Cat trap, neuter and vax programs help animals, public health

As Executive Director of the Humane Society of Vero Beach & Indian River County, I was disappointed with the County Commissioners’ recent decision to retain a “leash law” for cats.

Much of the debate centered on enforcement difficulties, on the one hand, and concerns about nuisance complaints, on the other. Meanwhile, too little attention has been paid to the fact that such laws create significant barriers to the trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) programs needed to reduce our community’s cat population.

The TNVR is simple: cats are humanely trapped, assessed by veterinarians, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and returned to their original outdoor homes, unable to have kittens. Targeted TNVR programs offer a sensible, effective and economical alternative to the traditional “catch and kill” method.

And, unlike this outdated approach, TNVR enjoys broad public support. No wonder such programs are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, in communities large and small, urban and rural.

Leash laws make TNVR programs virtually impossible, essentially forcing municipalities to continue with the same unique approach to managing community cats: impoundment followed, in most cases, by lethal injection. But there is simply no evidence that this approach is effective for population management or public health and wildlife protection.

We’d like to think it works, of course, as we’d expect from any well-established, publicly funded government service. What we have learned in recent years, however, is that “catch and kill” doesn’t work at all. It is also extremely unpopular and costly, the poster child for public policy failure.

Whether you love cats or hate them, the science is clear: only two methods have been shown to reduce cat populations: targeted TNVR efforts and intensive eradication campaigns.

The largest successful cat eradication campaign took place on the uninhabited island of Marion (roughly the size of Tampa), where it took 19 years to exterminate an estimated 2,100 to 3,400 cats, using panleukopenia feline, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and dogs. During the final phase of the project, 30,000 day-old chicken carcasses were injected with the toxin sodium fluoroacetate (which is highly restricted in use in the United States) and distributed across the island. (In an ironic twist, Marion Island was later overrun by mice, threatening the very wildlife whose protection was used to justify the deadly control of cats.)

Obviously, such campaigns aren’t starting in Indian River County or anywhere else in the United States — which brings us back to TNVR. Again, these programs aren’t just for the cat lovers among us; they protect public health by creating an effective barrier between the public and wildlife.

Indeed, similar programs have been used for years to manage “street dogs” in developing countries. Research shows that such programs are not only more humane than the annual culls that have been done historically, but also more effective in population management and public health protection. And because targeted TNVR programs are our best option for reducing the number of cats in the community, they also benefit wildlife, by reducing the risk of predation.

Kate Meghji, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Vero Beach & Indian River County, 2022

As an added bonus, TNVR’s targeted efforts can also save valuable taxes by reducing the number of cats and kittens entering our animal shelters each year. Last year, the National Animal Care & Control Association revised its policy on the admission of free-roaming cats for animal control, noting the “indiscriminate collection or admission of healthy, free-roaming cats, regardless of their temperament, for purposes other than (TNVR) … does not serve the common objectives of community animal management and welfare programs and as such is a poor use of public time and funds and should be avoided.

As with all public policy issues, TNVR programs have their critics. It has become clear, however, that they have little to offer other than misinformation and scaremongering, thus undermining any chance for reasonable discussions and sound policymaking.

It’s ironic that the biggest obstacle to neutering and vaccinating more cats is often the very people who complain the loudest about cats. Empty rhetoric may gain good press, but it gives elected officials very little work to do; their constituents — and that’s all of us — are waiting for solutions, however imperfect they may be.

Kate Meghji joined the Humane Society of Vero Beach & Indian River County in 2019 after serving as executive director of the Lawrence Humane Society in Kansas.

Comments are closed.