Trap, Neuter, Return: A Step in the Right Direction


"The cat of the slums and alleys, starved, outcast, harried, ... still displays the self-reliant watchfulness which man has never taught it to lay aside." - Hector Hugh Munro

Cats are interesting creatures. Noble and enigmatic, yet endearing and gentle. They've held their place in history, as everything from glorified deities and the treasured animal companions of kings, to the vilified, harbingers of evil of religious cults. For better or worse, the domestic cat has remained a part of our cultural fabric for 5,000 years.

In recent times however, cats face a new reality -- the overpopulation of ferals in urban areas. Of the estimated 150 million cats in the U.S., roughly half of them are ferals. An intact female feral can go into heat and become pregnant by 5 months of age. Statistics show that if they (only) give birth to approximately 1.4 litters per year, with an average of 3.5 live births per litter; this translates to 4.9 kittens a year. To put the severity of these numbers into perspective, two intact breeding ferals and their offspring have the potential of producing 400,000 kittens over a period of seven years. These numbers are conservative however, seeing as how female ferals have the potential of having three litters a year.

As a feral cat advocate and colony caretaker, I'm a staunch supporter of TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) programs. Why? Because they work. Feral cats are humanely trapped, evaluated by vets, vaccinated, sterilized and then returned to their outdoor homes. 

TNR Locally

Sharon Halfmann is the director of Critter Shack Rescue, organizer of our local TNR clincs and member of San Angelo's TNR ordinance committee. I spoke with her briefly about TNR and it's effectiveness as the means to feral cat management.

The Critter Shack operates its TNR clinics with the aid of volunteers and by using private donations and fundraisers. The clinics are run by those who see the programs as a humane answer to the feral cat problem, she said, and none of the volunteers receive a paycheck.

Halfmann explained that Critter Shack has been participating in spay/neuter clinics for the better part of a decade, hosting their first San Angelo clinic five years ago. In June 2013, she said, members of the Critter Shack got involved with the ordinance committee when the city began trapping community cats. 

"Local caretakers and rescues came together to work on a moratorium of city trapping/ killing community cats that are in a colony under the care of a responsible caretaker; this work led to meetings concerning local ordinances," Halfmann explained.

LD: Do you care for any feral colonies personally, or have you in the past?

Sharon Halfmann: I am not a caretaker of a colony, but help those who are working toward stabilizing and maintaining colonies in the area.  Critter Shack assists with spay/neuter/vaccination through the clinics and through working with local caretakers and veterinarians.  

LD: How often are the TNR clinics held and which veterinarians or organizations participate?

Sharon Halfmann: Critter Shack has four or five clinics each year.  We started with one and have slowly been able to offer more.  We try to have at least three in San Angelo each year...We are extremely lucky to have so many veterinarians who understand the importance of TNR and who are willing to offer their assistance to local caretakers and rescues who are working to spay/neuter/vaccinate in an effort to reduce the overpopulation of cats, while also improving the quality of their lives.

LD: Concho Valley Paws offers low cost spay/neuter vouchers which can be purchased by the public on the first Saturday of every month. This is an invaluable resource for pet owners on a budget or the caregivers of colonies. Are the services of the TNR clinics available to the general public?

Sharon Halfmann: Many local caretakers take advantage of the vouchers and of our clinics.  They are also continually working, day in and day out, to trap/spay/neuter/vaccinate the cats in their colonies at their own expense.  Our clinics are open to the public.  We have been focusing on working with the caretakers that we started with and have found that many of them are almost at a point where they are revaccinating spayed or neutered cats and are trapping fewer and fewer new cats each year.  That is our goal – for those people to reach as close to 100 percent spayed/neutered/vaccinated cats in their colonies as possible.  

Our goal is for more people to learn about TNR and to join in our efforts.  “Trap and Kill,” was practiced for decades in our area, doesn’t work.  TNR reduces shelter admissions and kill rates, provides access to grant funding and volunteer participation and saves taxpayer dollars.  It is a non-lethal, effective method for controlling and reducing cat populations.

LD: Thousands of unwanted pets enter our municipal shelter every year, with nearly 85 percent of them never being adopted and eventually euthanized. With the constant influx of animals and operational costs growing larger every year, how important would you say spaying and neutering both cats and dogs is to ease the burden of an already stressed animal shelter facility?

Sharon Halfmann: I believe that spaying/neutering both cats and dogs, along with education and adoption, is the only realistic approach to the overpopulation of cats and dogs.  Killing more than 85 percent of the shelter animals each year doesn’t work or we would see a reduction in the numbers.  The numbers for community cats or for stray cats that are terrified when picked up are much worse – they are labeled “aggressive” and often killed immediately. 

