Op-Ed: Be kind to your neighborhood cats

This Op-Ed by Becky Robinson was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on March 1, 2020.

Los Angeles is a city of cat lovers inside a nation of cat lovers. In the United States, one in three households has a cat. Our affection for felines also leaves many of us with a soft spot for the neighborhood cats who live outside in our communities. People often adopt friendly ones into their homes, leave food out for them and engage in endless acts of kindness toward unsocialized, free-roaming — also known as feral — cats.

Given that, Los Angeles’ citizens got broadsided by Carol Mithers in a Los Angeles Times op-ed Dec. 22  headlined “U.S cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution.”

Let’s start with her premise that our cities are overrun with feral cats: images of swarms of angry felines spring to mind.  It’s the stuff of B movies, not the experience of anyone walking through the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, Santa Monica Mountain trails or even the Hollywood Bowl.

Mithers then attacks Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR), the most effective cat population management approach, while failing to offer up an alternative. Mithers repeats claims that proponents of TNR are engaged in “magical thinking.”

Will TNR reduce cat populations across the nation to zero?  No. Nothing will. To think otherwise is to engage in the real magical thinking here. Free-roaming cats have lived in and near human civilization for going on 10,000 years now.  We can manage their numbers, but we cannot eliminate them.

TNR is the dominant cat population management approach being embraced by animal control agencies. TNR has been adopted in over 650 U.S. municipalities with thousands more conducting it on a grassroots basis. The United Kingdom and other countries have long embraced TNR. So its popularity is self-evident, with so many people throughout the world preferring humane, life-saving policies for the cats who live among us. Currently, Los Angeles city agencies are examining implementing TNR. In many California communities, particularly San Jose, TNR is an established success story.

Under TNR, community cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and eartipped for identification and then returned to their territory to live.

From the 1880s through the 1990s, and still in some places, the chief means of attempting to control outdoor cat populations was to capture and kill cats via routine “euthanasia” in animal shelters.  It did not work. It does not work. It will never work.

I realize it seems counter-intuitive to say that killing cats will not reduce their numbers. The key here is that it has no long-term benefit.  Obviously, in the days immediately following the “removal” of cats from a given location, there will be fewer cats, but only briefly. Migration and reproduction will quickly result in a resurgent population.

Nature abhors a vacuum. When cats are removed from a given location that is ripe with feeding opportunities (as our dumpster-laden cities are), new cats will move in and reproduce. Attempts in the past to round up and remove cats have failed because they do not take cat biology and population dynamics into consideration.

My group, Alley Cat Allies, has been advocating for TNR since 1990. I formed the group because I could not stomach the endless conveyor belt of healthy cats entering our shelters and being killed each year.  TNR is backed by countless veterinarians, biologists, conservationists, shelter directors, municipal officials and ordinary citizens.

It’s time to move forward.  The sooner Los Angeles implements TNR, the sooner its benefits will be felt.