Wolf: Return-to-Field is Better for Cats, Shelters, and Communities

Sharon Logan’s recent opinion piece (“OC Animal Care Wrong to Return Sheltered Cats Back into Neighborhoods,” July 12) only adds to the misinformation and scaremongering on the subject of unowned, free-roaming “community” cats, thereby undermining any chance for reasonable discussions and fact-based reporting.

Best Friends Animal Society operates more large-scale trap-neuter-return (TNR) and return-to-field (RTF) programs than any other organization in the country. As such, we are in a unique position to comment on the positive impact such programs have not only on the cats, but on animal shelters and the communities they serve. The TNR process is simple: cats are caught, evaluated by veterinarians, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and returned to their original outdoor homes, unable to have kittens.TNR is typically employed at a community level; RTF is essentially TNR for healthy cats brought to a shelter as “strays.” (According to OC Animal Care’s mid-year report, more than 93 percent of the 4,609 cats and kittens brought to the shelter during the first half of 2019 were categorized as “strays.”)

Historically, even the most social of these cats had little chance of making it out of overcrowded shelters alive. And by adding to the shelter’s population, they increased the likelihood of stress-related disease transmission. In short, the consequences of “sheltering” these cats was almost entirely negative—for the “strays” themselves, the adoptable owner-surrendered cats, and, of course, the staff who were expected to kill one cat after another with no end in sight.

I agree with Logan that residents need to speak up about the kinds of programing they want to see implemented by their local animal shelter. It’s important, however, that the public be well-informed. Contrary to Logan’s claim that RTF “controversial at best,” the practice is well-established across the country. As a result, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of these programs.

RTF programs have positive impacts in the shelter and the community

As RTF becomes more popular, shelters and non-profits are paying greater attention to the metrics that can be used to document its results. A study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, for example, reports the results of six large-scale RTF/TNR programs operated by Best Friends in partnership with municipal shelters. The results show median reductions of 32 percent in feline intake and 83 percent in shelter killing across the six partner shelters, as well as a median increase of 53 percent in live-release rate.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic, though, is the reduction in newborn kitten intake: 41 percent across the four shelters that tracked such data. This is compelling evidence that these programs are effective at reducing the overall population of community cats. I am unaware of any other approach that has produced comparable results.

RTF program cats are healthy

Obviously, community cats face a number of risks. However, a growing body of research tells us that the vast majority of these cats are healthy—even thriving. Indeed, the study mentioned previously put hard numbers behind what those of us familiar with these programs have known for some time. Of the nearly 73,000 cats involved in the six RTF/TNR programs, 83 percent were simply sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to where they were living in the community. Another 15 percent were adopted directly from the shelter or transferred to rescue groups for adoption. Just 0.5 percent were euthanized for serious health concerns. Such findings challenge the common misconception that these cats are unhealthy—and that RTF is, as Logan suggests, “cruel” and “abusive.”

The fact that these cats are healthy is hardly surprising. Again, those of us familiar with these programs know firsthand that many residents care for and value community cats. This helps explain why so many of them are sociable, too. It’s understandable that there can be some reluctance about returning “friendly” cats—but again, it’s important to recognize that they’re very likely doing well where they were found. What they need from the shelter isn’t impoundment but sterilization, vaccination, and a ride back to where they were found.

RTF reduces shelter overcrowding

As Logan notes, OC Animal Care is already operating at capacity (a common scenario during “kitten season”), dramatically reducing the chances of a positive outcome for an incoming “stray” cat. By sterilizing, vaccinating, and returning healthy “strays,” RTF programs reduce overcrowding and the risk of disease transmission.

These programs also free up resources for other lifesaving programs. This year, for example, OC Animal Care was able to host Emergency Bottle Baby Training for Kittens for the first time. This kind of community-focused training is virtually impossible without a robust RTF program in place to “buy” shelter staff the necessary bandwidth.

RTF is aligned with anti-cruelty laws

Logan isn’t the first to suggest that RTF might be considered abandonment (an argument that strikes me as a red herring more than anything else). She fails to acknowledge, however, a key factor underpinning the legal concept: criminal intent.

Anti-cruelty laws are designed to prevent actions that will result in foreseeable harm. As mentioned previously, though, the vast majority of community cats are healthy; there’s no reason to think that returning them—sterilized and vaccinated—to the location where they were found puts them at some increased risk. Criminal sanctions for returning a healthy cat to their outdoor home as part of a program deliberately designed to improve the cat’s overall health and well-being conflicts with the legislative intent of anti-cruelty laws.

Remember, too: these programs are becoming increasingly common across the country, operated openly in communities large and small, urban and rural. It’s difficult to imagine such a trend if Logan’s interpretation of the relevant laws were correct.

What exactly is Logan proposing?

No doubt many readers will have noticed that Logan failed to provide any recommendations for OC Animal Care. She complains that the agency’s policies and practices are “not what sheltering is supposed to be about” but has little to say about what should be done with the thousands of “stray” cats who are brought in each year.

Again, though, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of RTF compared to the “traditional” approach for managing feline intake. It’s better for the cats (including adoption candidates and lost pets), for the shelter staff, and for the community as a whole.

Peter J. Wolf is a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the U.S. and a leader in the development and operation of community cat programs.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

For a different view on this issue, consider: 

Logan: OC Animal Care Wrong to Return Sheltered Cats Back Into Neighborhoods