Trap, Neuter and Return: A New Ethic Takes Root

Trap, Neuter and Return: A New Ethic Takes Root

Trap, Neuter and Return: A New Ethic Takes Root

Cats and other animals, including free-living animals in endangered communities, have moral worth. In this feature, Lee Hall shows how the “TNR” approach works to address the needs of all.

Feral cats: Who are they, really? Born outside, in window wells, under buildings, they’re the young of the domesticated cats we humans have lost or left behind.

Some cats living within feral groups once lived in homes. A few are found declawed. Now and then — more often than we’d like to think — a cat has outlived an owner only to be thrown out by surviving family members. There are the young cats left by students on campuses, and cats suddenly left to their own devices because someone moved to a place with a no-pet rule, or had a baby, or was diagnosed with allergies.

They appear outside apartments as residents leave. Cats are more attached to places than to human beings, some people tell themselves — and while the thought might be convenient, it’s untrue. Dependence is bred into domestic cats, who look to us for care and sustenance. On their own, they typically gravitate to bins where we discard food.

The homeless cats’ young, born outside and never handled by people, do hide at the sound or sight of a human being. If cornered, they might shrink to fit the smallest crevice, or hiss out of fright. When trapped, some feral cats will jump, ricochet-style, at the sides of the cage, frantically seeking an escape; but many more will cower in fright at the back of the trap. If the trap is opened they don’t attack, but run away.

Caring people might catch a few of the littlest ones and bring them to the pounds to be adopted. Those found at a few weeks of age can easily adapt to human homes. Yet most such kittens will be killed after three to seven days, depending on the policy in the state where the cats are found. If listed as surrendered, they might be killed even sooner.

If left outside, these kittens might be chased by children, maintenance workers, or even joy riders. Some people in the Midwestern United States have even argued for their reclassification as wild animals so they can be hunted. In our culture, it’s having an owner that protects a domestic cat from harm. A cat indoors might live 20 years. A feral cat without any caregiver might, with good luck, survive two years.

Oftentimes it seems feral cats are among the most mistreated and maligned animals on Earth. When an Iowa town offered a $5 bounty to people who turned in feral cats earlier this year, a spokesperson from the world’s wealthiest animal-protection group announced having no problem with people killing a stray cat, if they know what they are doing.1

But then there are rays of hope.

Cape May, New Jersey

This year, after first suggesting they’d drop the whole idea, Cape May is continuing to respect the lives of outdoor cats. The main reason? Many people do care about cats, and they’re willing to act on that feeling. More than 9,000 proponents, including supporters of Washington, DC-based Alley Cat Allies, petitioned the city council for a cat-friendly agreement; at the same time, dozens of local supporters rallied in front of Cape May’s City Hall.

The cats were accused of killing shorebirds — as cats sometimes will. The main threat to birds, though, isn’t cats. It’s us. Our electric poles kill birds in the tens of thousands; and annual estimates of birds killed by cars or glass windows run to the hundreds of millions.2 As developers carve up the land, birds are left with only fragments of forest and seashore . That doesn’t mean we should ignore the effects of domesticated cats, but even the cats’ presence is a predicament we created. It’s hardly decent or just to kill them for being bred into being. We’re not killing ourselves for having done that.

Moreover, to simply wipe out a cat population in a given area ignores the role cats begin to play in a local ecology. Cycles of abrupt trapping and killing can actually harm the local balance, causing, for example, sharp rises in the rodent population.

