By Daphna Nachminovitch
By the time she called PETA for help, one of the stray cats the woman had been feeding was in critical condition, suffering from a massive tumor that had closed off his ear canal. In another case, a cat appeared at a feeder’s home with grotesquely swollen paws oozing with pus, a symptom of feline infectious peritonitis. These cats’ suffering was prolonged and agonizing but not uncommon. This is how homeless cats live—and die.
People who consider themselves “cat lovers,” including proponents of trap-neuter-release (TNR) —programs that sterilize but then abandon domestic cats and so should more aptly be called “trap-neuter-abandon“—don’t mean to consign cats to such ghastly fates, but in leaving them outside to fend for themselves, they do. The average life expectancy of an “outdoor cat” is about two to five years compared with 12 to 15 years for a cat who lives indoors. Feral cats, as well as homeless domesticated cats who have been set loose outdoors by shelters seeking to avoid the criticism that they might face from euthanizing them, commonly suffer and die from feline leukemia, feline AIDS, and other infectious diseases—even rabies. They also succumb to ailments like anemia and upper respiratory infections—conditions that are easily treatable were the cats to be taken to a veterinarian—but they are not. In winter, cats in cold climates endure subzero temperatures, some losing ears, tails, or limbs to frostbite; others being cut to shreds when they climb into car engines seeking warmth; and still others simply freezing to death.
Many cats “disappear”—and while some are hit by cars or attacked by dogs or wild predators and some succumb to parasites or starvation because they depend on humans for everything and can’t fend for themselves, others are victims of foul play. PETA’s files are bursting with cases in which cats who were put outdoors without supervision, including those in “managed colonies,” have been shot, poisoned, drowned, bludgeoned, or even set on fire by cruel people who view them as easy targets or “pests” and don’t want them climbing on their cars or defecating in their yards. Recent attacks include a cat in Mississippi who died after someone doused her with hot liquid, a cat in New York who suffered extensive chemical burns, and a cat in Maryland who was found dead with “visible injuries” and next to a note that read, “The cats must go. ”
TNR programs are doomed to failure because of basic population dynamics: Even if all of the cats in a “colony” are eventually spayed and neutered (which is nearly impossible), the food set out for them will always attract “new” cats. And feeding cats also promotes abandonment, since people are more inclined to abandon their cats if they believe that someone else will “take care of” them.
Dr. Michael W. Fox—well-known veterinarian, columnist, and author—wrote in a column recently, “Obviously, cats that are neutered and then released outdoors are not going to breed, but they are likely to suffer far more than indoor cats (and those unadopted ones kept in enclosed sanctuaries) from injuries and disease, kill wildlife and pose a public health risk from some of the diseases they can transmit to humans.” Indeed, TNR programs are both a threat to public safety and harmful to native wildlife. Cats were recently dubbed the most deadly invasive species in the world by the authors of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and are believed to be responsible or partly responsible for the extinction of 63 species. They pose a serious threat to wildlife, including mammals, reptiles, and birds, who are already struggling with habitat destruction and environmental degradation. One study estimates that free-roaming cats kill up to 24 billion wild animals and birds every year, by far the largest human-caused toll on birds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that maintaining feral cat colonies can lead to an increase in the incidence of rabies transmission from cats to humans. Cats can also spread other diseases to humans, including typhus, an outbreak of which in California was thought to be linked to feral cats. A man in Oregon was diagnosed with bubonic plague after being bitten by a cat who was allowed to roam outdoors. And at least seven wallabies died in a Virginia zoo because of toxoplasmosis transmitted by a colony of outdoor cats.
Trapping and abandoning cats is hazardous to all involved, certainly including the cats themselves. Homeless cats deserve to be treated like any other cat. They deserve a chance to be adopted into a loving home or, if that isn’t possible, to be peacefully euthanized in a safe and quiet environment, rather than turned out onto the street to fight daily battles for survival that they will ultimately lose. Cat abandonment is illegal because it’s inhumane, and it’s not the answer to the homeless-cat crisis. The answer is to require that all cats be spayed and neutered, licensed, microchipped, and kept indoors.
Daphna Nachminovitch is the senior vice president of cruelty investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She has overseen many undercover investigations and countless cruelty cases that have led to criminal charges against animal abusers. Under her leadership, PETA has spayed and neutered more than 139,000 dogs and cats since 2001.
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