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The Fake Science That Keeps Cats on the Streets

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 31, 2015

“Cat eating a rabbit” (Photo: Eddy Van 3000)

This is a piece I wrote a while ago. I read it again today and realized that it still makes an awful lot of sense, especially because the fake science of TNR is still alive in the world and at least some eager-to-please politicians are gullible enough to buy it:

Various estimates say that anywhere from 20 to 100 million feral cats—an introduced and heavily subsidized predator—now roam the United States. Together with pet cats that are allowed to wander free, they kill billions of birds, mammals, and other animals every year. Every time I write about the need to deal with this rapidly worsening problem, certain readers argue for a method called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release,” or sometimes “trap, neuter, and return.”

So let’s take a look at how it might work.

TNR is an idea with enormous appeal for many animal welfare organizations, because it means cat shelters no longer have to euthanize unwanted cats: They just neuter and immunize them, then ship them back out into the world. It’s a way to avoid the deeply dispiriting business of putting animals down, not to mention the expense of feeding and caring for the animals during the usual waiting period for a possible adoption. And it enables animal shelters to put on a happier face for donors: “We’re a shelter, not a slaughterhouse.”

TNR advocates generally cite a handful of studies as evidence that this method works. The pick of the litter is a 2003 study in which TNR enabled the University of Central Florida to reduce the feral cat population on its Orlando campus by 66 percent. On closer examination, though, what that study actually showed was that 47 percent of the cat population was removed through an intensive adoption program, another 11 percent were euthanized, and at least another six percent were killed by automobiles or moved off campus to nearby woods. TNR itself appears to have accomplished almost nothing—and took 11 years to do it.

By email, the lead author of that study, Julie K. Levy, told me that adoption is a common component of TNR programs. She added, “I’d hate to speculate about what the outcome would have been without some cat removal, as that introduces a lot of uncountable variables.” But Levy, who remains a TNR advocate, was part of a team that subsequently examined just that question in two large-scale TNR programs in San Diego County, California, and Alachua County, Florida. She and her co-authors found that “any population-level effects” from TNR alone “were minimal.”

The programs might have been effective, the co-authors suggested, if they had neutered 71 to 94 percent of all feral cats, but that was “far greater than what actually achieved.” It is, in fact, far greater than almost any TNR program ever achieves, because, as Levy has written more recently, “capturing free-roaming cats, transporting them to a central facility for sterilization, and returning them to the trapping site are resource-intensive activities,” and “challenging to sustain” on a larger scale.”

TNR advocates also frequently cite a large-scale program on 103 cat colonies in Rome, Italy. Trapping and neutering decreased the populations of 55 cat colonies—while the other 48 colonies either gained population or stayed the same. The authors of that study concluded that, in the absence of a public education campaign to stop people from abandoning cats, “all these efforts” are “a waste of money, time and energy.”

And yet TNR proponents just go on touting the same evidence, with an almost magical faith that it will somehow turn out support their almost religious beliefs. They do this, I think, because anyone who has seen a pet dies knows how emotionally devastating it can be. Twice in my life, I’ve been the person who delivered a pet to the veterinarian to be, as the euphemism has it, “put to sleep.” They rank among the worst days of my life. But both deaths were quick and painless, a matter of falling asleep on my lap, and in both those cases it was infinitely better for the animal than to go on living with disease and impairment.

That’s the choice TNR advocates refuse to make.   They see only the individual cat saved from euthanasia and willfully blind themselves to the consequences for the cat itself and for everyone else. When they cite the Rome study as a success story, for instance, they neglect to note that Italy doesn’t have rabies. In this country, on the other hand, rabies prevention efforts cost $300 million a year, and 40,000 people must receive treatment after being bitten or scratched.

Cats are three to four times more likely than dogs to have rabies—and yet TNR programs inevitably leave a significant percentage of feral cats on the street, untreated, for years at a time, aggravating the rabies problem and numerous other diseases of both cats and humans. Because of the threat to public health, most communities have laws preventing individuals from hoarding animals even in the privacy of their homes. But as the authors of one recent article on cat-borne diseases put it, TNR “is essentially cat hoarding without walls.”

