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Why controlling feral cat colonies with TNR works better than extermination

TNR programs can stabilize, and eventually reduce, feral cat populations all over the country. They're more effective than extermination.
TNR programs can stabilize, and eventually reduce, feral cat populations all over the country. They're more effective than extermination.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Officials in Escambia County, Florida, are having trouble deciding if trap-neuter-return (TNR) is better for handling their feral cat population than flat-out extermination. According to an article on WEAR Channel 3, the county's animal shelter put down more than 4,300 cats last year. Strays made up more than half of that number.

They would like to start taking care of their feral cat problem with TNR programs. However, some national officials, along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, disagree. Some say there's no data supporting the effectiveness of TNR programs. They also believe that ferals are a public health problem, and therefore, getting rid of them as quickly as possible is the best.

Southern Methodist University has a webpage answering major questions about TNR, and they also explain why extermination doesn't work. First of all, with extermination, there is a "vacuum effect." When a colony is eradicated quickly, a new colony will move in. Feral cats live in areas where there's food and shelter. Eradicating the colony without also getting rid of the food supply and the shelter just encourages a new colony to move in and grow.

Feral cat colonies also control rodent populations. Places that have managed to eradicate entire colonies often suddenly find themselves with a nasty rodent problem. Rodents are also vectors for disease, sometimes more so than cats.

The Feral Cat Awareness Project says that two unaltered cats can become more than 42,000 cats in about two years. This is because cats can produce three to four litters per year, and the average litter size is four kittens. Furthermore, females don't have to be adults to get pregnant. Kittens as young as four or five months can go into heat and get pregnant.

According to the Feral Cat Awareness Project, if just 67 feral cats are sterilized, that will prevent over one million cats from being born over a six-year period.

There are extensive arguments about whether TNR is effective. One vet argues that one of the reasons TNR is not effective is because nobody can capture all of the cats. So how does extermination work, then? Does that not also require capturing all of the cats before they're able to reproduce, and before new cats move in? He does make some arguments that sound convincing, however, in accusing TNR proponents of ignoring facts, he, too, ignores facts.

Alley Cat Allies' longest running project, the Atlantic City Boardwalk Project, is quite successful, bringing the size of those colonies down to under 200 cats. Almost every cat living there is sterile, now, and the colonies shrink due to natural attrition. Another project at Stanford University has reduced the number of feral cats on campus from an astounding 1,500 to 200. However, like many strong solutions to complex problems, this takes time and effort that some are not willing to give.

Alley Cat Allies, Fat Cat Rescue of Illinois, the city of Albuquerque, and others, also have these cats vaccinated and treated for parasites and other treatable diseases. That helps to reduce the disease vector, and improve the lives of the cats under care. Furthermore, in Albuquerque, the effort has helped them improve their adoption and foster programs.

Those that favor extermination want a quick and supposedly easy solution, which ultimately proves to be temporary. They also don't seem to understand the full scope of caregivers' efforts to not only reduce populations, but reduce diseases. And a slow stabilization, and then reduction, of populations everywhere at once, will ultimately be more effective at stopping predation of birds, also. Escambia County would do well to go forward with their TNR efforts.

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