Peter Wolf is a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society. “Essentially, I’m a policy wonk for all things community cats,” he says. He goes through the latest research on all things community cat and provides summaries that Best Friends’ advocates can then use to support trap-neuter-return programs (TNR) as a way to manage feral cat populations.
But Peter was a voice for community cats long before he began working at Best Friends.
With some encouragement from Kate Benjamin of Hauspanther, Peter started his blog, Vox Felina, in April 2010. “At the time, I’d begun digging into some of the badly flawed research that’s so often used to oppose TNR — it was shocking to see the poor quality of some of the work that had been published and then repeated by the mainstream media as if it were valid,” he says. “I wasn’t sure anybody would be interested in reading my critiques, which can go on for 3,000 or more words and include dozens of citations.”
But as it turned out, one of the first reactions to Vox Felina came from the head of a national organization that regularly promotes the flawed science he was critiquing. “I had clearly hit a nerve, so I continued,” Peter says. Not only does Vox Felina provide responses to anti-TNR advocates’ flawed research, it offers materials that people who work with community cats can use to advocate for TNR programs. And they’ve been put to good use. “Easily the most satisfying aspect of my blogging has been when I hear from readers who have used the information they’ve found on Vox Felina to better advocate for TNR in their communities, with their local shelters, elected officials and neighbors,” Peter says. Peter also does his share of “boots on the ground” TNR work. He’s part of a small team that has TNRd about 50 cats and found homes for several kittens in his neighborhood over the past couple of years. “My hands-on TNR work definitely connects me more directly with the policy work and with my colleagues who spend so much of their time ‘in the trenches,’” Peter says. “It’s also given me great empathy for the Good Samaritans who care for community cats.”
“It’s important that we give careful consideration to what’s truly best for each cat we encounter. This often means challenging some conventional wisdom, as well as our good intentions,” Peter says.
One of the places where conventional wisdom needs to be challenged: the need to “rescue” every community cat and bring them to the shelter. The vast majority of community cats are healthy and probably have at least one person caring for them — a fact that, Peter points out, is supported by plenty of evidence in the literature around TNR.
The cats at the greatest risk in the community are actually those who have landed at the shelter as strays or owner-surrendered pets. Community cats face risks on the street, Peter adds, but cats taken to a shelter often have no more than 72 hours before their time is up. “What’s important is that we carefully consider the full range of options for each community cat we encounter,” Peter says. “Often, the best option is to leave them where they are (once they’re sterilized and vaccinated, of course).”
Much of Peter’s work with Vox Felina involves digging deep into the relevant research and responding thoughtfully to claims made by people opposed to TNR. “Although I think it’s important to make an evidence-based case for TNR, it’s just as important to keep in mind the larger picture,” Peter says. “TNR opponents have nothing better to offer — no feasible alternative. This is a critical point, especially for policy makers whose constituents expect solutions, however imperfect.”
The traditional approach to managing free-roaming cats — complaint-based impoundment followed, in most cases, by lethal injection — has been used in the United States for more than 100 years, with no evidence that it’s produced any long-term population reduction. It’s also wildly unpopular and costly. As Peter says, this approach is the poster child for failed public policy.
“Targeted TNR offers a common- sense, humane, effective and economical alternative,” he says. “No wonder such programs are becoming increasingly popular across the country, in communities large and small, urban and rural.”
The driving force behind Vox Felina is, and has been from the outset, the need to shine a spotlight on the flawed science being used to vilify community cats and undermine TNR efforts. “At the time [I started Vox Felina], I worried that I’d run out of material,” Peter says. “The sad truth is, things have only gotten worse since then … the flaws have become more glaring, the promotion unapologetically post-factual (and self-serving). The need for a rigorous, thoughtful response is greater than ever.”
JaneA Kelley is the author of the award-winning cat advice blog Paws and Effect. She is a professional member of the Cat Writers’ Association and an advocate for all cats, whether they live with people or in the community.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.