The cats in TNR programs also go on killing. Let’s say each cat kills 30 birds a year—and the local TNR program has a population of 100 cats. Over a 10-year period, that program has made itself an accessory to 30,000 unnecessary deaths. (Yes, I’m assuming that the population stays the same. That’s because a lot of TNR programs explicitly aim “to maintain stable cat populations.”) TNR advocates see the cat deaths as individual tragedies. But birds somehow just die as populations, or species. Because the cats do their killing out of our sight, and without our direct intervention, people fail to see that those other deaths are equally individual, and—because cats like to have their fun–far more cruel.

Despite all this, TNR continues to gain popularity. It could well show up next in your community. Politicians like how it sounds to be against killing, so they are easy targets for TNR advocates driven by an extremely narrow definition of “animal welfare.” Be prepared to stand up and remind community leaders that if they are genuinely against killing animals—and if they believe in protecting public health–they need to be against TNR.


If you want to know more about outdoor cats, try these articles:

Governor Vetoes Bill Pretending Outdoor Cats are Wildlife

Posted on October 28, 2015

Thank common sense for this week’s decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to kill this bit of misguided legislation.  It would have treated cats as wildlife and wasted public money on a methodology (Trap, Neuter, Release) that does nothing to control outdoor cat populations.  It would also have worked to the detriment of genuine […]

Read the rest of this post…

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Edit | 6 Comments »

How Outdoor Cats Mess Up Our Minds

Posted on March 19, 2015

Neuroscientists are coming closer to understanding how cat-borne Toxoplasmosis messes with the brains of mice, men, and women. With apologies, the press release could be a lot more clear in describing a new study showing how this parasite affects the brain.  But I’m on another deadline, and want to post this now because it’s important […]

Read the rest of this post…

Posted in Environmental Issues | Edit | Leave a Comment »

A Clownish Way to Make Outdoor Cats Less Deadly

Posted on February 28, 2015

My latest for Takepart: Stare deeply into a cat’s eyes, and you’ll see the unavoidable truth: It is a sleek, stealthy, killing machine. In the United States, outdoor cats kill billions of birds, amphibians, and small mammals every year. Despite a widespread campaign by environmentalists to persuade people to keep their little killers indoors, many […]

Read the rest of this post…

Posted in Cool Tools, Environmental Issues, Kill or Be Killed | Edit | 2 Comments »

Readers Respond To “The Evil of Outdoor Cats”

Posted on March 31, 2014

These letters appeared today in the NY Times, in response to my article “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat.” The letter from the Humane Society executive is the most interesting.  It says that neither the Humane Society nor other groups can sell euthanasia of feral cats to the public, and therefore we should leave feral […]

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Edit | 4 Comments »

CSI (and a Poison Pill) for Cats that Kill

Posted on August 14, 2015

Domestic cats have become notorious in recent years as one of the most destructive invasive species on the planet, now threatening dozens of bird and mammal species with extinction. (That’s on top of the 30 or so species they have already eradicated.) When conservationists are trying to restore a threatened species to its old habitats, […]

Read the rest of this post…

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Kill or Be Killed | Edit | 4 Comments »

Brain-Manipulating Parasite: A Gift From Your Outdoor Cat

Posted on February 16, 2015

Two professors from Indiana University School of Medicine have a disturbing story in Scientific American about the threat to human health from outdoor cats.  Here’s the lead: Imagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all […]

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Edit | 7 Comments »

The Unnatural World of Killer House Cats

Posted on March 28, 2014

My latest for Takepart: Earlier this week, I published an article in the New York Times remembering a cat I once owned and loved named Lucky. She was my last outdoor cat, partly because her own death was a bloody reminder of just how dangerous the outdoor life can be for the cats themselves: She […]

Read the rest of this post…

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Edit | 13 Comments »

The Evil of the Outdoor House Cat

Posted on March 21, 2014

My latest for The New York Times: Once upon a time I had a cat named Lucky, and the name fit. She turned up on our doorstep as a stray and stayed with us for 10 years, until her rather gruesome demise. (More about that later.) I liked her because she was a free spirit, […]

Read the rest of this post…

Posted in Environmental Issues | Edit | 44 Comments »

The Deadly Gamble When Cats Go Free

Posted on February 10, 2014

The Washington Post ran a story over the weekend about feral cats and the flawed and falsely “humane” ideology of “trap-neuter-release,” or TNR.  Here’s an excerpt:  The American Bird Conservancy points to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s 2013 review of previously published studies that estimated free-roaming cats kill 1.3 billion to 4 billion birds a […]

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Posted in Environmental Issues | Edit | Leave a Comment »

11 Responses to “The Fake Science That Keeps Cats on the Streets”

  1. Johanna van de Woestijne said

    You are ahead of the thinking sometimes. Thanks for revisiting this.

