Saving Albuquerque’s Community Cats

New Trap-Neuter-Return model reduces euthanasia by 76%

At PetSmart Charities, our vision is a lifelong, loving home for every pet. But what if a particular cat’s perfect home is the viaduct a few hundred feet from your driveway? Or the dumpster behind your neighborhood cafe?

That’s the case for many of North America’s free-roaming and feral cats. Many of these cats will never be the snuggly, adoptable pet you bring home to your family—because they’ve often never been socialized, or learned how to be a house pet. In some cases, they’re just not “owned” by anyone. They’re truly community cats.

Community cats exist because of family pets who weren’t fixed. Someone’s pet cat got loose or was abandoned, and she reproduced again and again. Her babies grew up outdoors and learned to fend for themselves on the streets. Then, when they were as young as 4 months old, her babies made more babies.

Cats can get pregnant as early as 4 months old

Shelters and free-roaming cats face an unfortunate reality

These cats are arriving, box after box, at open admission shelters that accept any pet who comes through their doors. Many shelters are obligated to do so by law. The Animal Welfare Department in the city of Albuquerque, N.M., took in more than 8,000 cats in 2012 alone.

What are shelters like Albuquerque’s supposed to do with droves of terrified free-roaming cats? Often, they have no choice but to euthanize them. Unfortunately, open admission shelters have become places where cats go to die.

But the city of Albuquerque, and many others, are no longer willing to accept that role. And PetSmart Charities is here to support them. We’re helping many communities, including Albuquerque, implement the most humane, effective approach to reducing the free-roaming cat population: Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).

And so far, we’ve seen amazing results.

Advocates for Albuquerque’s cats

When Jayne Sage moved to Albuquerque, she immediately noticed that the cat population was out of control. “I had to do something,” said Jayne. “I couldn’t just watch cats breed in my neighborhood. But I couldn’t trap them and bring them to the shelter to be euthanized, either.”

Jayne began doing TNR work as part of Street Cat Companions, a program of the group New Mexico Animal Friends. The Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department started its own TNR program in 2011. Around the same time, PetSmart Charities began funding targeted spay/neuter efforts aimed at free-roaming cats through Animal Humane New Mexico, a local private shelter that supports high-quality, low-cost spay/neuter surgeries.

Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities decided to collaborate on a new model of animal sheltering for cats — the Community Cats Project. The experts selected Albuquerque as one of the pilot cities based on the outstanding TNR work already underway there. The new model was conceived, in part, by one of the industry leaders in TNR: PetSmart Charities spay/neuter program manager Bryan Kortis.

“PetSmart Charities has funded hundreds of TNR projects over the last several years. The data we’ve collected proves that TNR is the most humane and effective approach to managing free-roaming cat populations,” Bryan said. “TNR prevents the flood of kittens and unwanted cats from entering shelters in the first place. This reduces intake and, as a result, euthanasia.”

Working together, Best Friends Animal Society, the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department and PetSmart Charities built a 3-year program to TNR 10,500 free-roaming cats in Albuquerque. The work was funded largely by a $700,000 grant from PetSmart Charities, with additional support from Best Friends Animal Society.

How trap neuter return works

Keeping cats at home

The first order of business: they had to stop the unnecessary euthanasia of Albuquerque’s community cats. So, PetSmart Charities and Best Friends worked with the city of Albuquerque to expand its shelter’s “Return to Field” program. Now, any unsocialized community cats who end up in the city shelter are transferred to Best Friends.

“Healthy community cats no longer face euthanasia at the city shelter,” said Desiree Triste-Aragon, Best Friends’ Community Cats Project coordinator. “Instead, Best Friends arranges spay/neuter surgery and vaccinations for them. Once they’ve recovered, we return the cats back to their homes.”

Best Friends transports the cats to a local veterinary clinic, such as Animal Humane New Mexico, where veterinarians perform the surgeries efficiently, vaccinate the cats and tend to any medical needs. The cats then go back to Best Friends, where teams return them to their original communities.

“The Community Cats Project has affected our shelter’s health in a very big way,” said Barbara Bruin, director of animal welfare for the city of Albuquerque. “We have fewer cats, so less overcrowding. And, since we don’t house feral cats anymore, there’s a lot less stress in the cattery.”

Where there’s a few cats, there’s a colony

But the team didn’t stop there. “Any community cat that’s trapped for TNR is a line of intelligence for us,” said Bryan. “They’re the clue to where other cats are in their area.”

Where there are 2 or 3 cats, there’s almost always an entire colony with sometimes as many as 20 cats nearby. The Best Friends crew, and its growing group of local volunteers, began trapping whole cat colonies each time they returned an individual cat to his home.

The number of cats that need to be trapped varies across colonies, but on average, for every 1 cat returned to his original location, Best Friends is able to TNR 3 more cats.

Best Friends staffers and volunteers also trap and spay or neuter cats at locations where residents have complained about cats to the city. City employees call the team at Best Friends whenever they receive a cat complaint call.

By taking this approach, the city and Best Friends proactively reduced the amount of breeding occurring at “hotspots” throughout Albuquerque.

“Those communities of cats are shrinking over time because fewer kittens are born,” said Peggy Weigle, executive director at Animal Humane New Mexico. ”So we see fewer complaints in the community because there are fewer ‘nuisance cats.’ But that’s simply because there aren’t as many cats.”

With the Community Cats Project, each group is able to focus on their area of expertise. Best Friends handles trapping, returning and community outreach; veterinary clinics provide spay/neuter surgeries; and the city’s animal control staff is able to focus on rescue, cruelty and neglect cases.

Albuquerque Community Cat Project

A healthier, happier Albuquerque

This concentrated effort significantly reduced the city shelter’s intake, or the number of cats entering the shelter — and the numbers are staggering.

In 2013, the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department took in 25% fewer cats than it had just 2 years earlier, in 2011. What’s more, cat euthanasia has dropped by 76% during that same period.

The Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department saved 87% of the cats in its shelter in 2013. Its euthanasia rate for cats is now among the lowest for open admission shelters serving a major metropolitan area in the United States.

The team was hoping for results like these — but didn’t expect them to come until at least the second year of the program.

“The PetSmart Charities grant and the Community Cats Project have really enabled TNR to grow from a local, grassroots program to a citywide solution to cat overpopulation,” said Jayne.

The Community Cats Project has changed the way the city’s shelter operates. Another bonus: TNR education efforts have improved the community dynamic. “We’re making a city of cat lovers,” said Jayne. “People are really learning how to take care of free-roaming cats.”

A community cat in a field

View more beautiful photos of Albuquerque's Community Cats

A new model for community cats

The Albuquerque Community Cats Project has been a local success and holds hope for community cats across the nation.

PetSmart Charities and Best Friends have launched 2 additional Community Cats Projects: San Antonio in 2012 and Baltimore in 2013. In just its first year, the program has already helped reduce the number of cats euthanized at San Antonio Animal Care Services by 68%.

PetSmart Charities is committed to funding more TNR programs in the United States and Canada, because it’s the most humane and effective approach to managing free-roaming cat populations. We fund targeted community cats programs nationwide, in addition to our targeted spay/neuter grant programs. In 2014 alone, we’re funding 6 city-level community cats programs, including 2 more Community Cats Projects in 2014 with Best Friends.

“Together with Best Friends Animal Society, we’re creating a new model for how animal shelters in the United States manage cat overpopulation. It has the potential to end the euthanasia of millions of cats in this country,” said Bryan.

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