2020 Online Community Cats Conference

On the weekend of January 24-26, I participated in an online conference hosted by the Community Cats Podcast on the topic of community cats (unowned cats that live outdoors). Now in its second year, the conference featured thirteen speakers from animal welfare organizations across North America. Following are highlights from the one presentation I disliked, and from a few of those I enjoyed.

“So much has evolved in animal welfare in just the past decade. Now that we know better, we can do better,” said Dr. Sara Pizano, in her presentation titled “How We Live with and Love Cats.” Pizano is the founder of Team Shelter USA, a national consulting firm that has helped over 100 shelters increase their live release rates.

In her presentation, Pizano focused on the plight of cats in shelters. She contended that animal shelters are overcrowded, stress-inducing, and a source of rampant infectious diseases. To her, the shelters represent a never-ending cycle of death, especially for cats. Because of their being so many barriers to cats for live outcome, Pizano believes an alternative to shelters is needed. For Pizano, that solution is Trap-Neuter-Return, to the extent that she dismissed other options.

While I agree that TNR is part of the solution, I disliked Pizano’s erroneous use of statistics to prove her point. According to her, 5.3 million animals were euthanized in 2018 and twice as many shelter cats were euthanized as shelter dogs. Although this stat shows cats are in greater trouble than dogs, it doesn’t provide any explanation as to the reasons. Do dogs receive more enrichment or do dog adopters receive more education? She also contended that 80% of cats entering shelters are community cats, a statistic for which I couldn’t find any corroboration.

I also disliked Pizano’s use of assumptions to prove a point. She argued that if all cats were TNRed, that would leave more room for dogs, cause less burnout for staff and volunteers, increase shelters’ budgets, and even benefit wildlife and public health. These statements left me with many questions. Are shelters really the best options for dogs? How does having fewer cats reduce the burnout of staff who will still need to deal with the euthanasia of dogs? Will it really cost more to house cats for a few days or to TNR them all? And if it does, who will finance the care of the TNRed cats? Finally, how does it help wildlife to TNR a cat instead of finding it an adoptive home?

Pizano upset me when she said there should be no stray hold for cats. If more dogs were euthanized than cats, would she propose holding dogs for only 24 hours? Moreover, she says, cats should be processed and returned to their original location within 24 hours. Her rationale? In her mind, because statistics show that only 2% of cats are ever claimed, most people aren’t interested in finding their cats and so 24 hours are more than enough time for an owner to be reunited with their cat. When I asked how the 24-hold might impact an indoor cat that accidentally got loose, Pizano replied that if cats would find their owner or another caretaker if they are returned to their original location.

Her answer far from satisfied me. Cat owners develop emotional attachments to their cats too. I know this from my own experience, and from my conversations with countless cat owners. Hence, cat owners deserve to be reunited with their cats just as much as dog owners deserve to be reunited with their dogs.

Other speakers offered what I feel were better presentations. Of most interest to me was a presentation by Karen Kraus and Bob Sallinger. Kraus is the Executive Director of the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon and Sallinger is the Conservation Director of the Audubon Society of Portland. Their presentation was titled, “Cats Safe at Home: An Innovative Program for Protecting Birds and Cats in Portland, Oregon.”

The two speakers recognized the controversial nature of their presentation. There is no denying that cats are in trouble, and we need to find better ways to help them. At the same time, the speakers presented alarming stats about the state of North American birds. According to them, one third need urgent conservation action, their population has declined by three billion in the past 50 years, and 432 species of birds are on the watch list. In addition, while there are numerous reasons why birds are in trouble, there is no denying that cats are playing a role in their destruction. Predation by cats is ranked third among the causes of the decline of North American bird population. Moreover, 21% of injuries to birds can be attributed to cats.

Kraus and Sallinger believe that when organizations work together, they can reach a broader and wider audience and thereby have a greater impact for both birds and cats. By collaborating, they’re more likely to develop a multi-dimensional approach based on research and adaptive management. By joining forces, the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon and the Audubon Society of Portland developed the following strategies to benefit both groups of animals These strategies include raising awareness of the issue, affordable and available high-volume spay/neuter for ALL cats, promoting the benefits of cats being indoors or of safe outdoor time for cats, and responsible TNR.

