Don't whine: TNR!

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: September 27, 2016
Published: December 08, 2007
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I love the concept of TNR (trap-neuter-return) as a means of population control. It’s not an ideal solution (TNR combined with exclusive indoor living gets my vote), but it seems the best we have to offer given the deadlocked status of tree huggers vs. cat fanciers. So at the risk of incurring your wrath (yet again) on the subject of wildlife and cats and population control, here’s a short primer on this vet’s take on trap-neuter-return programs:

Sure, these programs can work. They thin out cat populations over time and have the potential to spare environmentally sensitive areas while culling out the sick and suffering. Though I rarely see TNR efficiently employed, I’ll never complain at the sight of a Have-a-Heart trap in my hospital waiting room.

Like a huge percentage of vets, I donate my services with free or at-cost neuters on a near-daily basis—and would happily do more. Nonetheless, it’s clear that what I do represents just a drop in the bucket. This knowledge would be downright depressing were it not for the fact that there’s this one kitty in front of me who will later leave my presence less likely to contract disease through fighting and sexual transmission. And that alone is satisfying for me—but it’s not enough for the rest of them.

Consequently, when I think of TNR programs and my role, I feel like a welfarist, not an environmentalist. In my area (South Florida) TNR is undertaken so spottily, is so woefully underfunded and relies on so small a cadre of overworked volunteers that it’s no match for our feline population.

Moreover, I see TNR rarely accomplished intelligently. Ideally, TNR should further the environmental goals that should go hand in hand with welfare principles. But they seldom do. In fact, TNR in my area often overlooks basic welfare principles, too.

And that’s because the reality of most TNR efforts is that they’re individual and solitary, relying on the hard work, funds and personal aspirations of the person devoting his/her time to the task. Even if there’s an organization providing the funding, the individuals trapping and undertaking to secure veterinary services for neutering are ultimately responsible for most of the decisions regarding individual cats and the colonies they care for.

Here’s just a sample of the problems I see:

1) People who trap the cats are usually unwilling to relocate them to less environmentally sensitive areas—they like feeding the cats and enjoying them in their colonies.

2) While they're largely unable to pay for their healthcare as a population, I do see some TNR volunteers spend huge amounts on saving individual ferals instead of using these funds to trap and neuter more.

3) Many (most of my TNR clients) even refuse euthanasia when it's clear one of the cats they want me to neuter (on my time and dime) is ill. But it's still better to neuter them than to refuse on principle, so I do.

Ultimately, for most TNR volunteers and organizations, it’s less about the population and its control than about the individual cats. And it’s almost never about sparing the environment, despite the raging debate you were treated to a couple of days ago on this blog.

But I don’t blame them. It’s their work, their money, their time, their love—not the environmentalists’.

Nonetheless, I wish it could be different. Here’s how I would do it and what I propose the Audubon Society and/or the American Bird Conservancy should do if they want their aims met as well:

1) Every cat and bird lover who has the means and the opportunity should pony up and buy a $50 trap (the galvanized steel “Have-a-Heart” trap works well for me and I've seen them for as low as $30 on Amazon--feel free to offer other suggestions in your comments).

2) Efforts should be undertaken to establish a network of vets willing to perform spays and neuters at cost. Environmental organization funds for these efforts would ideally be matched by local and national government money.

3) Every city’s Audubon or American Bird Conservancy would determine ideal zones for TNR and relocation and mobilize their troops in those directions.

4) Obviously sick cats or those that test positive for FeLV or FIV would be euthanized.

5) Citizens are encouraged to spend $25 for Audubon or American Bird Conservancy certificates to spay or neuter the local strays they trap. Ideally, they would be directed to relocation zones for these strays.

Birders and backyard wildlife lovers need to put their time, energy and money where their mouths are. It’s not a cat lover’s solution—it’s everyone’s who’s ever had cause to complain. I vote for no more whining. If Cats Indoors (a laudable PR campaign spearheaded by the American Bird Conservancy) isn’t enough (and it’s not), then bird-lovers like me need to take the next step and work our butts off like my TNR clients do.