TNR: the backside of the tapestry

An essay about the process of trap-neuter-return by Sylvia Ann. These are her views.

Is TNR the only humane way to manage feral cat populations?

Undoubtedly, if it recognized the shades of gray between black and white, between the evil of euthanasia and the radiant good of preserving life at any cost. But when the proponents of TNR seem unaware of two-thirds of the problem, is death a curse and life an unconditional blessing?

Habitually overlooked or dismissed as insignificant are:

  • Feral cats’ access to food and shelter:
  • Human personality types.


Are the lives of people stranded on islands as idyllic as those of the Robinsons,’ whose dazzling adventures thrilled us when we were children? Is it all make-believe, or do the marooned clad themselves in skins and furs? Do they live in snug tree-houses? Milk goats? Gather luscious fruits from every other tree? Catch enough game to feed an army? Spear fish with more hits than misses? Do they “live off the fatta the lan’” as Steinbeck’s Lennie dreamed of doing?

Then again, do passing ships that rescue them embroider the truth, or do a few weeks of gnawing land-gristle grind down shipwreck survivors to gibbering bags of bones?

Did America’s earliest colonists, armed with guns and fishing gear, thrive in a land they thought was teeming with finned, feathered and furry edibles? Then why do their journals tell how they lived on bugs, grubs and long pig?

* * *

Ferals are housecats kicked out the door to fend for themselves. While these throwaway cats are about the same size as some of their ancestors, thousands of years of domestication probably haven’t sharpened their hunting skills. They lack the muscle to catch much of anything larger than field mice, shrews, gophers, chipmunks, birds, frogs, lizards and small snakes. Even a rat of middling size can bite back hard, clench its dainty pink fists and let fly such a flurry of whaps, a cat will drop it like a hot potato.

The richest hunting season for ferals – another proof of a loving Creator – is when fledglings are trying their wings, and baby mice no bigger than prunes toddle forth in their little lace bonnets to soak up a sunbeam. Though mice don’t sleep as soundly as bears and hedgehogs, neither do they pop out of their burrows all day long when rain and snow descend.

Nietzsche rejected Darwin’s notion of a competitive struggle for food, which he believed, in contrast to Darwin, has always been abundant. Maybe it is on the Serengeti, but chronic hunger on land and in sea is likely more common than stuporous satiety. Cougars hunt field mice, a tragicomic sight you can see on the outskirts of rural towns.

If Mother Earth offers her creatures a sumptuous smorgasbord, as armchair romantics insist she does, not all her creatures are consistently successful in loading up their plates. Even the naturalist Euell Gibbons, who plucked victuals galore from woods, field and sand dune, smothered his weeds in gobs of butter and cream sauce from the teats of dairy cows. Cats hunt without high-powered rifles, rocket-launched grenades favored by elephant poachers, knives, traps and nets – and their prey thins out to less than meager when summer fades.


Joseph Conrad, whose mastery of English was unsurpassed by English-speaking writers, describes a cloudburst in one of his novels, the torrential roar and malevolence of which overwhelm the reader with existential horror.

Drought is the norm in ever-increasing areas of the world. But on the northwest coast of America, rain clouds surging in from the ocean can turn godless heathens into believers, and God-fearing folk into pugilists, dancing on tiptoes and jabbing the air, itching to corner Him in a dark alley.

For months the sky drenches the landscape. Rain blasts down in such deafening volleys from cosmic machine guns, people need Wagnerian lungs and vocal chords to make themselves heard above the booming cataracts. On the Washington coast the earth is pounded by 8 to 14 feet of rain, the worst of the fury in November and December when the deluge is lashed by freight-train winds that rip power lines and flatten old-growth forests. Water is ankle deep in yards, and valleys drowned in the inland sea of rivers.

Have TNR advocates ever heard feral cats wail with despair in 70 mph wind and rainstorms? They sound like children. Have they ever seen them huddled on concrete, pressing their shivering bodies against a building under a narrow roof overhang? Try as they might to shelter themselves from the onslaught, wind blows the rain sideways.

When solidified cattle die standing up, have these well-meaning people wondered how ferals survive Midwestern blizzards? How they endure sweltering climates with little or no access to water? These cats can subsist in cities where they scavenge garbage. They also fare surprisingly well on farms. But in thinly settled suburbs, their suffering is abject.

