An open letter to the community cats of Fremont, California

 



April 25, 2024


To The Felines It May Concern:


I understand that the City of Fremont has a “community cat” program, managed by the Tri-City Animal Shelter and Fremont Animal Services, and that there is some concern about the management of these feral cats.


Article from the Municipal Journal in Fremont. 

First, an introduction. I obtained a PhD in Biological Ecology from the University of California, Davis, in 1986, and am an Emeritus Associate Professor at Utah State University (USU), where I have held positions since 1991. Before USU, I was a Natural Resources Specialist in the Department of Forestry and Resource Management at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on oak woodland regeneration and wildlife issues in north coastal California, including Alameda County.  From 1991-2002, I was a faculty member in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at USU, and in 2002, I moved to the newly created Department of Environment and Society because of my interest in the human dimensions of wildlife management.  My research focused on the complex relationships between people and wildlife. These days, I spend most of my time doting on my grandchildren, volunteering, and traveling. 


I represent only myself, not my professional societies nor my various employers. I apologize in advance for being verbose, but complex issues require thoughtful responses. And I apologize for being overly simplistic, since there are many, many published articles about cat management in communities and the impacts of cats on wildlife.


First, some clarity. There is an intermingling of terms when it comes to outdoor cats, commonly called free-roaming cats. Owned outdoor cats are the classic pet cat. Somebody claims ownership and provides care, but the cats are allowed to roam outside the home for some portion of the day. Unowned outdoor cats can be abandoned pet cats, or cats never socialized to people… feral cats. The conventional wisdom is that truly feral cats can only be socialized as pets with significant effort, if at all. Community cats usually refer to all free-roaming cats, pets and ferals.


Cats are strange creatures in law, in that they are not managed or defined as wildlife, yet they can behave and live as “wild life.” It is a sad state of affairs that they seem to be defined more as “property”, with unowned cats being “unclaimed property” to be disposed of as local communities and state law dictate.


Fremont, like most cities, has a combination of outdoor cats, including free-roaming pets and free-roaming feral cats. Communities differ in how these cats are managed. Traditionally, many communities trapped free-roaming cats. If possible, owners were notified and reunited with their pets. For unowned ferals, the application of true or imitation (drowning, gunshot, carbon monoxide, vehicle exhaust) euthanasia techniques resulted in dead cats.


A few points need to be made regarding this traditional scheme of killing cats. First, over the past 100 years, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cats have been killed in the US, and there are still… millions of cats. Tens of millions. Cat killing programs usually were directed toward specific problem cats or cat populations, and not long-term population reduction goals. When complaints stopped, killing stopped. That is not a recipe for population management, which is why, in spite of multiple decades of cat removal, there are still free-roaming cats.


In addition, the agencies who traditionally killed free-roaming cats are leaving cat-killing behind. The prevalence of “No Kill” shelters is increasing across the country. In other words, animal shelters are trying to get away from animal killing unless it is medically or behaviorally indicated for a specific animal.


Finally, the people who actually kill animals in shelters and lab facilities often are stressed by this activity. Referred to as a “caring–killing paradox” or “compassion fatigue,” the act of killing otherwise healthy animals is not something that animal technicians, veterinarians, and animal control officers enjoy.


There are many other issues at work here. The general attitude of people toward cats. Cats as emotional support animals, or as four-legged friends. Human values focused on compassion and welfare toward cats. The cost of cat eradication programs. The political response to cat eradication programs.


In other words, in my humble opinion, it seems like society is trying to get out of the cat-killing business. Arguments promoting cat killing seem to be “going against the flow.”


I’m not arguing that feral cats should not be managed. Even an intentional “hands-off” strategy could still be considered management. I suggest that management (or no management) should be intentional, thoughtful, compassionate, lawful, and in line with community standards.


With that said, there are certainly situations when targeted eradication programs seem warranted, such as when 1) the presence of cats threatens human health and safety, 2) other species are in immediate need of protection from cat predation, and 3) areas being managed for values that do not include the presence of cats are having those values threatened. The latter concern would involve natural areas or areas of biological significance.




And “eradication” doesn’t always mean “kill.” I mean eradication to mean absence. The criticality of the situation will determine the strategy. For example, a suspected rabies exposure event requires immediate capture for testing or quarantine. Feral cats in a natural area could do well relocated elsewhere as barn cats for a willing farmer.



Back to management. Quality Trap-Neuter-Return-Maintain (TNRM) cat management programs are site-specific, and involve a series of required steps, including initial monitoring, trapping, coordinating trips to a clinic for spay or neuter surgery and rabies vaccination, returning altered cats to the trap site or preparing them for adoption, and continued monitoring for the arrival of new cats. What do TNRM programs do? For one, they prevent kittens from being born, chiefly through spaying queens. The monitoring allows for rapid identification, and then capture, of new, intact cats, followed by sterilization.  A quality TNRM program should result in a rapid stabilization of cat colony numbers, followed by a slow decline in numbers. The rate of decline is dependent on the percentage of cats altered. Modeling indicates that the  focus should be reaching at least 75% of the colony’s population. The rate of population decline is also dependent on the enforcement of a “no pet dumping” ordinance or an effective education program to deal with abandonment and immigration.



It should be noted that in a quality TNRM program, a veterinarian or an experienced vet tech or caretaker makes the decision whether an animal should be prepared for adoption, released, treated for a medical condition, or euthanized.



The results of TNRM programs are site specific. The administration of a program in one neighborhood may be different than another neighborhood, resulting in varying levels of success. And as with trap and kill programs, as personnel and funding change, so will success. Oftentimes TNRM programs involve dedicated volunteers. I suspect a staffer with the Tri-City Animal Shelter, or even a skilled contractor, dedicated to training and overseeing these volunteers, would increase the quality and sophistication of these programs. That brings up an important distinction between trap and kill programs, and TNRM programs.  Trap and kill usually involves a small number of animal control employees, while TNRM can involve hundreds of residents doing the work. Community involvement for community cats.  I like that.






Alternative suggestions, such as “catios” or cat-specific, outdoor fenced patios, have utility for keeping owned, outdoor cats from roaming. I fully support keeping cats indoors or in catios, for both the health of cats and the protection of wildlife. Unfortunately, it is hard to see the utility of catios for large numbers of feral cats, and catios are a luxury for families who struggle to pay for food and housing.


In an ideal world, there are no feral cats, and all pet cats are indoor cats. But in the real world, feral cats roam across the urban landscape, and many pet cats are allowed to roam as well. How are these cats to be managed? Who will be responsible for management? How will management programs be funded? Who speaks for the welfare of the cats, or for the wildlife?


I don’t envy the decision-makers in Fremont, or other urban centers. And here is the most important thing I can recommend. With the status quo, the sky isn’t falling tomorrow. You can try different management programs, and see what works in your community. Keep good records, demand quality programs, and maintain funding. Reassess your programs every 5 years. The future will include new and inexpensive sterilization methodologies, and your program should be prepared to use them.


Good luck with your community cat management. You are not alone in trying to find solutions for this wicked problem.


Sincerely,


Robert Schmidt, PhD

Ecologist




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