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So, what is the SPCA actually doing with those cats, then?

February 1, 2013

As a conservation biologist, I am opposed to the use of Trap-Neuter-Release as a cat management technique. It doesn’t work to reduce stray and feral cat numbers, population growth rate or their impact on native wildlife. In practice, TNR often causes an increase in feral cat numbers around the colony because of the food that is provided by TNR enthusiasts. Another potential problem associated with supplementary feeding of introduced predators like cats is ‘hyperpredation’, a condition where predators keep preying on prey species long after the prey species has dropped below the density that could support the predator, because the predator has other sources of food. Admittedly, hyperpredation is a problem associated with all human-fed cats, not only TNR cats. Nevertheless, the decline in bird life around TNR colonies is a well-established fact in the conservation ecology literature.

So, what’s going on with the SPCA, then?

In light of my concerns, I wrote to the SPCA about a year ago asking how much TNR they were doing, pointing out (with detailed references) how it was a poor idea with a history of catastrophic failure, and encouraging them to steer clear of it because of its negative impact on bird populations. I received no reply at the time.

Oh, but what a difference a well-run media campaign can make! I wrote to the SPCA again yesterday, asking slightly more detailed questions, and got a response! It is… interesting. To avoid possible misrepresentation, I’m going to put the full text of my query and the response at the end of this article, but with the identifying details of the SPCA responder removed.

The SPCA was very keen for me to know that they work under a model that has three different types of cats: Companion Cats (owned and permanently looked after by a human), Stray Cats (have some of their needs met by people, and may or may not have once been Companion Cats), and Feral Cats (have never been looked after by a human and do not have any of their needs met by people). They do carry out TNR of stray cats, but apparently not directly. Here’s the relevant section of the response:

“We also are keen to point out that TNR (in our definition) is Trap Neuter Return (not release) – this delineation is important to us as we only return cats that have been “TNR’d” to the person who has been our point of contact in dealing with them. They are returned to their home property (or colony in the urban situation with a carer) with that persons blessing.”

The response leaves unclear whether colonies are fed by the SPCA, using SPCA funding, and what the exact relationship is between the volunteers feeding the cat colonies and the SPCA. It seems like the SPCA encourages TNR, and provides advice on how to carry it out, but leaves much of the actual operation of these colonies up to volunteer community groups or (surely rare) property owners who don’t mind establishing and looking after a cat colony on their property. The level of oversight the SPCA has of these community groups and property owners in their management of TNR colonies is unclear.

Interestingly, the response contains the line:

“Tame cats are not TNR candidates – these are taken in to SPCA Centres where possible as strays, owners are sought, and outcomes are decided on.”

…which is confusing to me. ‘Tame’ cats are not defined in the three types of cats. I imagine that both ‘Companion Cats’ and ‘Stray Cats’ would be ‘tame’, but if that is the case then no cats would be TNR candidates, as the response also says that the SPCA will not deal with feral cats. The selection criteria is slightly more refined with:

“Only healthy wild stray cats are TNR candidates – and only when the person calling with the concern agrees to TNR and therefore to having the cat returned to their property.”

So, if I understand correctly, the SPCA’s position is that they don’t (or at least, don’t often) carry out TNR themselves. Instead, they encourage volunteer community groups to carry out TNR, and provide the neutering services and advice. They put forward only healthy, stray cats to TNR, but not those that are ‘tame’. TNR’d cats are returned to the person who brought the cat in, for them to deal with. Presumably, in order to get to a situation where there are cat colonies like those shown on Campbell Live tonight, volunteer organisations bring in many cats, and then choose to locate them in the ‘colonies’ once they are neutered.

Perhaps the most interesting line in the entire response is this one:

“In fact in a number of communities, both in NZ and overseas, it has been noted that numbers coming into shelter decreased once TNR programmes were underway, whereas with the historical method numbers were increasing substantially each year”

While my source does not cite any figures, I can quite imagine that instituting TNR would reduce the number of cats coming into SPCA shelters needing to be re-homed or euthanised – without actually decreasing the unowned cat population. For one, TNR colonies could quickly become a dumping ground for local irresponsible cat-owners’ unwanted cats, safe in the knowledge that some poor sop will feed them. These cats aren’t going to turn up on the SPCA’s door needing re-homing any more – now they can stay in the colony! For another, the SPCA informs me that they don’t deal with feral animals, so they’re unlikely to see the increase in feral cat population caused by the free food associated with TNR colonies in their shelter-space data.

The number of cats coming into SPCA centres is not a good proxy for the number of cats out devastating our bird life, and it should not be treated as such. What should be used to estimate the number of cats out, and their impact, is hard data on cat numbers. Where we have that data, it shows that TNR fails to reduce cat numbers.

Ways forward

It appears that not all of the SPCA supports TNR – I’ve read that SPCA Waikato has objected to the practice, for instance (although getting this from the original source requires a little reading between the lines). I’m not terribly surprised at the conflict in the SPCA: I have known some SPCA members who are very educated, ecology-wise. It appears that their current leadership is rather less so.

