Cheryl of Virginia Beach never dreamed of being a trapper. To her, that sounded like a pioneer from the 19th century who cruelly killed beavers and otters in steel traps for their fur.
But a trapper she has indeed become, as she assists outdoor cats through a practice known as trap-neuter-return (TNR), a method of controlling populations of felines not living in people’s homes through sterilization. The Norfolk SPCA, like many shelters in Virginia and across the country, believes that TNR programs are the best option for grappling with the unending numbers of free-roaming cats.
Our state legislators need to recognize this, as well. It is time they make it clear that TNR is expressly legal; a bill like last year’s SB 693, which would have accomplished just this, is due. This bill passed the Senate by a good margin but never made it out of the House Agriculture Subcommittee.
Through feral cat sterilization programs, caretakers humanely trap cats living outside and bring them to a veterinary clinic. At the clinic, cats are spayed or neutered, given a rabies vaccination and marked with an eartip, which is the trimming of the left ear under anesthesia as the universal sign that the cat is sterilized. After surgery, caretakers pick up the cats and return them to their outside homes, where they provide cats with regular food and shelter and monitor them for health issues.
Most outdoor cats are not socialized to people and not candidates for adoption into people’s homes. Although some feral cats can tolerate mild human interaction, most are too fearful and unsocialized to be handled. Free-roaming cats often live in groups known as colonies.
The traditional animal control approach to feral cats has been to round them up for euthanasia. This approach has been ineffective. Just witness all the outdoor cats in our communities.
“My husband and I have TNR’d seventeen cats total starting in 2010,” says the administrative assistant for a medical company who prefers not to provide her last name so that no one will disturb the cat colony that she tends.
In addition, Cheryl knows that TNR has a dubious legal status in Virginia, as some people consider the “R,” or “return,” portion of TNR to be the crime of pet abandonment. Many humane organizations contend, however, that the return of an outdoor cat to his or her home following spay/neuter surgery is not pet abandonment, since the trappers never owned the cat in the first place. Moreover, the outside location has become their home.
To that end, we sought clarification on the matter from the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring earlier this year. A May 2015 letter from his office made it clear that individuals and private shelters can engage in TNR and not worry about legal ramifications.
Such clarification enables people like Cheryl to start openly helping outdoor cats without fear of being cited for abandonment or failure to provide the sustenance or veterinary care expected from pet owners. This distinction matters because free-roaming cats do not always stay in one place.
Cheryl’s story illustrates such a circumstance: “A mama cat had five kittens between our fence and our neighbor’s. We got all the kittens TNR’d, but the mama eluded us. She disappeared when they were four months old, and returned in the spring with seven more.”
In this case, should Cheryl be charged for abandoning this mother cat or failing to provide for her? No way.
“Caring for the colony has changed our lives,” she explains, showing the dedication and commitment she brings to her colony.
Meanwhile, many of us around the state are hoping that Richmond gets it right this winter and brings TNR, and all the help it can provide for cats, out of the shadows.