Is TNR more humane than a bullet? Before dying in a ditch, who knows how many ferals withstand two or three years of brutal deprivation? Is TNR more humane than poison? It would be monstrous to say it isn’t. Is TNR more humane than pulling the plug on misery?

A man who administers euthanasia once remarked that he’s able to do what he does only by forcing himself as best he can, at the end of the day, ‘to forget the look in their eyes.’ His heart goes out to the homeless unwanted crammed into cages, barking, wagging, purring and reaching their paws through the bars, begging for a pat, for a word of reassurance as he fills the hypodermics.

The Spanish philosopher Unamuno defined love as pity – our innate desire to bring joy to a life that is fragile and fleeting. Devotion stems from our tragic foreboding of loss and oblivion, from knowing that our beloved is doomed, as we all are.


Type One

As to how we relate to animals, who among us holds on to their purse and basks in staunch contentment? It’s tempting to single them out as people who let their dogs and cats shift for themselves. If they fail to shift, if they fall by the wayside…well, so what? Anybody knows that animals are clutter.

Granted it’s simplistic, this thumbnail sketch excludes the ill, the angry and impoverished. It portrays only the Devil-May-Cares with a roof and a bed, ample food for their bellies, and a leathery indifference to pain that isn’t theirs.

In contrast to people who feel the pangs of the sufferer, Type One is content to gaze upon, through and beyond every manifestation of misery. The pain they cause by their negligence and acts slithers down the gullet of their psyche like an oyster. Their furry dependents, sagging under the weight of ill treatment, of heat, cold, hunger and thirst, never enter their heads.

Rather than petting and praising their friends who crouch on the porch or on a chain when evening falls, rather than taking them for a nice stroll, giving them food that gladdens their hearts and a warm bed, these rhino-hide winners grab a bag of chips off the counter, throw themselves into their stick-shift recliner, snap open a can of suds and tune in to their sit-coms.

Are they satanic? Some are bottom-rung. The lowest of the low. But many are oddly innocent blanks born with a moral compunction thermostat stuck at zero.

Can they change? Surprisingly often. Though they’re dead as a doornail to reason, their significant others – unless they’re stunted, too – can fling them into the pit of their ghastliest nightmare and – when they repent – waft them aloft into the realm of their wildest dreams. (Think Lysistrata, and the one Hindu classic westerners read, teaspoon in hand to tuck back into place their Eggs Benedict eyes.) A few will even evolve beyond this clanking routine. Without threats and rewards, some will discover they care about their anim als’ welfare. But their conversion can take years.

Type Two

So far from an oyster, the spectacle of suffering for people of this stripe sticks in their craw like a sea urchin.

A classic example is Martha Kane, whose affection for her cats hasn’t paled in 40 years. Her tenderness is durable. Her staying power staggering. Listen to B.B. King’s ho-hum lament ‘The Thrill Is G-a-a-a-w-w-n-n,’ if you want to hear lyrics that don’t describe Martha. Her devotion to cats who have nothing and no one has cost her necessities and pleasures, large and small. Which doesn’t matter. ‘I always have room in my heart for one more,’ she says.

Martha’s a knockout. Her features are Celtic and Mediterranean. She has laughing eyes, and silky hair the color of sunrise. ‘Richard and I laugh a lot,’ she confides, referring to her partner, a guy better looking than Dana Andrews, ‘my better half who works all day and still has the strength to help me rescue cats. Sometimes, when we have an emergency, we’re out and about in the middle of the night.’

It’s a puzzlement. Eye-candy ladies can have an obsessive interest in making the most of their looks, their passport to living high, wide and handsome, as some of them see it. So why does she bother with cats? Go explain.

Whatever the answer, Martha’s ear is cocked to an unbelievable drumbeat. She couldn’t care less for what a lot of us hanker for. So far from being narcissistic, she’s fired with compassion, and rejoices to have a steady supply of sustenance for her colony of cats. Though they wax and wane, she has caring donors whose contributions are doubled by someone who must have had wings, and will have them again – an anonymous, heaven-sent benefactor.

Martha’s storeroom is stacked to the ceiling with bags of high quality kibbles and canned cat foods, which disappear in days. When the steadiness wobbles, she and Richard struggle to feed 150 feral cats with their own funds.

After four decades, she tires more easily than she did. But as for cutting back on her mission of mercy – how can she? Her cats wait for her morning and evening, and it touches her ‘to see their little faces. When God calls me home, I pray every night that someone takes my place.’

