Is it more humane to kill stray cats, or let them fend alone?

Written by Lisa Grace Lednicer

THE AGING JEEP pulls into an alley of rowhouses near Gonzaga College High School that is littered with dirt-streaked plastic water bottles, abandoned yogurt containers and used condoms. It’s around about 8:30 on a chilly January morning. Time to release the cats.

Laurice Ghougasian pulls up the trapdoors on two cages, and the animals meow loudly, leap outside, and race in the opposite direction of the food Ghougasian has put down left for them. She sighs. “I spend all my money and time relocating cats,” she says. “Hey, sweeties — I want you to run that way.”

She hops back into the car, drives three blocks, then slides into a parking space next to an iron fence. Before she even opens the door, seven cats — black, black and white, gray — surround her. Ghougasian reaches into a shopping bag, pulls out a can of Friskies and plops it onto paper plates. A helicopter thrums overhead and a construction hammer plinks in the distance. Ghougasian, a petite woman with earrings and a black coat flecked with cat hair, seems right at home. “After they’re neutered, they’re sometimes skittish,” she explains. “Eventually, they let me touch them.”

This is the face of free-roaming cat management in Washington: After decades of euthanizing cats that were feral or otherwise unadoptable, the Washington Humane Society has embarked on an ambitious plan to end cat euthanasia in its two shelters. The group recently began releasing back into the community cats that aren’t necessarily feral but just prefer living outdoors. It even held a fundraiser in December in which architects were invited to design “cat houses” for outdoor cats to take shelter in.

That philosophy appalls other animal welfare organizations that believe cats belong indoors. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal rights group that opposes fishing and circuses, promotes veganism and generally believes that animals are not for humans to use, says euthanizing outdoor cats is more humane than releasing them back into the community, where they’re at risk of contracting illness, getting hit by cars and being attacked by larger animals.

“They won’t die comfortably in someone’s arms; they will die badly,” says Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s president. “It’s no kindness; it’s because people feel uncomfortable with euthanasia. That’s understandable, but it’s no excuse.”

The American Bird Conservancy, the Wildlife Society and several veterinarians who have studied outdoor cats make many of the same arguments — although not every group advocates euthanasia. Free-roaming cats kill too many birds, they say. Trap, neuter and release programs haven’t proved effective at reducing cats’ numbers. Caregivers risk rabies and toxoplasmosis.

“These cats are not wanted by society,” says George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy. “There are so many of them we can’t even take care of them. The whole idea that we can’t use population reduction and population management as a technique is antithetical to 100 years of wildlife management. There’s a misguided notion that euthanasia of cats is somehow immoral. It’s not immoral — it’s just a sad and necessary fact.”

WHS responds that relying on volunteers to trap the cats, bring them to the group’s monthly spay and neuter clinic, then release them — vaccinated and unable to breed — is a more effective and humane way to control the District’s free-roaming felines than killing them.

“A lot of our solutions are imperfect, and a lot of them are the best solutions we have at the time,” says Lisa LaFontaine, WHS president. “But if we bring cats in and euthanize them ... there’s a 100 percent mortality rate.”

In the past two decades, the no-kill philosophy has taken hold in the animal shelter world. WHS adopted the idea in 2007, when LaFontaine was hired. The rate of cats leaving WHS alive is 78 percent, up from 22 percent, LaFontaine says, with more than 1,500 cats neutered and released in 2013. Coupled with stepped-up efforts at finding people to adopt and foster, LaFontaine hopes to increase the cats’ survival rate to at least 90 percent. (WHS’s contract with the District requires it to accept all animals brought in; its New York Avenue shelter holds about 150 cats at a time, and the Georgia Avenue shelter holds 50 to 60.)

We Americans love our cats. According to the American Pet Products Association, cats are second only to fish in popularity (we own 95 million cats vs. 158 million fish) and we spend, on average, $316 a year on cat food, cat treats and cat vitamins — about two years’ worth of weekly lattes at Starbucks. But how do we reconcile our passion for cats with the reality that there are more of them than we can plausibly take care of?

WHS, PETA and other animal welfare groups say they feel a responsibility, but they disagree on what it means for cats to live the best lives possible. That disagreement stems from fundamentally different views of what humans’ relationships with animals should be.