Community cats that are spayed/neutered are ear-tipped.  In many cities, those ear-tipped cats are returned to the colony they came from.  We would like to see the vetted cats returned to their colonies here instead of being killed at the shelter.  And, let’s call “euthanasia” what it is – killing.  Shelter euthanasia is just that – killing.  Many of the dogs and cats killed in the shelter every week are adoptable, healthy animals.  Many are not killed because they are old, sick or vicious; they are killed because there is not enough room for all of the animals that people abandon.  So, education, adoption, and spay/neuter are vitally important.

LD: Most people are under the dillusion that simply removing strays and euthanizing them is an effective means of controlling the feral population. It's been proven that this couldn't be further from the truth, as the "vacuum effect" begins almost as soon as cats are removed. Could you to explain to our readers exactly what the "vacuum effect" is and why it's counterproductive to feral cat management?

Sharon Halfmann: When community cats are trapped and removed from a colony, more cats immediately move in to fill that void, or vacuum.  We saw that first-hand last summer when the cats were removed from the colony in June.  City officials told the caretaker that she must remove all the cats within a few weeks or they would be killed.  With a lot of help, she was able to trap and relocate 27 of the cats in the colony, all of which were spayed/neutered/vaccinated.  That left 12-15 cats in the colony when officials decided that the ordinances needed to be expanded or revised.  She continued to care for the remaining cats and, soon, 12 new cats moved in, one pregnant female gave birth, and the cycle started all over again.  She is trying to trap and vet all of the new cats, but it takes time and money.  A stable colony is one where the majority of the cats are spayed/neutered/vaccinated, cared for and maintained. 

Those colonies drove off newcomer cats and rarely allow them to stay in the area.  (So, for people who see a cat colony and think it’s a good place to dump their pet cat, they need to know that the cat will probably starve to death or be injured or killed in a fight because the colony will usually not allow it to stay.)  

LD: Various environmental and wildlife groups have championed "catch and kill" policies, citing feral/free roaming cats as the blame for declining bird populations, while the grossly misinterpreted and exaggerated scientific data turns a blind eye to two of the primary threats to wildlife -- urban development and environmental factors (such as drought). What would you say to those who continue to scapegoat cats in this manner?

Sharon Halfmann: Anyone who does extended research on the issue of community cats and birds will soon realize that man is the primary threat to bird populations.  Loss of habitat, pesticides, climate change – all contribute to declining bird populations.  As far as I am aware, the bird populations in our area are not in danger from community cats.

LD: Colony caregivers who also have to contend with the agenda-driven junk science which spreads misinformation about feral cats are often at odds with neighbors and local business owners who simply do not understand the effectiveness of TNR. What would be a few of the common misconceptions you'd like to ultimately see laid to rest?

Sharon Halfmann: I sometimes hear that people or business owners believe community cats are diseased, unhealthy and pose a threat to people or owned pets.  Actually, community cats in a managed colony are healthy, vaccinated, and pose no threat to people or to owned pets.  They are vaccinated against rabies and other diseases and provide a barrier between other unvaccinated wildlife and owned pets.  Ironically, I believe that TNR is much less expensive than paying city employees to trap, transport, kill, and dispose of animals.  With trapping by the caretaker, we can spay or neuter and vaccinate a community cat for a very reasonable fee, in our clinics or in the vet’s office – I can’t say for sure what the city spends to set out traps, monitor them, transport the cats they catch, process them at the shelter, kill them, and then dispose of the dead animal, but I believe it is more than what our costs are to safely neuter and vaccinate the animal, then return it to its natural habitat.

LD: Critter Shack's foster program assists in the care of adoptable pets. It's a great tool for socializing them and transitioning the animals into prospective forever homes. How would one go about fostering an animal? How could those who cannot foster, yet would like to become an active supporter of the program or organizations which assist in the efforts participate and/or contribute?

Sharon Halfmann: One very important aspect of TNR is the socialization and adoption of those community cats that can be socialized.  Kittens born in a colony can often be removed and socialized and many of the cats dumped at a colony site are not wild – they are often pet cats that can be removed, vetted, and placed for adoption.  Critter Shack is always looking for good foster homes and prospective fosters can visit our web site for an application or come and talk to us at PetSmart every other weekend at our adoption events there.  Of course, we are also always looking for donors or sponsors for our pets that are available for adoption.  Our contact information is on our web site,

LD: Are there any upcoming adoption events or clinics taking place in the near future, and where may our readers find information and/or resources regarding these events, volunteering or TNR in general?

