. To some, the practice is inhumane.

The city in particular is considered a model for its so-called “TNR” program, which launched in 2007 in response to Baltimore’s ballooning outdoor cat population. At that time, many in the animal world considered TNR taboo since it advocated for the rerelease of feral and abandoned cats back into the wild, which some thought posed danger to the cats. But TNR has since become more mainstream, and is successful elsewhere in Maryland and across the country. Last year, a piece of legislation from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. — who referred to TNR as “ethical” and “humane” — aimed to expand the county’s program.

Opposition to TNR still exists, though. Some animal researchers and animal advocates have called it unethical. Some bird conservationists say that returning cats to nature will cause more bird deaths. And one Baltimore Banner reader referred to the practice as “futile,” as well as a threat to human health and wildlife.

But other animal welfare experts, academics and even the Humane Society of the United States have called for its expansion, especially after the outdoor cat population saw more growth and less sterilization during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic when shelters were closed. Cannella and other caregivers say it also is the most humane method to handle overpopulation.

“There are lots of days where I feel like I’m moving two feet forward, five feet back,” Cannella said. “I always tell people, ‘Please, TNR when possible.’ You don’t want to add to the population.”

Philosophical differences

Before TNR became a codified and respected city practice, volunteers shouldered much of the work — and the expenses. BARCS, the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, now receives state funding designated for trapping, neutering and releasing about 2,000 cats a year.

After TNR’s implementation, BARCS founder and executive director Jen Brause and her colleagues began to see noticeable differences in shelter admissions. Euthanasia at BARCS decreased by about 80% since 2013, and its intake of cats and kittens declined 50% and 65%, respectively.

Brause said BARCS used to take in 12,000 animals a year, mostly stray or abandoned cats. That dropped to as low as 7,000 before the pandemic, but is ticking back up to about 10,000 a year.

Many have come to view TNR as an ethical necessity, Brause said. “The alternative to TNR is euthanasia,” she said. “There are always people who think the animal is better off dead. And I can’t argue with that, because it’s a philosophical difference.”

Supporters of TNR also say the cat conundrum can’t be solved by compassionate owners and shelter managers alone. There are an estimated 70 to 100 million stray and free-roaming cats in the U.S., compared to about 60 to 90 million cats with owners, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Pet Products Association.

Coryn Julien — a spokeswoman for Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda-based nonprofit organization that advocates for TNR — said the numbers can’t be minimized simply by catching and killing the cats, either, due to the so-called “vacuum effect.”

“When you take cats away from an area, other cats will come into that area and breed to capacity before any more are removed,” said Julien. “With TNR, you return to the colony to ensure the breeding cycle ends and no more move into the territory. It saves cats’ lives and prevents needless deaths.”

Previous “catch-and-kill” policies also have proved fruitless, Julien added, especially given the volume of outdoor cats. “We need to stop the endless cycle of killing and death that amounted to nothing at all.”

The conundrum

Although shelters and clinics have reopened, the animal workforce has still not fully rebounded.

“Now we’re opened back up and running, but we’re still not running at the capacity we used to,” said Cannella, who makes daily stops at clinics, veterinarians’ offices and shelters. “COVID has put us backwards. … There were so many moms that weren’t spayed.”

Sarah Balcom, a veterinarian and director of the undergraduate program at the University of Maryland’s Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, said that lately more attention and funding have been focused on TNR, which she said is the best available mechanism to regain the ground lost during the public health crisis.

She sees the arguments for and against TNR as a “conundrum” in animal science: Cats are perceived by some as cute and cuddly pets, but others consider them a nonnative, invasive species that causes real harm. “Even the well-fed cat can be a hunter,” she said.

But Balcom said she and others have looked at the problem for years and have come to terms with its downsides. “We can acknowledge the damage that happens to wildlife, using the argument that we’d rather have a managed [cat] population that isn’t expanding and is vaccinated against rabies,” she said.

An alternative to TNR and catch-and-kill is releasing cats into new environments, such as farms, that could benefit from pest control, Balcom added. Such “working cats” may not be suited for the indoors or for companionship but could live long and fulfilling lives in a more controlled environment.

“The problem becomes, there are more feral cats than there are opportunities to work,” she said.

The ideal practice, said Balcom, would be cutting down on the fees associated with spaying, neutering and vaccinating cats to expedite and incentivize more TNR adoption. As it stands, a spay and neuter procedure could cost as much as $500 per feline in a private practice, she said.

Caroline Griffin — co-founder of the Baltimore-based Show Your Soft Side organization, which started in response to an animal cruelty case in the city in 2009 — said her group started its Street Kitty Medical Fund during the pandemic to help pay for TNR and other animal welfare necessities. Emergency medical care generally hovers around $1,000 per cat, she said.

“Unfortunately, the demand so far exceeds the resources,” she said.

Being the change

Although it’s considered the state’s largest shelter and pet adoption center, BARCS — now located in the city’s Cherry Hill neighborhood — is also facing capacity challenges, Brause said, even with more state funds and donors.

“Shelters have limited space and limited funding, and you want to save that space,” Brause said. “Are there exceptions? Yes — for a cat that is abandoned and frightened, those should be in shelter environments or rehomed.”

For Cannella, it’s become difficult to turn away from a cat she thinks she can help. Her foray into care-taking began about 12 years ago, when she met several free-roaming cats and kittens that congregated in the horse pasture behind her home. Then one winter, she found several of them dead nearby, and it changed her.

She began trapping cats in her area and would take them to get fixed. Then a friend introduced her to a colony in the woods. The rest is history.

Cannella said she gets calls daily from concerned citizens and friends seeking advice or directing her to a new cat in need. She once paid for everything on her own, and relied on whatever food scraps and leftovers she could find. “I didn’t think anyone else in the world cared but me.”

Then Cannella connected with Griffin, who helped her set up an Amazon wish list. She now receives offers of payment, donations and more recognition for her work.

“The cats have taken over my world,” Cannella said. “It’s crazy, it’s crazy.”

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