Newly spayed and neutered cats recover in a D.C. clinic before they are released. Newly spayed and neutered cats recover in a D.C. clinic before they are released. (Logan Mock-Bunting/For The Washington Post)

EARLY-MORNING SUNLIGHT streaks across the sky as cat trappers troop into WHS’s free monthly spay and neuter clinic on Capitol Hill. On this January morning, eight veterinarians were called in to operate on an expected 60 to 70 cats. But the hard rain the day before dampened the cats’ enthusiasm to get the food in the traps, and only 33 arrive.

WHS volunteers take them upstairs and give them an anesthetic, then the vets — most are volunteers — remove set after set of testicles, ovaries and uteruses. The operation takes just minutes. Afterward, the volunteers vaccinate the cats and remove the tip of one ear so they’re identifiable as spayed or neutered. They’re placed on a warm mat and covered with towels, then returned to their cages to recuperate. The volunteers wait a day for them to recover before releasing them. In 2013, WHS performed 1,651 free surgeries, estimated to cost $38,800, or about $24 per cat.

Most of the trapping is done by residents who notice free-roaming cats in their neighborhood and feel obligated to care for them. Levels of commitment vary. Some people take the cats to the vet for shots and neutering; the friendlier cats are put up for adoption. Other residents build straw-filled cat shelters out of plastic containers. Nancy McGrath, a legal secretary from Maryland, installed heated cat beds in her sunroom. She manages about 20 cats, she says. “My cats love being outdoors. They love running and climbing trees — they really are not ones to come in the house. As long as they have food, water and shelter, they can make it.”

Residents and animal welfare groups agree that the District has an oversupply of free-roaming cats. WHS estimates there are 300 “cat colonies” — although no one knows for sure.

McGrath’s neighbors, Steve and Rebecca Judd, estimated they’ve trapped 20 cats in two years. “For every one you trap, about five don’t want to go in,” Rebecca says after setting down on the clinic floor two traps with gray cats.

Like other cat trappers, the Judds have bought their own traps, researched when to set them out and even adopted a kitten they found outside. “She was eight or nine weeks old,” Rebecca says, smiling. “I was able to pet her. and I thought, I can’t subject her to a life of feral cathood.” She and her husband have four house cats, all of whom were once strays.

Martha Winter, a day-care provider who also is from Maryland, says she manages more than 80 cats. She is so well-known in the Silver Spring area that people with questions about free-roaming cats call her; she refers them to WHS’s clinic. She’s here this morning with Carolyn Manning, a substitute teacher. Manning is about to move and wonders who will take over feeding the cats.

Winter has been feeling overwhelmed. She keeps 36 litter boxes in her home. Asked to estimate how much she spends on vet bills each year, she answers: “Based on my income, a lot more than I should. It’s a labor of love.” She has been caring for the cats so long, she says, that some of them have reached old age. Although she hates the idea of euthanasia, she’s not sure that trap, neuter and release is the solution to reducing the population.

“It puts way too much responsibility on the volunteers,” she says. “You can TNR them until you’re blue in the face, but it’s like emptying the ocean with a spoon. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not stopping the number of cats outside.”

Outdoor cats enjoy a post-surgery meal. Outdoor cats enjoy a post-surgery meal. (Logan Mock-Bunting/For The Washington Post)

THE IDEA THAT animals should be sheltered from cruelty took shape in the United States with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. Back then, the issue was mistreated horses and livestock. As more states passed anti-cruelty laws, animal shelters were established to protect animals from human behavior and, later, humans from animal diseases such as rabies. The shelters tried to find adoptive homes for the dogs and cats in their charge, but resorted to euthanasia for the times it didn’t work.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, credits animal rights activist Ed Duvin in the 1980s with providing the intellectual spark for the no-kill movement. In a much-quoted 1989 essay, “In the Name of Mercy,” Duvin wrote: “It borders on the obscene to describe the killing of many innocent and healthy beings as a merciful act. Whether picked up on the street or surrendered at the shelter, the vast majority of these animals experience the kind of psychological trauma and terror that we find so abhorrent for caged laboratory animals but tolerate in our own facilities. ... Euthanasia might be a relatively painless end to this journey of terror, but each death represents an abject failure — not an act of mercy.”

A year later, women who were taking care of 54 tuxedo cats in Adams Morgan — and who feared calling animal control because they didn’t want the cats to be euthanized — formed Alley Cat Allies. The group recruited veterinarians to spay and neuter the cats and began advising others across the country on how to follow its example. Alley Cat Allies now says it’s the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats.

