On 'Trap, Neuter, and Return: Bad for Cats, Disaster for Birds'

Patty Khuly, DVM
August 14, 2009
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Cat vs. bird. It’s a Dolittler theme for sure. But there’s always something unsettling about the emotional discussion that inevitably ensues whenever the problem of free-roaming cats killing birds gets raised. It's something I can only describe as “stressful” on the TNR (trap-neuter-return) and environmental front.

I’ve always had cause to ponder the dilemma more intimately than most. That’s because I hail from a family of birders and environmentalists. And we all know what that means:

The TNR argument will never best the avian side of the equation over the dinner table. Irresponsible cat owners will be lambasted. Cats will be called vermin. Diminishing bird population stats will be cited. And I’ll be crawling under the table to avoid the onslaught of terms best reserved for people who would protect cats at the expense of the environment...people like me.

It’s especially discomfiting when you consider I spend most of my volunteer hours spaying and neutering feral and free-roaming cats. Yes, my name is Patty and I “commit TNR.” Everyone knows it.

TNR is something I do because I believe it’s the most humane solution to the problem of feral and free roaming cats we have available to us at the present time. It’s what’s best for the individual cats.

Nonetheless, I do allow that TNR is almost never what’s best for birds. Formal policies that favor feline colony eradication are undoubtedly the ideal solution to the problem of bird predation by cats. But that’s not politically tenable where I live. Therefore I TNR. And seeing as there’s no other solution given the preponderance of the pro-cat voice in my community, I “comfortably” avoid the issue of feline eradication altogether and do my part where I can (urging relocation if at all possible).

Here’s where the film comes into the story. I’ve got this family member pushing me to positively review this “amazing” ten-minute clip put out by the American Bird Conservancy. Problem is, the piece is pretty atrocious. It’s full of D-list authorities spouting not-so-authoritative stuff about how feral cats kill birds, how TNR doesn’t work and how it’s bad for the cats because they suffer in the wild. It’s just another bit of bitter birder propaganda seemingly aimed at convincing its power base it had it right all along.

In case you couldn't tell, I detest this kind of drivel. I don’t need to have my opinions pandered to or my facts spoon fed by questionable sources. Not if it’s a not-quite-carefully orchestrated series of superficial sound-bites with zero citations and two case studies (which, in this case, I happen to know as much or more about than the “authorities” who discuss them because they’re local to me).

Not that I disagree terribly with their conclusions, mind you. It’s that I abhor the style of the message and the slant in delivery more than anything else.

Which is why it was a good thing I was asked to review this clip. Because now I know what makes this debate so stressful: It’s all about the tone that rankles––not to mention the emotional intransigence that accompanies it. Spare me the feverish pitch and the moral imperatives, please––not to mention the pretty feathery-friend footage amid a sea of marauding carnivores. At least make an attempt to provide a balanced perspective by way of conveying the complexity of the matter.

Lest you accuse me of much the same, I’ll readily admit to lacking all the pertinent facts. I’ve read the same studies many of you have and have reached this conclusion: There’s no smoking gun kind of evidence to prove the average cat in the average community contributes mightily to the ecological disasters visited upon the average region. Humans do that all by themselves without the help of free-roaming housecats.

But let’s not let the argument end there (as we too often allow). Instead, let’s move towards some sort of rational system for determining how our cats will be dealt with on a case by case, community by community basis. Because cats CAN wreak havoc on environmentally sensitive lands. There’s no doubt on that score. There the studies do prove convincing and offer a strong argument for relocation or eradication.

Armed with this information, it’s now up to each individual community to decide whether their particular ecosystem’s preservation is worth one more human-inflicted insult. Because ultimately, this isn’t about cats and birds or who did what to whom first. It's not even to do with whether TNR is for feline fruit loops or not. (I can see both sides of that coin, for sure.)

No, this debate is about what should be a dispassionate attempt to balance human needs with the ecosystems that support us all. But how to get there obviously eludes us in the face of cute kitty cats and teeny-weeny defenseless birdies. That's why I propose taking the animals out of the equation altogether. It might just be what ALL of us need to start making rational decisions at the community level. And then maybe––just maybe––I can rest easy at the dinner table again.