An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. In December 2020, Los Angeles joined thousands of cities across the country in hosting a trap-neuter-release program to help manage the out of control stray cat population. Now with the help of cat-loving volunteers like you, LA will be a safer place for wildlife and wild cats alike.
What is the TNR program?
Trap-neuter-release, or TNR, is a well-respected program hosted by either municipalities, veterinarians, or individuals to control the feral cat population. By catching and fixing strays, there are fewer new litters of kittens born and eventually, the entire cat population declines. While this may sound sad, this is much more humane than the alternative of mass euthanasia and prevents unnatural gaps in the outdoor cat population.
Instead of putting down otherwise healthy outside cats, TNR aims to catch as many strays as possible and give them proper veterinary healthcare. It’s kinder to the cats and doesn’t disturb the existing balance between predator and prey. Win-win!
First, volunteers or other TNR participants set humane cages to trap the cats. Then, the cat is taken to a participating veterinarian who checks for serious diseases, pregnancy, and other health concerns. If the cat is healthy enough to be returned to the wild, the vet administers a rabies shot, spays or neuters the animal, and notches its ear for identification. After a short recovery time, the cat is returned to its home where it lives out its days in the wild.
The other option is to take strays to a cat rescue or pet shelter. Truly feral cats aren’t housepets and are unadoptable, meaning thousands of healthy animals are euthanized every year. By simply giving stray cats good healthcare and preventing overpopulation, TNR saves millions of feline lives.
Why stray cats need to be fixed
Consider the reason cats end up living in the wild. Countless unwanted kittens and pet cats are dumped outdoors instead of finding appropriate new homes or being sent to cat rescues. Other strays are lost indoor/outdoor cats who had no choice but to make a new life on the streets. Many strays were born that way: their parents were strays, their grandparents were strays, and so on.
The common denominator? Too many cats, not enough homes. TNR breaks the cycle.
Los Angeles may be home to hundreds of thousands of outdoor cats, but that doesn’t mean it’s a safe environment. Wild cats are in danger of being harmed, too. LA traffic is killer – literally! Cats are hit by cars every day. Others get injured by wild animals, pick up dangerous diseases, eat rat poison, or suffer countless other hazards. Feral kitten survival rates are very low: only about 25% make it to adulthood. Preventing excessive kitten births prevents kitten deaths.
Aside from keeping future cats from living in difficult outdoor situations, population control maintains a healthy balance between species in the city. Cats are natural-born hunters, so large cat colonies have tragic effects on native birds and other small animal species. The odd indoor/outdoor cat won’t shatter California’s delicate ecosystem, but when clowders of stray cats breed and have kittens at an uncontrolled rate, the balance is shifted.
Cats can begin breeding at only six months of age. In fact, a single female cat can carry up to 3 litters in a year and give birth to as many as 200 kittens in her lifetime. If those kittens then go unneutered, populations quickly reach unmanageable levels.
TNR programs keep the scales in check.
Opposition to TNR techniques
Outdoor cat behavior is a touchy subject around the world. Some insist that cats are natural hunters and it’s in their best interest to roam while others prefer cats to remain safely indoors. Either way, everyone agrees that too many outdoor cats is problematic.
Opponents of TNR programs are concerned about the welfare of wildlife, and rightly so. Stray cats damage local bird, lizard, and small mammal populations even in the best case scenario. Rare and migratory birds like warblers and tanagers are in grave danger whenever they cross paths with a pack of stray cats. They just aren’t equipped to survive in an ecosystem with these kinds of predators.
TNR is embraced by animal welfare programs and wildlife experts, but some people are concerned about the rate of progress. It takes years for TNR to curb the cat population, and some endangered prey species just can’t wait that long.
For this reason, TNR opponents argue that the most effective way to reduce the cat population is simply mass euthanasia. While this inhumane practice has an immediate positive impact on wildlife and dramatically reduces the population at first, it tends to backfire.
The “vacuum effect” is a population density shifting phenomenon among all animals. When a territorial animal dies or is removed, others of the species respond to the new access to food and space by instinctively filling the void with enthusiastic breeding. Habitats are meant to support a certain population size, and nature has a way of replacing what is lost. More space means more kittens.
The well-intentioned practice of trapping and removing cats triggers the vacuum effect, too, so the only long-term solution is to gradually adjust the cat population by lowering birth rates.
Los Angeles’s approach to trap-neuter-release
On December 8, 2020, The Los Angeles City Council voted to instate the new Citywide Cat Program to perform trap-neuter-releases. This decision follows nearly a decade of legal trouble.
In 2008, wildlife advocates sued the city, halted the existing TNR program, and demanded an environmental assessment of the cat population’s effect on local wildlife. Recognizing the potential damage, a judge agreed with the advocates and issued an injunction. The city then conducted a 3 year study, determined that the TNR program would not further harm wildlife populations, and brought the proposal to the city council. The vote was unanimous.
Here’s what you need to know about the new Los Angeles Citywide Cat Program.
- The current stray cat population is around 342,000. The Citywide Cat Program intends to use $2 million municipal funds per year to neuter and spay 20,000 cats per year. That’s more than a million kitten births prevented!
- The program estimates that this nonlethal method will decrease the cat population by 14% over the next 30 years and avoid triggering the vacuum effect. Some cats will be released at warehouses, barns, and other places where a robust cat population serves as pest control.
- The TNR program was previously done by individuals and nonprofits, but now that the City has taken the reins, the financial burden is eased.
- Los Angeles is now the largest city to have entered the program at the municipal level. With luck, more major cities will follow suit and enact their own humane cat population control programs.
How you can help
If you are feeding or otherwise caring for your neighborhood outdoor cats, take the next step. TNR programs in Los Angeles and other cities rely on volunteers like you!
- First, locate veterinarians and pet clinics that participate in the TNR program. You will need to adhere to their normal hours of operation and the vet’s availability, so plan ahead.
- Set traps on your property or wherever a cat colony is established. The most popular option is to leave a small amount of cat food as bait in a humane one-way box trap. Cats are most active in the evenings, night, and early mornings, so check the traps around mid-morning. Be patient when trapping feral cats; they’re clever!
- Once you’ve caught a cat, make sure it’s eligible for neutering. Cats that have already been through the TNR process will be missing the tip of one ear and can be released immediately. If you manage to trap a very young kitten, it should be released to its mother who is undoubtedly nearby.
- If you determine the cat to be eligible for the TNR program, cover the cage with a sheet or tarp for safety and transport it to the clinic. Be very careful when handling the trap; feral cats that bite humans risk on-the-spot euthanization on suspicion of rabies.
- Some clinics offer overnight care while the cat recovers, but others will send the cat home with you. You’ll need to provide food, water, and shelter in a quiet place away from other animals or humans.
- A well-recovered cat will be alert and behave normally. There should be no bleeding, vomiting, or obvious pain. After 24 hours, release the healthy cat to the location where you found it and pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
The most important step in the TNR program is to keep pet cats safe at home and off the streets.
The City of Los Angeles is continuing to educate the public about proper cat care, the importance of neutering, and options for cat shelters. Remember, city ordinance mandates that pet cats be spayed or neutered and remain as indoor-only pets. If your cat has kittens that you can’t keep or you’re no longer able to care for your kitty, don’t release it to the wild even if it has been neutered. Always look for your kitty’s future forever home by reaching out to people hoping to adopt or seek out cat rescues.
Over the next few cat generations, LA’s feline population will decline — in a good way! The wild bird and small animal populations will grow stronger and the cats who remain will live healthier lives, thanks to the newly launched trap-neuter-release program.