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What Are “Community Cats?” Jackson Galaxy Helped Me See

A video he made for Feral Cat Day led me to interview a person from Alley Cat Allies and learn to name and recognize what I'd already seen.

Keith Bowers  |  Oct 16th 2014


Warrior lived next door to me in Oakland in 1990. He was a scruffy, white, long-haired cat missing an eye and most of one ear. His frame looked like a car undergoing extensive body work after a severe wreck — more visible scars and patches than original paint. Warrior didn’t really belong to my neighbor, Darcel. Warrior would get in hellacious fights and show up at Darcel’s door. Darcel would then feed him and get him healthy again, at which point Warrior would go wild-eyed and claw everything in sight until he got let out. He was one of several homeless cats living in or around the small outdoor complex who certain people fed and watched over as best they could.

Around the same time, my dad, in Middle Tennessee, had adopted one indoor-outdoor cat and then somehow acquired a couple of others. Then he got a couple of more cats who lived outside. Then several more who came and went but didn’t interact with humans. Eventually my dad cared for about 20 cats and got to know them all. He gave them names and knew their personalities, even if he never got to hold or pet them. He diligently executed a pretty complex feeding schedule. He eventually caught a couple of the “mama cats” and had them fixed.

I never knew what to call these cats, and to be honest, I never thought too much about it. Were they feral? Strays? Abandoned? All are possibilities. And until recently I never knew how common these types of cats are. Cats all over the United States and the world live in neither homes nor shelters. Some are feral. Some are not. The thing is, they’re all cats, and they’re just as deserving of food, love, and care regardless of whether they’ll ever find a home — or whether they could tolerate one.

Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, talks about such cats in a video he made for Alley Cat Allies for National Feral Cat Day, which is today (Oct. 16).

“Whether you call them family cats, house cats, feral cats, community cats, alley cats, it doesn’t matter — they are our cats … and they deserve our love and protection,” he says.

Have a look:

I realized after watching the video that I’ve known cats like this but never knew much about them or how to help. In 1990, it didn’t occur to me to check whether Warrior had been neutered. Now it would. And I knew my dad was doing the right thing by getting the mama cats fixed, but I had no idea that trap-neuter-return was an organized thing — and back then, maybe it wasn’t yet.

Alley Cat Allies offered me an interview with its staff attorney, Elizabeth Holtz. Our email exchange is below. It educated me, and I hope it does the same for readers who want to know more about this marginal feline population and how to help.

Cat Dandy: What’s your experience with feral cats, and what is your role at Alley Cat Allies?

Elizabeth Holtz: My primary role is researching policy issues surrounding cats and advising local governments on drafting positive legislation. I participate in trap-neuter-return and live with two cats: Pinguino (a kitten from a colony that I helped) and Jabba the Catt, as well as my dog, George.

I’m sure that a lot of people, some of them cat owners or advocates, see no evidence of feral or community cats in their everyday lives. How significant a problem do these cats represent?

Feral, or community, cats have existed alongside humans for more than 10,000 years. Their existence is not the problem. Instead, our approach to community cats has been problematic. For decades, the predominant method of animal control in terms of community cats has been trapping and killing. This is not only ineffective but it’s also cruel and has resulted in the high euthanasia rates at shelters with no impact on the community cat population.

What’s the best way for people to actively help if they want to?

Two ways. First, you can participate in hands-on trap-neuter-return, or TNR. TNR is occurring in every part of the country, and you will probably be able to find a local TNR group in your area by searching online. Second, you can become an advocate for cats at the local government level. I suggest people read our Advocacy Toolkit to learn how to lobby for humane laws for cats at the city and county level.

What level of training, if any, is needed to be part of a TNR program?

There’s no formal training required, but we recommend people read about TNR before trying it. You can read our very detailed guide to TNR. Ideally, you will be able to trap with a more experienced trapper your first time. But that’s not always possible. I trapped for the first time by myself, simply armed with a guide I printed from a website. I didn’t trap any cats, but I learned from my mistakes and caught four the next time.

