Stray cat
A stray cat. Photo via Pixabay

What do you do with a stray cat that crosses your path?

Or in the case of the San Diego Humane Society, what do you do with 2,381 cats that entered their program last year for free-roaming felines? 

And these are just a portion of the more than 9,500 cats who entered the local shelters last year.

The Community Cat program, as it is known, is the society’s response to new research — a growing  base of knowledge related to the dynamics of cats, their widely varying behaviors, and how they socialize with humans. 

However, not everyone — cat lovers included — are happy with the Community Cat program.

According to Brian Daugherty of the Humane Society, a controversy has been fanned by media coverage “we do not feel accurately portrays” the program. 

The Community Cat program is intended to addresses both feral and stray cats. It attempts to reduce the wild population over time with a two-step process. First, the cats are spayed or neutered. Then they are released back into their habitat. 

The society’s argument is that cats are stressed when held in cages, and releasing them ensures a greater chance of survival. And any cat whose owner can be traced is not released. 

The Audubon Society opposes the program, asserting that each cat in the wild kills several birds a month, and suggesting that the Community Cats program is really an attempt to reduce the number of cats that are euthanized. 

A lawsuit filed by Attorney Bryan Pease against the Humane Society alleges that this is an unlawful business practice amounting to illegal animal abandonment. The trial begins in January.

But an article in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science explains that dogs and cats are many times “more likely to be found by searching the neighborhood of origin or returning home on their own than through a call or visit to a shelter.”

Dr. Kate Hurley. Courtesy UC Davis

The author of the article is UC Davis Veterinarian Dr. Kate Hurley. Before she was 10 years old, “Cat” as she is known, was already volunteering at animal shelters. Then she became an animal control officer,  a job she loved for six years before pursuing her degree. She spent her university years researching animal shelters across the country.

Hurley became the first person in the country to graduate from a university with an emphasis on shelter care. And the university veterinarian is adamant that the methods and procedures used in animal shelters dating back 100 years are long overdue for a change.

In addition to the Community Cat program, she also advocates a triage system for all animals entering shelters. Like humans in hospitals, it’s focused on the patient.   

Every cat that comes into the Humane Society is given individual treatment. Shelter triage includes determining the following:

  • The goals of the owner/finder/concerned bystander
  • The needs of the animal
  • The urgency of the situation
  • The best possible solution given capacity and resources in the shelter and community

Hurley said the science behind the Community Cat program is driven by “research coming out that better helped us understand the dynamics of cats in the United States.” The research is asking questions about why the techniques that were successful for dogs in shelters have not been successful for cats.  

Hurley has found there are millions of wild community cats — 30 million to 80 million in this country alone. Only a small percentage are visible, gathering in colonies clustered around food sources. Most of these cats are in “alleys and byways and backyards of our society.”

But animal shelter policies have been “geared around the assumption that pets had homes in the traditional sense.” 

In fact, Hurley said, the “vast majority of cats coming into shelters are unknown or loosely owned. Maybe they had five different front porches and five different names, where they were getting food and affection and attention.’’  

“You may well know someone who puts out a bowl of food for a cat,” she said. “It’s a very common activity to feed cats that a person doesn’t own.”  

The problem that arises from removing cats from these colonies is that the remaining animals breed. But if the captured cats are neutered and spayed, the stray population will eventually decline. That is what the Community Cat program is attempting to do.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist. 



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Ellen Bullock