But where endangered species are concerned, most environmental ethicists have little patience. Holmes Rolston III, a Colorado State University professor and a well-known environmental philosopher, goes so far as to say that where domesticated cats threaten endangered birds, the pain of either the cat or bird is irrelevant; the paramount issue is to protect an endangered species.3

It’s a serious matter that birds are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. All animal advocates ought to be alarmed that communities of birds are rapidly disappearing from the planet. At the same time, psychologist and author Jeffrey Masson observes, “True, the cats should not be here.” But the cats, says Masson, are only doing what comes naturally to them.4

For now, Cape May has softened its harsh stance. The city will continue employing the trap-neuter-return (TNR) method it first embraced twelve years ago. The strategy is to catch each cat in a humane trap, and sterilize each one. After surgery, a cat recuperates (optimally for a few days), and is then returned back to the group, called a colony, to be looked after by caring individuals. The result is a stabilized group of cats with consistent access to food and water. TNR frees the cats from the deadly stress and dangers of constant reproduction: pregnancy, crossing busy streets looking for mates, and trying to look after numerous kittens. As sterilization ends the cycle of mating and conflict, it is also the best form of disease prevention — and it makes for much quieter nights. And obviously, neutering relieves the local human community of the influx of domestic cats into the world of prized gardens and endangered shorebirds.

Cape May cats living near endangered shorebirds’ nests are carefully moved 1,000 feet from the area and monitored. Outdoor cats who might not yet be neutered will be brought to a clinic. Thus, for now, Cape May continues to showcase a vital example of TNR supporters at work, caring for and phasing out populations of domestic but homeless cats.

Renewed Faith in Today's World

Marie Ansari is a feral cat consultant in New Jersey, working and teaching with the group Lawyers in Defense of Animals. Like many other caregivers, Marie relies on Friends of Animals veterinary certificates for low-cost sterilization. But while New Jersey acknowledges the importance of TNR, the state stops short of mandating that communities permit TNR, instead leaving the decision to the municipality. Thus, although the state health department’s Office of Animal Welfare embraces TNR as a solution, caregivers of stable colonies still may find themselves without rights if municipal officials — many of whom fail to comprehend TNR — want the cats removed.5

At this point, the people themselves are stepping in, leading the way to ethical policies, by demonstrating caring in action. And governments are starting to follow.

It was no secret that residents of the Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland, NJ, were, year after year, caring for cats roaming the grounds there. But this year, the cats received their own gazebo. M ade partially from recycled materials, the gazebo offers a space for residents to safely feed and care for the ten cats who live on the grounds.6

The Animal Friends Foundation paid for the gazebo after obtaining $21,500 from the Cumberland County Improvement Authority. Almost half the grant will pay for the gazebo; the rest will fund a low-cost sterilization plan .

Like other residents, Wini Gronvold, aged 84, enjoys caring for the cats, including one with three legs. Previously, said Gronvold, m ost of them lived in the sewer.

In a letter to the Daily Journal, Vineland resident Suzanne Piccone said Gronvold and the other caregivers “ gave me renewed faith in today's world… Rather than show apathy in a bad situation and walk away in silence, these people displayed real humanity, and the benefits were indeed newsworthy and made many feel very grateful.”7

Help Arrives in Delaware and Pennsylvania

Felicia Cross, an engineer by profession, became aware of the suffering of homeless cats when living in Cork, Ireland in the late 1990s. At the time, killing was the only method used on outdoor cats, but it would be deemed ineffective and eventually discontinued.

What happened in Ireland is what happens everywhere: Removing feral cats from a given area allows another group of cats to move into their place, surviving off the food source that supported the earlier group. The naturalist Roger Tabor, who, in observations of feral cats in London in the 1970s, found that feral cats are not loners but live in highly social colonies, called this the vacuum effect.8 The new cats continue to reproduce — and so do their babies, starting when they’re only about five or six months old. Without intervention, a single cat and her offspring could produce a colony of twenty in a year, and over 100 by the next year — although most kittens born outdoors, without a caregiver, will fail to find shelter or food to sustain them beyond the first two years of their lives.

The TNR method is a breath of fresh air. It enables caretakers to stabilize one area at a time, providing health care when it’s needed. Neutering — the “N” in TNR — is the key to stopping the births. The returned cats, now a stabilized group, will defend the territory and keep other cats from moving in. This way, over time, the colony will get smaller, and, with public education to stop abandonment, can be phased out entirely.

