Heavy Petting

Here, Kitty, Kitty

Why we keep healthy free-roaming cats in their neighborhoods

You may be wondering about the noticeable lack of available adult cats up for adoption at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter lately. Given how much we’ve been talking about how overwhelmed shelters across the country are with higher intake numbers and fewer placement options, that probably looks and feels weird to you. But there is a good reason.

First and foremost, we’ve been empowered with a lot of research into animal behavior that is helping to inform new and more effective ways to help them. This is particularly true when it comes to managing free-roaming cats.

Secondly, we are getting so much better at providing care and services to animals (and their people) where they actually are, in the safety of their homes, rather than bringing them into the shelter where they will be unnecessarily exposed to the trauma of being in a strange place, more susceptible to disease (which spreads easily when animals are kept in confined spaces close together) and the inevitability of adapting to a new home environment they aren’t comfortable navigating safely.

We used to think the best thing we could do for cats found outdoors is bring them to the shelter. We’ve since learned that it’s usually best to keep healthy free-roaming cats in their neighborhoods. Here are some very important reasons why:

We shouldn’t assume that the cats we see around our neighborhoods have no home, or no one who loves and cares for them. They may even have a team of caretakers. Many times, free-roaming cats are cared for by multiple neighbors.

When we bring free-roaming cats into shelters unnecessarily, we may be unintentionally taking them away from the people and families who love them. This creates a well of distrust between the community and the shelter.

Removing cats from the neighborhood and taking them to a shelter, often located far from their home, reduces the likelihood of that cat being reunited with their people. This disproportionately impacts marginalized communities that may not be able to have indoor pets in rental homes.

Studies show that cats are 10-50 times more likely to be reunited with their families when they are left where they are found rather than being taken to the shelter because many people do not know about their local shelter or do not think that their cat could be at the shelter.

Indiscriminately removing cats may also lead to more intact cats moving into the area. This is known as the “vacuum effect.” When you remove animals from a community without also removing the available food and shelter resources there, you create space for more animals to move in—creating an even greater problem for the ecosystem.

Most people care about both cats and wildlife and want neither to be harmed. Community cat programs can reduce risks to wildlife by reducing the number of outdoor cats through spay and neuter efforts.

Abandonment laws, which regulate leaving an animal without proper or necessary care, do not apply to community cat practices. So our limited shelter resources need to be directed at helping those vulnerable animals swiftly and efficiently. At the shelter, we believe that the best way to serve healthy free-roaming cats is to manage their populations through humane and effective programs that support both them and the people who care for them. We support Shelter-Neuter-Return and Trap-Neuter-Return (SNR or TNR) through which free-roaming cats are brought to the shelter or trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and returned to their location of origin. These cats are “ear-tipped” so caretakers and others will easily recognize that they have been sterilized.

Another reason we’re seeing fewer cats in our shelter is because we’re now in a position to help folks who are coming to the shelter to surrender their cat because of some immediate crisis through our CASA program. Keeping pets with their people is our jam—and we’re really getting into it.

Here’s the thing. If we continue to kidnap healthy, happy, well adapted cats from their neighborhoods and bring them into the shelter environment, we stretch our limited resources so thin that we render ourselves ineffective in helping those animals that truly need us: the clearly abandoned, sick or injured, or kittens.

Speaking of kittens, if you’ve been interested in adopting, in just a few short weeks kitten season will be in full swing, and our shelter will be overflowing with available kittens for adoption. We will also be in serious need of foster homes for kittens under 2 months old. So if you want to fill your home with the sounds of adorable purrs and meows, now is the time to step up to help.

I realize some of these concepts may be new in this community, and that contributes to some of the confusion around what help actually looks like for vulnerable animals. The animal welfare industry is experiencing a long overdue renaissance where we are using science, well-documented data and research analysis to inform best practices in a new, powerful way. My commitment to you as a reader is to try and keep you as informed as possible about the science behind our decision making while we navigate these new and exciting waters. As Oprah would say, when we know better, we do better.

Hagerman is CEO of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter.

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