She and others involved in this work – organizations such as hers, and also obscure individuals – can fall into the habit of placing their animals’ needs before their own. As long as they can, they’ll persist in this endeavor.

Bent on moral uplift, right-thinking friends of Type 2 show them how to slam shut the door and pull the curtains when cats come a-calling. They demonstrate how to ‘whack the confounded cats off the porch’ by hefting a broom over their shoulder and pivoting like Tiger Woods gripping his club, readying himself to slam the ball into Eternity. But their demo is a dud. Broom-swingings are futile.

While veterinarians who donate their skills in neutering cats deserve commendation, it’s surreal to pretend that once the cats are desexed and released, the problem is solved, and we can all go home.

That isn’t the way it happens.

Pro bono giving – giving big time – cranks into action when the cats are released. It begins without end when people – some known, more often unknown – hoist the weight of these unwanted cats onto their shoulders because their nature compels them to, because they can’t do otherwise, even if they tried. Trouble is, many such people live on small or fixed incomes that leave them least able to feed endless cats, to pay for their surgeries when they are injured, for blood tests, antibiotics, vaccinations, flea medications, ear mite ointments, worming pills, euthanasia, and hefty donations to groups who find homes for a few of the cats.

This giving of self for years – for decades – drains these peoples’ strength and their life savings. They see their funds hemorrhage and their safety net disintegrate. They see the futility of their effort to build some degree of security for their latter years. Some of these people suffer permanent injuries from falls. Some experience pain of unknown origin.

But unless they’re able to find employment – or a second job if they’re still in the workforce – their giving can deprive them of health care. Which is tantamount to self-immolation: they have to take care of themselves first and foremost – advice they always hear.

The solution is simple. Impossible, but simple.

Barring some way to increase their income, they can stop squandering what little money they have on cats. All they need do is stuff into cages their innocent, trusting, head-butting cats who want a cuddle-fest just as much as they want to be fed, and dump them off at the death-house. Two quick injections, and – BING! – problem solved! So why the fuss?

This is isn’t an option for Type 2.

What do you do with people like this? They’ll never change. They are what they are: financial dead ducks, which they know clear down to their marrow bones at 3:00 in the morning.

Is such sacrifice unheard of? A one-in-a-thousand, morbid, ludicrous aberration? It’s nothing of the sort. It’s all over the place. It’s just under the radar. Veterinarians have legions of clients with hordes of cats. Galaxies of cats. Hundreds of pounds of cat meat are piled on the shoulders of middle-aged matrons and rheumy-eyed crones with chin whiskers, enfeebled old souls so doubled over from parenting cats, their bosoms hang down to their ankles.

Nor is it only the fair sex who mothers cats. Plenty of men in their twilight years – shuffling dotards who need half a day to empty their bladders – are as soft on cats as the women. The ones still able to lift a hammer build outdoor shelters they wire with heaters to warm the cats in winter.

All of this has a price tag. Unless they eat nothing but cornmeal pellets, three or four cats will cost their parents $260.00 a month, at least, for food.

TNR could end the problem. But not without funds to ramp up the program to the point where all strays were neutered, all derelict slackers who failed to neuter their outdoor cats were fined or charged with a misdemeanor, and one or two dollars per month were levied on every taxpayer to help subsidize organizations, small groups and stay-at-homes who fed and cared for feral cats.

To get off the ground, the project would need a huge infrastructure as vigilant – and as risky to mess with – as the Internal Revenue Service. It would need fleets of vans and hundreds of officers – or an army of volunteers – to enforce legislation that wouldn’t exist unless it were passed into law by voters, some of whom had no interest in animal welfare.

Despite all odds, it might be launched with astronomical funding and an organizational structure armed with all-seeing eyes. A similar program is up and running in South Australia, where every cat is required by law to be registered, with only two cats allowed per household.

Until such time, TNR, combined with thousands of un-neutered strays, inflict a devastating burden on organizations and solo caregivers with limited incomes. If the cats outnumbered what one or two dollars a month, per taxpayer, could feed for the rest of their lives, then euthanasia – as sad as it is – would end their plight, and save from near destitution caregivers who’ve borne for years a backbreaking load with fluctuating, insufficient, or not a nickel or dime of assistance from anyone.

See also Effective Trap, Neuter, Return Programmes

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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