Felicia Cross researched the benefits of TNR, then educated locally, describing it as a “win-win”: local caregivers could ensure individual cats’ lives are spared; and as roving tom cats will either be neutered or stop visiting, those opposed to feral cats in their area would know the colony size would diminish almost immediately. People were convinced. The work of sterilizing 900 cats during Cross’s last year in Ireland was accomplished.

Cross went on to found the U.S.-based group Forgotten Cats in 2004, together with Connie Hoopes–the behind-the-scenes person who returns every call and educates people about the benefits of TNR. With tens of millions of feral cats, the United States has the world’s biggest feral cat population. It’s thought that 25% of the world’s domestic cats live in the U.S.9 Forgotten Cats opened its first U.S. clinic with an eye to phasing out ferals within a 100-mile radius of Wilmington, Delaware. Recently, the group opened a second clinic in Pennsylvania.

In Philadelphia, Cross has found, about half of the cats living in feral colonies are actually tame. But all of the cats are like those in people’s homes; the only difference, as Cross says, is that society has turned its back on them.  “The adoptable cats we rescue from the streets are so loving, no matter how badly they were treated. It breaks your heart to see them in the condition we get them.”

Today, Forgotten Cats sterilizes about 7,000 cats and finds homes for about 800 annually. With public support, the group hopes to open clinics in Maryland and New Jersey, and to increase the number of cats assisted several times over.

“What Can I Do To Make It Right?”

I had an urgent reason to check out the group’s services when two feral cats, a pair of siblings about ten months old, arrived at my place — perhaps sensing that I have other cats and thinking this was the place to look for a food source.

But with travel and talks on the calendar, I wasn’t prepared for two more cats. Still, here they were. If I let even a few days pass without acting, they could be having babies of their own.

So I phoned Forgotten Cats. Soon, the thought of doing more TNR seemed less daunting. The Delaware branch had a two-week waiting list for sterilizations, but could provide equipment, transportation, and moral support. Volunteers even offered to catch the cats and take them to their clinic. The cats receive pain medication as well as the normal anesthesia. To relieve the caregiver of any extra appointments, Forgotten Cats uses dissolvable stitches that don’t need to be professionally removed. Once recuperation is complete, volunteers can return the cats to their area, to be released and cared for by their caregiver. This is by far the most thorough service for feral cats I’ve ever come across.

I’d already caught both siblings, and didn’t need transport help — although I could see how vital that would be to a sizeable colony of cats. When the volunteers transport the animals to surgery, they’re ensuring appointments aren’t missed, so the operation keeps running. With two clinics, the group can trap entire colonies — and that’s what they do, no matter how long it takes.

I got a prompt appointment at the Pennsylvania branch. Soon, I was ready to take the youngsters in. Getting them to go back into the traps a second time was the hard bit.10

It was the last Thursday in February, seven p.m. I was due at the clinic between seven and eight o’clock. Sprite, who can’t resist food, went into the trap. But Elf was wise to the whole thing, and the first meal offered all day couldn’t tempt this strong-willed soul into the wire trap. We had a stand-off. But Elf had become used to eating inside a large pet carrier, and was able to be nudged gently with a cardboard box from a hiding spot behind a chair into the carrier. When it finally happened, it surprised me; I’d been trying since four-thirty in the afternoon. I now had twenty minutes to make a forty-minute drive; but the volunteers at Forgotten Cats were waiting, and when we arrived, Sue Malloy at the intake desk treated me and the two cats to the kindest attention I’ve ever received at any veterinary office.

TNR isn't for wimps, I thought, but it sure feels good. It's like child support; people should feel proud and happy to do it. We created their situation and we are mainly deadbeat parents. Dr. Julianne Grady, a vet who works at the Delaware clinic on surgery days, says TNR work is all about expecting anyone who sees a cat fending outside to ask, “Why is this cat out here? And what can I do to make it right?”

A Night With Forgotten Cats

Barbara, a volunteer — and an expert at combining cleaning and play — introduced me to many of the recuperating cats. The volunteers know all their stories, or have pieced them together. Another visitor, Bob, had brought vegetarian food for the volunteers. “I need therapy,” said Bob with a broad smile. “So I come here.”