Sharon Halfmann: We stay busy, especially considering that most of us have full-time jobs in addition to our volunteer work.  Did I mention that we are an all-volunteer rescue?  

We have cat adoptions at PetSmart every day, dog adoptions there every other weekend, (Sept. 27 and 28, Oct. 11 & 12, Oct. 25 & 26, Nov. 8 & 9, a special three-day adoption Nov .14, 15 & 16, Nov. 22 & 23, Dec. 6 & 7 and Dec. 20 & 21.)

 We are having a spay/neuter clinic fundraiser on Oct. 4– a mahjong playdate at Bentwood.

 The October clinic for spaying and neutering has already been filled, however a new one will be scheduled soon.      

We always need volunteers, so anyone interested can contact any of the numbers on the web site for more information.

Also, Alley Cat Allies has excellent information on TNR programs on their web site, as does Petsmart Charities.

With the perks of our existence as the self-appointed heirs of the Earth, comes great responsibility. With this responsibility is the duty to recognize that our sense of superiority is by no means indicative of infallibility. We've created conditions within our environments to suit our comforts and conveniences while ignoring and denying the basic needs of animals. Pollution, extirpation and outright abuse has plagued animal life, soon after we stood on two feet.

In the case of feral cat overpopulation however, it's not so much what we've done, rather what we HAVEN'T. A neglecful owner of an intact cat indirectly causes more harm and sufferring than they're aware of. If you've ever stumbled upon a litter of malnourished, sickly kittens infested with fleas, or the terrified look in an abused stray cat's eyes, you know the harm all too well.

TNR programs are an efficient means of disease control and curtailing the plight of the feral population; they ease the burden on caregivers as well as their neighbors and promote an all around better quality of life for the cats in question. If you're a cat owner, a comfortable indoor life (with a possible outdoor enclosure) would be ideal. If this isn't a feasibe option, please spay or neuter your cat. As advocates, caregivers and owners in the cat community; we won't end the counterproductive "catch-and-kill" policies overnight, and sadly we won't save nearly as many animals as we'd like to -- but the help of a proactive and enlightened community brings us that much closer."

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Thanks for getting the word out on TNR. It really is the only effective method for making a long term impact on the feral/community cat populaton. It is a hard sell for some folks in west texas but when the facts are plainly examined, TNR should be championed by those who want the best for the cats as well as those who detest them. It really is effective at reducing the population and making things safer for everyone.
I believe the problem stems back to cat owners. We don't have groups of feral dogs hanging out around dumpsters or neighborhoods because dog owners are held responsible for their dogs and not permitted to let them roam freely. Until cat owners are held to the same standard, the feral cat problem will continue. In addition, you cannot dispute the fact that cats allowed to roam freely have a huge impact to the bird and small wildlife population. I don't begrudge a feral cat killing a bird or other wildlife for food but the cat owners that allow their cats to roam freely to hunt for the sake of killing should be ashamed. I have a neighbor that allows her cat out and is stupid enough to be proud of the dead animals she finds on her doorstep that prove her cat is such a great hunter. Her cat is also the cause of a horrific cat urine odor I have in one of my flower gardens even though I have a privacy fence. Enough about that! I applaud your efforts on behalf of the feral cats but believe that until something is done about the irresponsible cat owners you are fighting a never ending battle.
"Owners" or lack thereof, is indeed the root of the problem. This is a failure of humans, not the animal. That is the whole point - don't punish the animal for the fault of our kind. If you read our city ordinances regarding animals (and somehow manage to retain your lunch) you will see that there is very little distinction between cat and dog as far as the "standards" to which people are held. The ordinances are poorly written at best and horribly miss-enforced but even if the ordinances were perfect, people simply would not follow them. Until it is generally accepted among folks that it is not ok to let their supposed "pet" cat or dog roam the neighborhood unaltered, the problem will persist. It is not however just a cat problem, there are indeed packs of dogs that if left unchecked do far more damage than you can imagine if you have never seen them. The difference is dogs are easier to catch and for some reason carry more sympathetic weight with the public than their feline counter parts. As for the impact or cats or any city creature on the bird and other wildlife population it is impossible and ridiculous to try assigning blame to any one aspect of human development of the natural habitat. In case you haven’t noticed there is a fairly large city parked where the “Natural habitat” used to be.

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