It is funny sometimes how life steers you in the right direction, even when you are stubborn and convinced it is not what you should be doing. When I moved to Texas in the late aughts, I was convinced that my life path was to help wildlife and conservation. Needing to pay rent and make ends meet certainly helped me to open my mind a little, but I still wasn’t sold. When I took my first job in domestic animal sheltering, I thought it would be temporary; yet, here I am nearly 15 years later committed to trying to help cats and dogs. Honestly, I waffle between being a cat person and a dog person, but it is thanks to our feline friends that I have grown and continued to find inspiration and passion in this challenging field.
The first shelter I worked at didn’t have a community cat/shelter return program. Feral cats were trapped, brought to us, and lived in a colony-type room where no one could touch them. No one adopted them; they lived their lives in this room of 10-20 cats until the end of their lives. I was brand new to the industry, but I knew from the beginning that this was just not right. When I started a new position at a bigger municipality, I was thrilled to discover their Shelter Neuter Return (SNR) program, and immediately gravitated to ways I could help. I became one of the voices for returning all community cats we possibly could, and as I grew in my career, I became the lead over the program and got to dip my toe into public speaking and presenting about the program at regional conferences to help others learn from my experiences and programs.
Around this time, I also moved into a house that had been unoccupied for years with a pretty basic renovation job. On my first night in this new rental, I heard a clamoring outside. I turned on the outside lights thinking surely there is an intruder, and instead, I found my car covered in 10+ cats. I had been talking the talk for a while, but I knew it was time to walk the walk too. I figured out where to get traps and spent months getting all the cats on my block fixed through the SNR program. I felt proud to be involved in the process, and it is utterly thrilling to catch and release a cat.
After years of being involved in SNR programs, supporting public TNR, and being proud of the number of cats we’d fixed and vaccinated, I started to feel discouraged again because it just never seemed to end. All of the effort had been incredibly meaningful for each cat, but year after year kitten season comes and orphaned babies come into the shelter and don’t make it, even when everyone does so much to try to save them.
So, what are we missing? Thankfully, greater minds than me have been evaluating these programs and asking similar questions. So, we finally have data to show what works and what doesn’t. In 2019, an article was published in Frontiers, “A Long-Term Lens: Cumulative Impacts of Free-Roaming Cat Management Strategy and Intensity on Preventable Cat Mortalities.” This article explains the different management approaches to free-roaming cats and what results from these different approaches. The analysis shows that high-intensity TNR is the most effective and efficient approach.
Now that we know what works, how do you approach that in a community like Dallas that has so many competing areas of need? We knew we had to get a grasp on the problem and analyze the data we had available to find a solution. By reviewing years of data from Dallas Animal Services related to kitten intakes, cat complaint calls and SNR cat intake locations, we found that there were consistent hot spots where we could pilot this high-intensity TNR model.
Last month we launched our pilot program in partnership with Dallas Pets Alive, Operation Kindness, Feral Friends, and Dallas Animal Services. We started with outreach block walking to get a sense of where the problems are at the micro level and to find allies in the community to help us with trapping locations. We coordinated with numerous trappers to help us with getting the volume of traps needed. We wrangled everyone we could to help set traps and pickup up. With all of the work and effort, we had less than a 50% catch rate, so I felt discouraged at first. But, those 21 cats we caught are a start of something great that will have an impact, and it was a huge learning curve. We have since gathered more allies, and next time it will be even better!
I think the most amazing thing about this new pilot program has been how everyone is stepping up as a community to help, and how incredible the community we are working in has been at receiving this crazy group that is knocking on their doors at 9 p.m. with traps and again at 7 a.m. the next day at pickup. We were welcomed into so many houses and backyards, and there were so many expressions of gratitude from people who love their community cats, but who have known for a long time that they needed help and did not know what to do.
In a community like Dallas, this is not a short-term project, but we are committed to continuing down this pathway so that when we look back 10 years from now, we will see the impact at our shelters and in our communities. And in the meantime, it will be the thrill of the catch and the heartwarming camaraderie that keeps us going to continue our mission to end pet overpopulation and unnecessary euthanasia in shelters.