In 2004, Alley Cat Allies met with WHS, the Washington Animal Rescue League and the D.C. health department to discuss what to do about the District’s large free-roaming cat population. Surveys showed that residents disliked euthanasia and supported a vigorous trap, neuter and release program; in 2008, District officials passed an ordinance requiring it as a method of animal control.

Before leading WHS, LaFontaine managed a humane society in New Hampshire — where, she points out, stray cats survive bitterly cold winters. At WHS, she immediately set about trying to improve the “save rate.” In the past two years, LaFontaine says, “we were seeing cats who lived outside being brought into the shelter. ... If they made it to adoption, they sprayed or scratched stuff, and they were not adapting.” So, she says, WHS began reevaluating the idea of pushing cats out for adoption who really weren’t suited for it. “This cat is chubby, it’s been living outside — why should we try to make him something he’s not?” she says. She calls this group “social cats.”

“We can bring them in and euthanize them, or put them back where they’re thriving,” she says. “If we could ask the cat, they’d probably say, ‘I want to go back outside and have a better life.’ ”

The possibility that some cats are just better suited to live outdoors, even if they seem to like humans, is an emerging topic of discussion among animal welfare professionals, says Stephanie Janeczko, president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. It dovetails with the dilemma facing no-kill shelters: Space is finite. So why not return animals to the outdoors if they’re healthy and can clearly survive? That frees resources to deal with easily adoptable animals.

Some animal advocates say cats don’t belong outdoors at all. Some animal advocates say cats don’t belong outdoors at all. (Logan Mock-Bunting/For The Washington Post)

FOR THOSE WHO say cats don’t belong outdoors, that new approach is sure to drive them nuts. The American Bird Conservancy points to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s 2013 review of previously published studies that estimated free-roaming cats kill 1.3 billion to 4 billion birds a year. Unowned cats do most of the killing, the study said. (Animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have questioned the study’s validity.)

The conservancy also says free-roaming cats spread rabies. A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that in 2010, four times as many rabid cats (303) were reported as rabid dogs (69), although another study noted the last human rabies case associated with cats in the United States was in 1975. Cat feces in outdoor recreational areas can be a source of toxoplasmosis, which can lead to neurological impairment, blindness and birth defects.

Research on TNR has found, at best, only modest success in reducing the numbers of free-roaming cats. In a 2004 paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarian David A. Jessup says the practice is likely to succeed only when the number of feral cats is small to begin with; when no new cats join the colony; when all females are captured and spayed; where the terrain is accessible and cats have trouble hiding; and where TNR efforts are early, intense and prolonged. “Many feeders of cats will not keep records, are not committed to population control, or are not willing or able to aggressively maintain a vigilant TNR effort,” Jessup writes. “How much of a fig leaf does TNR provide for people who just want to have lots of cats?”

Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, estimates between 71 percent and 94 percent of the cat population must be neutered to bring the birth rate below replacement level. At one university campus she studied, the feral cat population was reduced from 155 in 1991 to 23 in 2002 through a combination of adoption, euthanizing sick cats, natural attrition and neutering “virtually all resident cats.”

In a 2004 research paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarian Paul L. Barrows concludes: “Sometimes it is better that some healthy animals die in light of the excessively negative impacts of their continuing to live. Our nation has greatly benefited from anti-littering campaigns and actions. We must similarly seek to make it politically incorrect and socially unacceptable to engage in biological littering resulting from irresponsible cat ownership and promotion of TNR programs.”

IT’S TIME FOR Laurice Ghougasian to get to her day job. The cats she fed this morning have wandered away. Ghougasian talks about the vacations she’d like to take overseas, except who would feed the cats? Sometimes she comes for an hour or two on weekends to visit them.

She keeps a spreadsheet listing when the cats were trapped, when they were neutered, when they’ve been treated for illness or injuries. She sprinkles roach killer on the ground to keep the vermin away and insists she hasn’t seen any fleas or ticks on the cats’ fur. She says homeless people have given her ham sandwiches for the cats, and nearby churchgoers bless her for taking care of them. They’ve blessed her hundreds of times, Ghougasian says. She asks them to bless the cats instead.

Lisa Grace Lednicer is a Washington-based writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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