With the exception of Antarctica, aggregations of unowned cats live within and on the margins of cities, towns and farmhouses on every continent – Los Angeles alone is thought to harbour at least three million. But developing humane solutions is a complex task.
These unowned (feral) cats are not pet cats that occasionally stray from a safe and loving home. They are typically sick or starving, walking a tightrope between eking out an existence and falling victim to a tortured early death. Estimates suggest in excess of 90 per cent of cats need to be removed from populations every year just to account for the birth rate.
Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR, has been recently embraced as the technique of choice for the management of unowned cats in some US states, and increasingly in other countries. The most compelling argument for the adoption of TNR is that killing or removing individual cats just allows others to move in to vacated territories. TNR advocates claim neutered cats defend their food resources from interlopers, stemming immigration rates of other cats. Similarly, TNR theory claims desexed toms should continue to defend their local queens and chase away virile suitors, hypothetically preventing queens in their ‘colony’ from breeding.
The key concept in this attractive paradigm is ‘colony’. Colonies are groups of highly interacting social animals, think meerkats or honeybees, with an established social order and a high degree of cooperation that enhances their fitness. But while domestic cats may coexist, they seldom cooperate. Aggregations of cats do not maintain ‘pecking orders’, like chickens or wolves, to govern access to food or mates. Sara Ash found, in her study of managed colonies in Texas, that cat-feeding stations were not defended by original colony members but actually attracted new cats. Researchers from Rome who have studied the mating behaviour of stray cats found apparently dominant males rarely interfere when subordinate toms mate with a queen. Most toms quickly move on after mating, preferring to seek out another queen than defend their short-term partner. This means that over 75 per cent of urban stray litters are sired by multiple fathers.
Making a distinction between an ‘aggregation’ and a ‘colony’ to describe a high-density cluster of cats may sound like splitting hairs. But Stephen Spotte, author of Free-ranging Cats: Behaviour, Ecology, Management, goes to great lengths to demonstrate that referring to a ‘cat colony’ is misleading, and is responsible for confusing stray-cat management policy. Spotte argues that because even non-desexed (known as ‘entire’) toms don’t guard females on heat, and rarely even defend food resources, it is implausible to believe that groups of neutered cats would behave anything like a colony. Clowder, the collective term for a group of cats, is a less loaded and more appropriate term. Informed animal behaviour theory therefore challenges the notion that TNR would be successful for cats because, unlike their insect counterparts, cats breed more than once and desexed tom cats do not prevent females from breeding with entire males.
This alarming lack of awareness of the problems associated with unowned cats cannot be blamed on cat carers not listening to information. Rather, the informed messages from their vets, health-care professionals and scientists are drowned out by the incredibly well-resourced campaigns of organisations with vested or misguided interests in maximising the number of cats on the streets.
Alley Cat Allies, for example, spent over US$3 million in 2010 alone advocating for the nationwide legalisation of TNR in the US. Best Friends Animal Society trumped their Ally Cat ‘allies’ by investing a staggering US$11 million a year promoting their ‘Focus on Felines’, which also promotes TNR. These campaigns are supported by pet food giants, which profit from more cats in the same way as Alley Cats and Best Friends benefit from increased donations, ‘how to’ seminars and grants for operating municipal TNR programs. Sadly, this ‘alliance’ means cats, wildlife, property rights and human health suffer in homage to the TNR cash cow.
The influence of pet food companies on public policy was strikingly evident when legislators from Athens, Georgia, voted in March 2010 to legalise a TNR program to manage the county’s cat overpopulation. Buoyed by a US$600,000 grant from pet food retailer PetSmart to Best Friends, and influenced by a long-running TNR advocacy campaign, the Athens legislators voted nine to one in favour of legalising TNR. The purported objective of this grant was to sterilise 6000 cats over three years, a figure that neither Best Friends nor councillors could either verify or be confident would be successful in reducing cat numbers. Exemplifying the degree to which the PetSmart deal won them over, the Athens council then voted to establish another US$10,000 annual budget to support the TNR program. Around the country many scientists and animal rights organisations shook their heads in disbelief.
This is an edited extract of Among the Pigeons: Why our cats belong indoors by John L Read, Wakefield Press, out now.