Although some of the older ones would be returned to colonies and monitored, most of the feline refugees who come to Forgotten Cats for help are clearly amenable to adapting to a home, but need a little extra gentleness. Showing them publicly is not always possible; some just don’t want to be picked up by new people. But word of mouth might just be the key for them. Each can be homed, and for each, the search is on for the right match. The volunteers of Forgotten Cats work hard to spread their network of foster homes so that all kittens and cats have a chance — and all, of course, are sterilized.

Felicia Cross encourages small rescue groups to adopt out sterilized kittens only.  “Forgotten Cats can help them, and we want to help them,” Cross says. “If they can just wait another month after weaning before placing the cats — because we are able to do the surgery when they reach 2 lbs., which is about ten weeks old — we’d be able to head off a major reason cats reproduce.”

I stayed at Forgotten Cats until about ten-thirty, when Barbara offered to walk out with me. But one volunteer wasn't leaving. “I am the night shift,” announced Mary Ellen.

The next day, I’m back for the cats. I’m offered antibiotics for Sprite, who has some skin lesions, and a free follow-up appointment to check on the healing. For feral cats, one can expect to pay between $25 and $50 for each operation, depending on whether blood tests are desired. The clinics even sterilize adjusted, indoor cats for a slightly higher cost.

Forgotten Cats employs several veterinarians, at a rate much lower than they’re worth. They not only do sterilizations, but have also done eye removals, amputations, hernia repairs, and even a herniated diaphragm. “Our vets,” says Felicia Cross, “are the best.”

With feral cats who might be returned to outdoor colonies, Cross explains, there’s no room for error. Unlike indoor cats, who will be observed over time, a feral cat might get only a couple of days to recuperate. If there is any infection or problem, a feral cat would likely die. “We work very hard to give the best care with the best equipment,” says Cross. “We won’t compromise their health because they are feral.”

Volunteer Sue Malloy points out that TNR works only if every single cat in the area is caught and brought to the clinic. U nless the cat is sure to be taken inside, the very tip of the cats’ left ears can be cut when surgery is done. This “ear-tipping” is optional, and a caregiver can request to forgo it, but it does enable people to tell which outdoor cats are sterilized and which haven’t yet been brought to the clinic. And if there are complaints in the community (which tend to lead to round-ups), one can prove the cats are sterile and inoculated by pointing to the ear-tip. So this cutting might actually save the cats.

Progress in San Antonio

At San Antonio’s Animal Care Services, it’s long been raining cats and dogs. Linda Sowdal, of the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, says the city-run pound has been so inundated for the past few decades that every cat that entered the pound in a trap would be presumed feral — and killed.

This year, Sowdal has reason to envision change. In January, Friends of Animals secured $50,000 for the Feral Cat Coalition, which is educating people about TNR, and the general need to sterilize animals bred as pets. As the city of San Antonio has resolved to achieve “no-kill” status, funds will move from trapping and killing to low-cost sterilization. Sowdal is delighted with the change, explaining that most people do sterilize cats and dogs when it’s made affordable.

Between February and early April, the Feral Cat Coalition has used 600 of our low-cost sterilization certificates and requested another 200. Just the number of cats brought to clinic so far means many thousands of births will have been prevented by next year. Additionally, the coalition is actively supporting local caregivers as they work with cats.

It’s a big job. And, just as in Delaware and Pennsylvania, it can only be done because people in communities step up to do it without pay. But if you think the TNR volunteers have a thankless job, Linda Sowdal will gently correct you: “The reward is seeing the benefits in the cats' lives.”


To purchase an affordable spay-neuter certificate from Friends of Animals, call 1-800-321-PETS, or go online: We work with veterinarians throughout the U.S., and have already facilitated 2.5 million surgeries!

Keeping TNR going in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Texas and beyond requires support from us all. Press your local and state officials to commit funds to TNR.

