UPDATE Jan. 6, 2016: The city council meeting set for January 12, 2016 to discuss the ABC letter has been cancelled. At this time the mayor and city council do not appear to have any further action scheduled on the ABC letter.
The Feral Freedom program in Jacksonville, Florida, is one of the exceptional success stories of No Kill. Feral Freedom is an initiative of First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) in collaboration with the city shelter and with the support of Best Friends. It was an indispensable component in Jacksonville reaching No Kill two years ago. Feral Freedom developed a revolutionary approach to saving community cats that has done as much as any other initiative to reduce shelter killing of cats, not just in Jacksonville but as an inspiration to communities across the nation.
Feral Freedom is not the only great thing about Jacksonville. I’ve been blogging about No Kill communities for five years now, and if I had to pick out one community to serve as an example of what is right with No Kill, it might very well be Jacksonville. Jacksonville is a large southern city, which is about the toughest venue for No Kill. It is not a progressive city like Austin or Charlottesville. It overcomes all its challenges by the organizations in the city, including the Animal Care & Protective Services Division (ACPSD), the Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS), and FCNMHP working together with terrific harmony. In Jacksonville, they can truthfully say “yes we can all just get along.” As Denise Deisler told me: “In Jacksonville among the partners, we have few boundaries . . . we are flying in formation towards the same goal.”
The combined statistics for ACPSD and JHS for the year ending in September 2015 showed a live release rate, by the standard calculation, of 96%. That’s one of the highest live release rates that I’m aware of for any major city, ever. For a rate like that to be achieved in a non-progressive southern city is little short of a miracle. And the Jacksonville organizations do not just work in the city – they also reach out to help their neighboring jurisdictions get to No Kill too.
But today this great success story is under imminent threat from outside. There is a strong effort being made to shut down the Feral Freedom program. This would not only cripple No Kill in Jacksonville, it is a threat to No Kill in every other city in the United States. I wrote a few days ago about the stunning success of the Million Cat Challenge, which has saved almost 400,000 shelter cats in the last two years. One of the core initiatives of the Million Cat Challenge is return-to-field, which was pioneered by Feral Freedom. The attack on Feral Freedom, if it succeeds, might set a precedent that would endanger the success of the Million Cat Challenge and the 300+ shelters enrolled in its program. It could also potentially endanger independent TNR programs throughout the United States.
So what is this threat? It is a campaign by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) to get the Jacksonville city council to end the city’s relationship with Feral Freedom. In a December 3, 2015, letter to the mayor and the council, the ABC argues that TNR does not control the number of feral cats, that feral cat colonies are a threat to public health, and that feral cats are an invasive species that “impose severe ecological damage” on wildlife. The ABC letter, which is four pages long including footnotes, has only one sentence on the issue of what it thinks should replace Feral Freedom. That sentence says: “The City would be better served by treating cats like dogs, actively and effectively removing these feral animals, and/or completely enclosing every feral cat colony.”
The suggestion to enclose feral cat colonies is not a serious proposal, and is probably included only to make ABC’s preferred solution seem not quite so harsh. What ABC is really recommending is that: (1) the city should force all cat owners to keep their cats indoors or under control at all times under penalty of law, and (2) all feral cats should be captured and killed. This is the program that ABC is putting forward as better than Feral Freedom.
Let’s take a moment to think about what would happen if the Jacksonville city council adopted the ABC proposal. First of all, they would probably be voted out of office at the next election, but in addition to that, the ABC program would be ineffective. As to trying to force people to keep cats indoors, we should know by now that draconian anti-pet provisions never work. Good policy today is to work with people as they are, not to try to force them to do things they don’t want to do. Instead of mandatory spay-neuter we offer low-cost and free spay-neuter and targeted outreach. Instead of breed bans, we look at the behavior of individual dogs. We have learned that criminalizing people’s pets just results in people going underground, and tuning out the official message.
As to catching and killing all the feral cats in the city, I cannot understand why anyone would think that this is a better approach than Feral Freedom. Not only is it cruel, and not only would it sweep up lots of people’s pets, it wouldn’t even work. The great majority of the real estate in any city is private property, and the great majority of feral cat colonies are located on private property. The city has no right to come onto private property willy nilly and take people’s cats. Even if we were to assume that the city was able to enact some kind of draconian ordinance that allowed them to legally come onto private property and take cats, that would simply mean that people would hide the cats. In order for a catch-and-kill program to work, the city would have to catch at least 70% of the free-roaming cats in the city and then they would have to repeat this vast catch-and-kill program every couple of years. Good luck with that. And in the meantime, with TNR shut down, there would be no way to slow down cat reproduction.
TNR has gained such wide acceptance not because it is a perfect method, but because it is the best of the methods that are actually possible to implement. We live in a complicated world, and simplistic solutions like “catch and kill all the cats” won’t work. The ABC is failing to consider the following factors: (1) the citizens will not support what ABC wants to do, (2) feral cat caregivers and humane advocates will work as hard as they can to thwart any mass killing plan that the city might adopt, (3) you can’t force people to keep their cats indoors if they don’t want to, unless you plan to hire a lot more police officers, and (4) a catch-and-kill program, unlike TNR, would not be staffed by volunteers or funded by donations – the burden would fall on the taxpayers, and it would be expensive.
This is getting to be a long blog post and I have not even touched on the issue of whether the ABC’s arguments that cats are bad have any validity. There is an awful lot that could be said on that issue too, because the peer-reviewed literature on feral cats has so many yawning gaps that you cannot draw many conclusions from those studies one way or the other. For example, the “Smithsonian” study, which many bird conservationists cite as definitive proof of harm to wildlife from feral cats, admitted that no studies had been done on feral cat populations in the United States. The authors of the study then proceeded to guess what they thought the feral cat population might be. I can understand why someone might make a guess in the absence of data – but to recommend killing millions of animals, including people’s pets, on the basis of your guess – that’s chutzpah.
I’d like to end this post by presenting some actual data – the statistics for what the Feral Freedom program has done in Jacksonville since it was founded. Unlike the ABC with its guesses and assumptions, the fall in cat intake at the city shelter is a fact. According to statistics going back to 2003, cat intake at the city shelter reached a high of around 13,000 per year in the years before Feral Freedom was founded in 2008. In fiscal year 2009-2010, the numbers began to fall. By fiscal year 2014-2015, cat intake at the city shelter was half what it was at its peak. During this time FCNMHP was taking in anywhere from 2000+ to 5000+ cats per year from the city shelter. Those cats were sterilized, which is why cat intake at the shelter fell. Community cat programs do work.
Jacksonville mayor and city council – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.