SoSo hangs out in the back yard. Photo by Laura Hedden
In the summer of 2014 my 15-year-old cat Violet was diagnosed with lymphoma. About that same time, three young female cats started showing up in my backyard. I didn’t pay much attention to them: Violet was dying.
After I said goodbye to her, I was cat-less for the first time in many years. I love cats. When I see a cat (or a dog or any other furry-four-legged creature) I regress to the emotional and mental level of an excited 9-year-old.
I started looking forward to the occasional glimpses of the outside kitties. A lot.
Of course, at first I wasn’t going to feed them. My significant other, Brad, said, “Don’t start feeding those cats. They’ll never leave.” I nodded in agreement, but my inner nine-year-old whispered, “So?”
Forty-something-year-old me held out for a few days before I caved. Then I told myself it couldn’t hurt to let them have the rest of Violet’s food. Brad looked dubious.
“I’m just going to give them what’s left of Violet’s food, that’s all,” I told him. Even I knew I was full of it.
Feeding and visiting with them soon became part of my morning routine.
But, I didn’t stop there. I trapped them, had them spayed and vaccinated, and returned them to my backyard. I named them.
At the time, I didn’t realize it, but there are people out there who would have me drawn and quartered for that.
When I first started to write a story about my backyard kitties it was supposed to be a heart-warming, slice-of-life tale of how the three of them became part of my life and helped me through the grieving process.
Doing research on feral, abandoned, or otherwise homeless cats led me to a lot of information on trap-neuter-release (TNR), which turns out to be an extremely controversial issue. Both sides are equally passionate and I was concerned that the tale of how I handled my homeless cat issue could possibly stoke the ire of the anti-TNR camp. Telling the story would be like opening a can of angry worms. More than one colleague suggested I delve deeper, expand upon the pros and cons of TNR, and share the reasons why I support TNR as a solution to the incredibly complicated and emotional issue of feral cat overpopulation.
It never occurred to me that trying to help three homeless cats in my backyard was equal to declaring my support of or belief in the practice of TNR. Three cats does not constitute a colony. One act of kindness (at least, 'I' think I did them a kindness) doesn’t add up to commitment to a cause.
I didn’t even know feral/free-roaming cat colonies were such a widespread problem.
I also never realized that there was such fierce opposition to the practice of TNR – its detractors being firmly convinced that its effects on the feral cat population are minimal, at best.
No, actually, I don’t live under a rock.
Feral cats, homeless cats, stray cats, free-roaming cats - call them whatever you like. It’s tough to estimate their real numbers, but it is believed there are millions of them across the globe. One thing is for certain: they’re not always welcome. Urine marking, destruction of wildlife and private property, loud fighting/mating, spread of disease, and injuries to pet cats allowed outside are just a few of the common complaints made by nearby residents who want local government to step in and solve the problem.
There are hundreds of organizations whose volunteers spend countless hours tracking, feeding, and caring for cat colonies in their communities.
Without all of the facts, it’s easy to write this battle off as cat-lovers vs. cat-haters. But for me that perception was just a defensive, knee-jerk reaction, and further research showed that it doesn’t seem to be the reality.
Many TNR opponents believe that humane capture and destruction (truly feral cats are rarely adoptable) is the most effective way to control feral and free-roaming cat populations, and that this method is best for the cats, the community, and the environment overall. They have a great deal of data that firmly backs up their theory.
TNR advocates disagree, citing studies that show that TNR and subsequent management of cat colonies reduces their numbers, prevents the spread of disease, and eventually leads to the dissolution of the colony through attrition.
Both sides are passionate and vehement, presenting strong arguments in support of their positions.
Before I started writing this story, I didn’t know much about TNR or the arguments against it. After writing it I still don’t know which side I’m on. There are times when being able to understand and agree with elements from both sides of an argument can be extremely frustrating. This is one of them.
If you want to learn more about feral cats and TNR, just do a simple Internet search on TNR. You’ll find hundreds of articles and thousands of facts covering both sides of the issue. I read one blog post where a woman described how she handled a cat that someone dumped at her house: she trapped it, had it spayed and vaccinated, and then drove it to another neighborhood where she dumped it in someone else's yard. She really thought she'd done something good. I like to believe I'm not quite that clueless.
But I didn't intend or desire to start yet another heated debate about the pros and cons of TNR.
I just wanted to tell you about Notso, SoSo, and Penny - three cats who showed up in my backyard one day from who-knows-where and gave me something to smile about when I was sad. Helping them made me feel good. They won’t be having any babies. I'm not managing a colony. They’re not very good at catching birds (not that they don’t try), but they bring me an occasional dead rodent. They don’t wander far from my yard (well, sometimes they poop in the neighbor’s landscaping, but so far she hasn’t complained). And if I ever move, they won’t become someone else’s problem or a nuisance to the neighborhood because I’ll take them with me. They like me and they seem pretty content with the situation.
And if the cats are happy, the inner-nine-year-old is happy...and that makes the forty-something-year-old happy.
May 19, 2019
January 5, 2016
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.