What are some rewards of such effort?

The rewards are great. You have a chance to make a wonderful impact on an individual cat’s life. Spaying or neutering a cat makes the cat happier and healthier. In terms of being a TNR advocate, you have a chance to impact hundreds, even thousands, of cats’ lives in a positive way. Good ordinances and shelter policies reduce euthanasia rates and shelter intake, allowing shelters to focus on lifesaving programs.

How far has TNR come since your organization first supported it in 1990?

Trap-neuter-return is now mainstream and embraced by state and local governments across the country. It’s the only humane and effective approach to community cats, and governments are taking note. This is not something that is occurring in back alleys in secret. It’s a method endorsed across the U.S. from New York City to Dallas to San Francisco.

What are the next challenges with TNR? What are your organization’s ultimate goals?

Establishing trap-neuter-return in every community and animal control agency is the next step. Ultimately, our goal is to make TNR the predominant method of animal control and make it safe for people to care for community cats.

Alley Cat Allies refers to these animals mostly as “community cats.” What name does your organization prefer to call them, and why is the name important?

The term “community cats” is a more accurate representation of cats living outdoors. Feral refers to the socialization level of a cat. A feral cat is not socialized to people and would not make a good pet. The reality is that cats living outdoors have a wide range of socialization levels. Some cats might bond with their caregivers but shy away from strangers. Other cats might be comfortable approaching people but prefer to live outdoors with their families.

Your group states that more than 450 U.S. cities and counties have ordinances or policies endorsing TNR, and that more than 600 nonprofit groups practice it. How far is there to go? Why hasn’t it been universally adopted?

As long as healthy cats are being euthanized in our shelters, we will still have work to do. Every day we are reaching out to local governments and shelters that have not yet embraced TNR. I think that the primary reason that some places have not adopted TNR yet is simply a lack of education about community cats and TNR. Change is difficult even when the old ways of doing things has proven to be ineffective.

Alley Cat Allies president and founder Becky Robinson has said that TNR “saves lives and tax dollars.” How does it save tax dollars?

Trapping and killing community cats is not only cruel, it’s ineffective. Because of a scientific phenomenon called the “vacuum effect,” when cats are removed from an area, cats from surrounding areas simply move in and breed to capacity. It creates an endless cycle that wastes taxpayer dollars. Local governments using trap and kill waste money year after year paying for officers to trap cats, impound them at the local shelter, and then kill them. Through TNR programs, cats continue to live in an area, keeping potential newcomers at bay but no longer reproducing. The population decreases over time. When fewer cats are impounded, shelter conditions improve for all animals. A decrease in shelter intake decreases incidence of disease (such as upper respiratory infections) saving taxpayer dollars that would be spent on medications and veterinary services.

Jackson Galaxy produced the public service announcement for your group for Feral Cat Day. How would you describe his role in helping these cats and your organization?

Jackson Galaxy has been an invaluable advocate for cats, TNR, and Alley Cat Allies. People trust and respect his opinions on cats and animal welfare. Having him in our corner lets us reach a far wider audience.

Galaxy expresses the need to love, support, and protect all cats. How does that attitude fit with your group’s mission, and how might it apply to educate people who don’t know much about community cats?

Alley Cat Allies values the life of every cat regardless of where they live. Sadly, many people mistakenly believe that community cats do not have the same legal protections of pet cats. All state cruelty codes protect cats, no matter their socialization level. Galaxy’s message perfectly aligns with our beliefs. As for people who may not know very much about community cats, it’s a great introduction because it values all cats equally.

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What’s your experience with feral cats, or strays, or other types of community cats? Have you done trap-neuter-return? What do you believe is the best thing we can do for these cats? Tell me in the comments.

Cat Dandy knows that a lot of cats have it pretty hard:

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.