There is a bizarre story out of Portsmouth that raises questions concerning the handling of feral cats. The Portsmouth Humane Society fired its executive director Jenn Austin over the no-kill shelter’s policy for feral cats. The shelter has been having staff members adopt feral cats, sterilize them, and then release them back into the woods. Over 300 cats are believed to have been released in violation of state law under what is called a “trap, neuter and release” program. The shelter was fined for the violations by state officials and promised to discontinue the practice.
While the practice has been roundly denounced in this controversy, it is important to keep in mind that the staff was trying to avoid killing the cats while controlling the population. The shelter has a five-year contract with the city and will no longer accept feral cats since they are not candidates for adoption. The result however may be that feral cats will not be collected and sterilized. For many, trap, neuter, and release is a better option than euthanasia.
The practice began under former executive director Christie Chipps Peters, who is now the director of Richmond’s Department of Animal Care and Control.
The city however is now objecting that it thought that feral cats were part of the contract with the Portsmouth shelter while the shelter says that it was never equipped or empowered to handle feral cats. Since such cats are not viewed as appropriate for pets, it would seem that the only option (other than sterilization and release) would be killing all feral cats.
A feral cat is defined as “wild” or cats that have never been socialized. They avoid people and act aggressively. That may be hard to discern in some circumstances. The shelter is supposed to neuter all cats and put them up for adoption but feral cats are considered outside of the contract and standards for adoption by the shelter.
On paper, the shelter looked like a roaring success. In 2012, it took in 1,575 cats, 885 of which were adopted and 256 euthanized. The adoption rate appears to have included employee adoptions under the policy. it also contradicts the common view that feral cats are not candidates for adoption. I am unclear on this point as to whether feral cats can be domesticated as a practical matter.
Some employees objected to “adopting” the cats and releasing them in their neighborhoods. One employee said that two of the cats that she released were hit by cars.
Notably, the employees have said that Chipps Peters knew that the releasing of the animals violated state law because they used to laugh about it.
The shelter receives $325,000 a year from the city.
PETA has denounced the policy of release but does not explain what the policy should be short of housing hundreds of feral cats for the remainder of their lives. PETA has been criticized by animal activists for its support of euthanasia.
My first reaction to this story was horror at the thought of releasing cats into the wild. I still view that policy as bizarre. However, the more I looked at the story the more I was left wondering about alternatives. This is an adoption center. It seems like the city wants the shelter to “handle” feral cats but does not have any option to suggest other than killing every feral cat captured. One could argue that this is more human than leaving cats to starve or be hit by cars. Cats have also been linked to the rapid decrease in song birds.
The shelter states on its website that “we will never turn away an animal that comes to our doors… As long as the animal is happy and healthy, they can consider PHS their home.” However, that would seem to exclude feral cats (though it is again not clear how one can tell at an intake that a cat is a stray living in the woods or a feral cat). If the shelter does not accept the cat, doesn’t that mean it will be turned away and likely released by the good samaritan back into the wild?
The alternative is for the shelter to house hundreds of feral cats in a colony that is growing. Politicians have lined up to denounce the shelter for the “trap, neuter and release” policy but have notably waved off questions as what to do with the cats when asked by reporters.
So what is the solution if feral cats are not suitable for adoption? Should there just be an instant kill order for feral cats or is the sterilize and release policy the best of bad options?