Broward County, Florida, might sound familiar if you remember when Florida roared into the public consciousness with a botched presidential election. Now, it’s in the news for another reason, only this time it’s good mews: Following a mandate to convert to a no-kill county, Broward cut its feline euthanasia rate from 44 percent to 12 percent, and it took just one year. The shelter is successfully using Return to Field, which focuses on getting sterilized healthy cats back into the community rather than euthanizing feral cats by default.
Euthanasia statistics for cats are grim, with some shelters euthanizing 50 percent — or more — of the cats who cross their thresholds. With fewer adopters than cats, socialized, friendly cats tend to be rescued, while ferals and those with behavioral problems are euthanized, even with help from groups such as Alley Cat Allies and Fix Our Ferals.
That’s something that people such as Lisa Mendheim, the public education coordinator at the county’s Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, want to change. She explains that Return to Field programs will admit any stray or feral to the shelter, spay or neuter, administer a rabies vaccination, and then release the cat at or near the area she was found. Trap-neuter-return, also known as TNR, by contrast, involves third-party groups and agencies who trap cats and administer their own spay/neuter programs, though sometimes with assistance from staff at local shelters, relying on charitable contributions to operate. This effort is coordinated through the shelter, which centralizes efforts, takes advantage of funds available to government agencies, and provides opportunities for community outreach.
Florida is home, she says, to the “beach bums” of the cat world, because the temperate climate means the state has a year-round kitten problem that cannot be resolved without a consistent spay/neuter program. It turns out, she says, that in addition to being more compassionate than killing ferals, the program also solves the problem of vacuums left behind when cats are simply removed. By placing cats back where they were found, the return-to-field program ensures that nothing else — such as wildlife or other cats — moves in. This keeps populations stable and allows them to decline slowly over time.
“It didn’t make any sense to keep putting cats down,” she explains. “That was pretty much how we operated before, like a lot of shelters. Owners don’t always come to look for their cats. We had a lot of cats that weren’t returned to their owners, had a lot of feral strays, a lot weren’t friendly or adoptable.”
Their policy change required some lobbying with the county commissioners to change the laws surrounding the management of cats and feral colonies — one problem, she explained, was that feeding ferals hadn’t been legal in Broward County, leading to a large number of underground feral colonies. Instead, Return to Field allows feeders to operate in the open, take cats to the shelter for spaying and neutering, and gradually reduce colony populations. The agency is also reaching out to educate the public about the program and how it works.
Historically, many members of the public trapped feral cats with the assumption that ferals would be euthanized, clearing the neighborhood of unwanted felines. That is changing. People are “welcome to bring a cat in, but the cat’s coming back,” she says, referring to the core premise of the policy. That’s not totally popular with members of the public, but the shelter is already seeing a change, with fewer people bringing in strays, including fewer pest control companies dumping cats at the shelter. I expressed concerns about whether the policy might lead to more animal cruelty, with people hurting or even killing cats to drive them away.
“There’s ways to keep cats out without becoming violent or bad,” she says, explaining that the agency is reminding members of the public about efforts such as fencing and purchasing cat deterrents like car covers and garden accessories designed to make it hard to dig. “Cats are here to say, whether this ordinance went into effect or not.”
Part of public education includes reminders that Florida has numerous pests, such as raccoons and possums, and the culprits behind property damage and other problems aren’t always cats. Mendheim pointed specifically to research suggesting that cats aren’t as dangerous for bird populations as popularly believed, addressing a common concern about ferals, strays, and indoor/outdoor pets. Cats aren’t the ones devastating threatened and endangered bird species, because they do not prey on species of biological concern. Furthermore, research on the subject is often very creatively interpreted by cat haters. Simply relocating cats can create an opening for other predators — such as alligators, invasive boa constrictors, and other introduced species — which just perpetuates the problem with a different species.
“I’m proud of what we’re doing,” she concludes, telling me that she wants to see other shelters exploring return to field policies as well. “Our cats are leaving here alive and well, spayed and neutered so life is good for cats here. Before, it didn’t bode very well here at all.”
Top photo: AC Moraes, Flickr
About the author: s.e. smith is a cat-owned writer, editor, and agitator living in Northern California with felines Loki and Leila. While not mediating cat fights, s.e. explores a wide variety of subjects in writing and elsewhere, in addition to enjoying reading like a fiend and baking like an angel. Follow smith on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.