One way that safe outdoor time for cats can be achieved is with the use of catios or outdoor cat enclosures. The Cats Safe at Home Campaign offers a Catio Tour (a walking tour featuring homes with catios and their cats), which is intended to raise awareness of free-roaming cats, provide a hands-on way to involve people, and motivate change. The catio tours started in 2013. At the time, 10% already had a catio, 56% were likely to build one, and 89% were likely to attend a future catio tour. As of 2019, 20% of Portland residents had built a catio and 70% planned to build one.

Responsible TNR includes:

  • Prioritization of removal of cats from designated natural areas
  • Options for property owners who want to keep wildlife on their land
  • Indemnity for native predatory species that prey upon free-roaming cats
  • Management of feral cats that minimizes the risk of attracting and habituating native populations of animals
  • Scientific research and adaptive management
  • Transparent reporting

The presentation offered by Valerie Ingram and Alistair Schroff also interested me, especially as Ingram has served as a mentor to me as a pet education blogger. Ingram is a teacher who spent 12 years in the public-school system before she became a volunteer humane educator for the Lakes Animal Friendship Society to focus on teaching animal care and compassion. Schroff is a forester who helps with all LAFS projects, including sourcing of grants and other funding. The couple have written three children’s books about LAFS projects. They presented on the topic of “Education, Empowerment, and Putting the ‘Community’ in Community Cats.”

Ingram and Schroff live in Burns Lake, a small village with 3,000 residents in northwestern British Columbia. They described the village as a sparsely populated area the size of Washington state served by only three veterinarians and a few shelters (including one cat shelter). The community is replete with socio-economic problems such as poverty, substance abuse, and illiteracy. Prior to the creation of LAFS, animals were often dumped at schools, and animal suffering had been normalized.

The couple’s solution has been education and empowerment. Over the years, they have shared a consistent message though songs, books, and hands-on storytelling in schools. Their work has paid off, in that they’ve seen a significant change in attitude. The overall community is more supportive of animal welfare, with the result that more community cats are being TNRed, fewer dog bites are being reported, and pet retention rates have increased.

However, Ingram and Schroff recognize that knowledge by itself isn’t enough; people also need the resources to act on that knowledge. LAFS also provides large-scale spay/neuter, the couple describes as, “turning off the tap, instead of wiping up the floods.” They also provide dog and cat houses for those that live outside.

Will Zweigart spoke on the topic of “Using Instagram and Social Media to Help Grow Your Organization.” The founder of Flatbush Cats, Zweigart began doing TNR in late 2016. His efforts led to him fostering friendly cats and, before he knew it, he and his partner were in over their heads with mass trappings and medical emergencies. Zweigart formed Flatbush Cats to better organize their efforts and begin bringing new volunteers into the fold.

In Zweigart’s opinion, resources aren’t the issue but rather awareness and motivation. To him, the solution is to help cat lovers understand the plight of cats in our current society. Cat lovers need to know about community cats, how homeless cats impact them, and how they can be part of the solution. According to Zweigart, this can be done through educational storytelling using social media. Photos and videos show connections between volunteers/fosters/adopters and cats.

Zweigart believes that every cat has a story and every story has a lesson to impart. As an example, he told the story of Winston. This community cat needed help to survive, but to receive that help Winston would first need to learn to accept it and to enter a crate. Then through fostering, he’d need to become socialized. Once all these things happened, Winston was able to find a home. Through this simple story, Flatbrush Cats was able to educate people on how they might rescue a cat and also on how they’re becoming fosters can change the life of a cat.

The final presentation I’ll mention is one by Danielle Bays, who is a member of the Humane Society of the United States’ companion animal policy team and whose presentation is titled, “Everyday Advocacy for Cats in Your Community.” She believes that there are lots of tools available to help cats: TNR, spay/neuter, education, adoption, and policy change. And so, like Zweigart, she contends that the problem isn’t a lack of resources; instead it’s a culture that is unsupportive of cats.

Bays contended that we’re all in control of “the narratives of our communities” or of promoting change where we live. If we don’t like our community’s story, the solution is to change the story by getting involved and helping to create a culture where cat welfare is the norm.

She said we can change our communities’ cultures by building relationships with our neighbors. She stresses that these relationships should be genuine and not simply based on a need. “People support our cause because they know us and trust,” Bays said. She also believes that we should develop relationships with community leaders by participating in community events and by attending neighborhood association, civic association meetings, and city council meetings. By making connections, one can be a role model and a person of influence.

In this article, I’ve shared several ideas that were offered by animal welfare experts as ways to help cats. I encourage you to pick one and become an instrument for the change you want to see. If you want to know more about the presentations, the recordings are available for $75 from Community Cats Podcast.

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