  2. Eva Ries said

    Thank you, Richard! Please keep publishing and pushing back, the public deserves to know and understand how they bullies have conned them and lied to them to get them believing in Trap-Nuisance-ReDump.

  3. Here’s another recent review of scientific evidence on TNR:

  4. I thought you might be interested in this Citizen Science project that I wrote about. It’s focused on domestic cats and having owners track them as a way to encourage people to make the right choice and keep cats inside.

    Lisa Feldkamp
    Senior Coordinator New Science Audiences
    TNC Science Communications

    • G’day Richard (and also Lisa)

      Thanks for your piece on the failings of TNR, which is being pushed by a few groups in Australia at the moment, and gains an annoying amount of traction. I agree it does nothing to reduce cat numbers (as well as being expensive and labour intensive), but I would also argue that TNR delivers very poor animal welfare outcomes for cats, because it returns them to a short, miserable existence (characterised by pain, disease and hunger).

      The University of South Australia (my home State) is running a ‘Cat Tracker’ project which sounds very similar to the international one referred to by Lisa. The University is aiming to track 500 cats – and they are well on the way (I count 184 so far). You can find them at:

      My interest is that I have been campaigning for some years for a local bylaw requiring all cats to be kept confined to their owners’s properties at all times within my local Adelaide Hills Council area (which is a peri-urban area, with high biodiversity sites interspersed with houses), as well as elsewhere in Australia.

      I administer a Facebook site called ‘Keep Your Cat At Home’, which attempts to keep interested people up to date on what is happening about the issue in Australia, and about opportunities to influence policy.


      David Mussared
      (Chair, Aldgate Valley Landcare Group)

  5. […] RARE FOOTAGE OF FDR AT NIH What Makes a Volcano Sacred? Astronomers and Native Hawaiian activists agree that Mauna Kea is a portal to the universe, they just can’t agree on how it should be used Greater than the sum of its parts: It is rare for a new animal species to emerge in front of scientists’ eyes. But this seems to be happening in eastern North America Why NASA Needs a Programmer Fluent In 60-Year-Old Languages The Fake Science That Keeps Cats on the Streets […]

  6. […] Trap, neuter, release does not work […]

  7. […] neuter, release (TNR) has been used on wild horses (at great expense) and feral cats, so far unsuccessfully, and has contributed to the deaths of countless native birds, reptiles and small mammals on which […]

  8. Rune Megara said

    You’re a fool to think that TNR doesn’t work or help. I’ve observed first hand both methods and the TNR area saw positive results. The other area spent years trying to round up the cats only for more to keep flooding in from other areas. Unless you propose to just up and euthanize all the cats in a given state you’re unlikely to curb the growth of new colonies. Meanwhile, leaving a dozen or two fixed cats in an area will both deter new cats from encroaching their territory while also minimizing population growth.

    Also that bit about rabies, that doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of actual science or study to back that up. You can’t take a small sample pool and call it conclusive when living conditions and situations vary from place to place. I live in Southern California and I haven’t heard of a rabies case in years. On the other hand, there’s plenty of stray (or simply unattended) dogs that get into peoples’ yards and living spaces where they can do serious damage.

    Likewise, if the amount of animals killed by cats was as high as folks like you claim, we’d have seen a sharp decline if not outright extinction of many bird populations years ago. Yet not only are they still around, they’re clearly thriving. In the different neighborhoods where I know cat colonies exist, I have no come across an abundance of dead animals left behind by cats “being cats” or whatever nonsense is being purported. If the numbers are that high, they wouldn’t be eating anywhere near enough to hide that many dead birds or small mammals.

    I think you grossly underestimate the ability for species cohabitation and the hardiness of wildlife to handle food chains.

    • I do love a comment that begins, “You are such a fool.” It suggests such willingness to look at the evidence with an open mind. Go and read the scientific studies, as I have done. You will find that even the ones authored by scientists who wish TNR worked cannot find any evidence that it actually does. Meanwhile, “I’ve observed first hand … doesn’t sound like … I haven’t heard of … I have no(t) come across …I think” are all mere opinions that don’t even rise to the level of anecdotal evidence. Come back when you have done some actual homework.

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