Free-roaming cats throughout the country are estimated to kill more than 1 billion birds and mammals every year, dealing a major blow to wildlife populations. Cats can even be a greater threat in areas like Tucson, which has diverse bird species thanks to our surrounding sky islands.
Local nonprofits like the Humane Society of Southern Arizona and Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter have programs to reduce stray cat populations, which may be the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals. However, there is debate over which process is most effective at herding the cats.
The Humane Society of Southern Arizona utilizes a “trap, neuter, return” process for feral cats, which is often completed all in the same day. While other local programs have existed for years, HSSAz’s TNR program began last year, leading to a Community Cat Center within the nonprofit earlier this year. Although the program was initially slow due to COVID, it picked up steam by November.
“The feral cat, or community cat, population in Pima County has always been a problem,” said Angeline Fahey, community cat coordinator with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. “But as the demand started to increase and people started to realize that the Humane Society started a TNR program, the calls have been coming in like wildfire. We get dozens of calls per day about outdoor feral or community cats that need to be trapped, neutered and returned.”
While HSSAz occasionally gets calls about stray cats’ damage to wildlife, most of the calls are due to their nuisance.
Fahey says they receive the most calls from the 85705 zip code area along the east side of I-10, because of the many mobile homes in the area that can provide shelter for the cats to hide and live under.
After the cats are trapped, they’re taken to HSSAz’s clinic where they are evaluated, ear-tipped, and given a rabies vaccination in addition to being spayed/neutered. Fahey says the cats are generally returned to the same area within the same day, because they perform surgeries in the mornings.
“This town has such a problem with outdoor cats that if you take one out of one area, it will be filled by someone else,” Fahey said. “I came from the wildlife hospital and spent many years there, so I’ve seen the effect cats have on wildlife and it’s awful. But the only way to really combat that is to reduce their population, or it will just keep getting out of control. But if we have a very strong TNR program, and we can get these cats spayed, neutered and vaccinated, we can reduce disease and population.”
While the TNR process culls future generations, it also leads to less nuisance calls because of the change in cat behavior. Cats can fight less due to changes in their hormones, and can even be less likely to roam, reducing their threat to wildlife.
“We see some intense behavioral changes. Cats that always fight can mellow out, but it usually takes about a month. You see some extreme changes, there’s less yowling and screaming and fighting, especially in the males,” Fahey said. “We do our best to take in as many animals as we can. So if there are friendly cats that are super social, or if there are kittens, we do try to take them in if space is available, or find other shelters to help as well.”
HSSAz encourages locals to participate in their TNR program with the proper information. They provide tips for trapping and transporting cats, and locals can even borrow traps from HSSAz. However, TNR is by appointment only, so if you are trapping yourself, call ahead to determine surgery availability based upon your planned trapping schedule.
“We receive all kinds of calls. Either they’ll tell us of a location that has a lot of cats. But usually it’s people calling because there’s cats around their own property, and they’re either a nuisance with spraying or using the bathroom. But we’ll also get calls where people have a mom and kittens and need help,” Fahey said. “We try to encourage as many people as we can to get involved themselves and do the trapping. But we’re here for assistance and guidance.”
However, not all animal organizations support the TNR process. While stray cats cause massive damage to bird populations, the Tucson Audubon Society opposes TNR programs, particularly due to the “return” element. According to Tucson Audubon, they believe the bulk of the evidence suggests that TNR is less effective at mitigating the effects of predation on already stressed native wildlife populations and diversity than municipal control efforts. They don’t argue with trapping and neutering, but disagree that releasing cats back into free-ranging colonies is effective for stewardship.
Instead, Tucson Audubon recommends local ordinances that prohibit cats from roaming off their owner’s property, developing a plan and a timetable for permanent removal of stray cats, and not feeding stray or feral cats.
For more information, visit hssaz.org/services/clinic/trap-neuter-return