TNR is an expensive, wasteful, and environmentally damaging policy, and should be abandoned. Cats in existing TNR colonies should be re-homed if possible or euthanised to reduce the absolute number of these introduced predators. Food should stop being put out, as it encourages the growth of feral cat populations and exacerbates the risk of hyperpredation.

More importantly, the SPCA needs to restore its credentials as an organisation for the prevention of cruelty to animals. This may include doing some thinking about what they define as ‘cruelty to animals’. To that end, the SPCA should seriously consider appointing a qualified conservation biologist within their organisation, with the power to stop any misinformed, ecologically-damaging practices like TNR before they become entrenched SPCA policy. We cannot allow the SPCA to ignore the conservation impacts of its actions – that is a much greater cruelty, to far more animals, than they can ever have intended.

Appendices: My original request, and the full text of the reply by the SPCA

Request:

Subject: Saving Lives

Message

I have written to the SPCA before regarding my concerns about Trap-Neuter-Release, but recieved no response at that time. I’m still interested in hearing what the SPCA thinks about TNR, and their reasons for thinking that way.

I’d like to know how much (if any) TNR the SPCA does, and where. If possible, I’d also like to know what the decision-making process is when the SPCA is choosing which techniques to use in feral animal management: are techniques decided on by each local centre, or centrally decided? Who makes these decisions, and how are those people chosen?

Even if I cannot have answers to all of those questions (I get that your time is sparse), I’d still appreciate any boilerplate that the SPCA puts together to queries arising from the media attention.

Kind regards,
Shane Baylis

Response:

HI Shane

I can see from your LinkedIn Bio that you have an interest in conservation and have published some very useful articles.

In short (and I am happy to have more in-depth discussion at a later date, but given that Gareth Morgan and Bob Kerridge are currently hashing TNR in the media I will wait until that is aired and – hopefully – resolved) SPCA does not use TNR as a tool to manage feral cat populations in any case.

I am sure you are aware of the legal definitions around cats in NZ – but will remind in case

companion cat Common domestic cat (including a kitten unless otherwise stated) that

lives with humans as a companion and is dependent on humans for its

welfare. For the purposes of this code, will be referred to as “cat”.

feral cat For the purposes of this code, means a cat which is not a stray cat and

which has none of its needs provided by humans. Feral cats generally do

not live around centres of human habitation. Feral cat population size

fluctuates largely independently of humans, is self-sustaining and is not

dependent on input from the companion cat population.

stray cat For the purposes of this code, means a companion cat which is lost or

abandoned and which is living as an individual or in a group (colony).

Stray cats have many of their needs indirectly supplied by humans, and

live around centres of human habitation. Stray cats are likely to interbreed

with the unneutered companion cat population.

Given this definition we are keen to point out that the cats we deal with are from the companion and stray groups only.

We also are keen to point out that TNR (in our definition) is Trap Neuter Return (not release) – this delineation is important to us as we only return cats that have been “TNR’d” to the person who has been our point of contact in dealing with them. They are returned to their home property (or colony in the urban situation with a carer) with that persons blessing.

TNR is carried out in a few regions in NZ at the decision of the local SPCA (or any other groups who do so). It is a tool that is presented by our National Support Office as one that may be used when the situation is right.

TNR is offered to individuals who call about stray, healthy, wild cats that are on their property.

·         Tame cats are not TNR candidates – these are taken in to SPCA Centres where possible as strays, owners are sought, and outcomes are decided on.

·         Unhealthy/diseased wild strays are not TNR candidates – these are dealt with after trapping in conjunction with vet advice. FIV testing is fairly common in TNR animals.

·         Only healthy wild stray cats are TNR candidates – and only when the person calling with the concern agrees to TNR and therefore to having the cat returned to their property.

Individuals who call and do not want a stray cat TNR’d are told about their other options. These can include;

·         Talking to local council about trap and removal of the cat

·         Contracting a pest control group to trap and remove the cat

·         The individual personally accessing a trap and using it to remove the cat

In these circumstances advice is always given around ensuring the cat is not owned and ensuring the cat is disposed of appropriately – dumping elsewhere is not appropriate, if euthanased the method must be humane.

It is not the role of SPCA to trap and kill healthy wild stray cats.

Our reasoning around using TNR as a cat control tool is that we have not seen any improvement in cat numbers using the historical method of trap and euthanase. In fact in a number of communities, both in NZ and overseas, it has been noted that numbers coming into shelter decreased once TNR programmes were underway, whereas with the historical method numbers were increasing substantially each year.

New Zealand has too many cats, and sadly not enough of them have responsible owners who de-sex, micro-chip and care for them.

In my personal experience TNR is best coupled with a community de-sexing programme – a holistic approach to reducing cat numbers in any community. Free (or drastically reduced) price de-sexing for owned cats helps to make an enormous difference to the number of unwanted/unowned strays.

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From → Science, Scientist

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