Note: Don’t feed cats outside without a sterilization routine in place! It will encourage a breeding ground, and ultimately put the entire group at risk of being rounded up.

Supporting San Antonio’s Transition to a No-Kill City

Support TNR in San Antonio by supporting Friends of Animals and letting us know your contributions are for TNR and sterilization work. Also see the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition’s website at

Supporting the New Jersey Initiatives

To support or adopt from Lawyers in Defense of Animals (LIDA) in New Jersey, p hone: 908-756-7521 or e-mail:

For their list of cats awaiting adoption, see:

To thank the residents of the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home, call Lois Ballurio at 856-405-4213.

Comments in support of the Cape May Trap-Neuter-Return initiative can be sent to the City Council of Cape May:

643 Washington Street
Cape May , NJ 08204 United States
Tel: 609-884-9525
Fax: 609-884-8589

Delaware and Pennsylvania: Forgotten Cats, Inc.

Do you live in Delaware or eastern Pennsylvania? Can you adopt a cat? Forgotten Cats will guide you in this, whether you can take in a cat with special needs or a cat who simply needs a home.

Adoption fees help to defray the cost of caring for the homeless cats and kittens Forgotten Cats takes in every day. All cats offered for adoption have been sterilized, blood-tested, and inoculated against rabies and distemper. As of this writing, fees are $90 for cats under 7 years of age; $160 for 2 cats under 7 years of age; and $50 for cats aged 7 and up.

Do you have land or warehouse-type space to give, to house Forgotten Cats’ growing and vital services? Do you have advertising skills, or can you donate advertising space?

Are you a vet tech, good with receptionist work, or someone who can simply commit to help clean instruments and play with cats who await adoption? Are you reliable? Then consider volunteering at one of these locations. Training is provided. Contact or support Forgotten Cats through:

PMB 422
4001 Kennett Pike Suite 134
Greenville, Delaware 19807 United States
Tel: 302-429-0124 ( Claymont, Del.); or 215-219-8148 ( Willow Grove, Penn.)

A final word to the wise. Do make provisions for dependent animals in your will. As unbelievable as it may seem to us while we’re living, it’s a common situation that relatives inherit a house and give the animals a trip to the pound or a boot out the door.

  • 1. The Associated Press reported, “John Snyder of the Humane Society of the United States said he doesn't have a problem with humanely killing a stray cat, but said the money spent on the bounty and the vet expenses would be better spent hiring someone who knows what he or she is doing.” CNN News, “ Iowa Town Puts Price on Cats' Heads” (12 Mar. 2008).
  • 2. See Bruce Barcott, “Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?” New York Times (2 Dec. 2007).
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid., quoting Jeffrey Masson.
  • 5. The state’s Office of Animal Welfare’s statement on “Free-Roaming and Feral Cats” states:
    The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSS) defers to local officials to determine the appropriateness of allowing a managed cat colony at a site within a municipality.  Municipalities considering managed cat colonies are encouraged to develop standards through ordinance or their regulatory authority to insure these recommendations are developed in a manner that provides an organized community program with proper oversight and accountability. 
    Statement available online at (last visited 8 Apr. 2008). Thanks to Isabelle Strauss of Lawyers in Defense of Animals for this reference.
  • 6. Tim Zatzariny Jr., in “Vets' Home to Get Purrfect Addition” – The [ Vineland, New Jersey] Daily Journal (12 Mar. 2008), interviewed Carolyn Vinci, president of Animal Friends Foundation, a local animal-welfare education group.
  • 7. Suzanne H. Piccone, “ Story on Cats Renewed Faith in the World” (letter published 4 Apr. 2008).
  • 8. See “Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?” (note 2 above).
  • 9. See “Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?” (note 2 above).
  • 10. Where possible, Forgotten Cats encourages the use of Safeguard traps; with doors at each end, these make it easiest for clinic volunteers to care for the cat. For more information, call the Valco Company, which makes these traps, at 717-354-4586, or see


Leave a reply