May 29, 2019
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It was a sunny, blue sky morning when we set out from the shelter with a ginger cat stowed in the back of our SUV. A large towel covered his trap, pulled back at the ends to make sure he had enough air. Typical for ferals, he was completely silent—someone stepping into the car at that moment might not have even realized he was there. For my wife, Suzi, and me, our job was to get him home now that he was neutered and ear-tipped. I was concerned, though, because the information we were given about where he was trapped was hazy. The person who caught him and surrendered him had been vague on where the ginger cat was found. He had mentioned a bike path, so we knew the general area, but the path was a couple of miles long. A little more digging into the file narrowed down the original location enough that it was safe to release him. But still, we liked having an exact address. Cats are very territorial, and it’s important to let them go on familiar ground.
We came to the street we believed was his and picked a spot on the corner. Suzi opened the car's side door, pulled out the trap and rested it on the sidewalk. She removed the towel, allowing the cat to see his surroundings. Within moments, he appeared to recognize where he was and wanted out. Suzi lifted the trap’s rear door, and the ginger cat sprinted up the driveway of the closest house. As he ran, an orange cat came out of the garage to greet him. They rubbed noses and then, together, sprinted around the side of the house and into the backyard.
A year earlier, this healthy young cat, with a colony of friends and relatives and at least one neighborhood resident who clearly was feeding them regularly, would have been dead. His captor would have dropped him off at the front desk, and the same day—unless there was a stray hold period—this cat would have been deemed unadoptable and euthanized. Back then, it didn’t seem like there was any alternative. But now, as an industry, we know better.
Where a feral or stray community cat is present, there are usually others. Therefore, we know that removing and euthanizing a community cat typically offers no relief for whatever problem spurred a local resident to complain. If they’re intact, the population—and any problems associated with them—will not permanently decrease by taking one or two away. We know spaying or neutering a community cat will resolve most complaints, stopping yowling, spraying, fighting, roaming and other mating-related behaviors. While we respect the right of residents to have cat-free properties if they desire, we know there are simple devices to deter cats, such as motion-activated sprinklers and ultrasonic devices. We know some cats surrendered at shelters are actually indoor/outdoor pets. And some people surrendering outdoor cats want to help them but don’t know how. We have learned these cats are often loved by local residents and have complex relationships with multiple people who want them around, even if others don’t. Perhaps most important of all, we acknowledge that these cats, even though they may never be traditional pets, have lives with value and need to be protected.
Return-to-field is a program that has evolved in recent years to address outdoor cats who, though healthy, do not belong in shelters. They may be unsocialized, or the shelter may lack the capacity to care for them. Instead of facing euthanasia, in the return-to-field model they are altered, vaccinated where appropriate, tipped and chipped and returned to their original locations (except in rare cases where return is inadvisable). A growing number of shelters across the U.S. now have return-to-field programs in place and report, as one would expect, dramatically lower cat euthanasia rates. Other benefits include improved shelter conditions and less spread of disease, lower intake especially when return-to-field is paired with targeted trap-neuter-return efforts, and a developing cultural norm that the way to manage community cats is by fixing them, not disposing of them at the local shelter. Also important (though not often mentioned) is the reduction of psychological stress to shelter workers when they are no longer operating in a high-euthanasia environment.
When our local shelter decided to start a return-to-field program, we were thrilled and soon became volunteer drivers. We noticed, however, that the shelter had to start from scratch in developing protocols for how to administer the program and creating materials that explained it. There was no central reference material or pool of collected experience to guide them in launching RTF. So Alley Cat Advocates, Neighborhood Cats and the Humane Society of the United States got together and came up with the recently released Return-to-Field Handbook, now available online. The download is free or, if you prefer a hard copy, a print version can be purchased from the Animal Sheltering store.
Collectively, the co-authors—Danielle Bays, Karen Little, Susan Richmond and myself—have years of experience with return-to-field. While there is some policy discussion in the handbook’s first chapter, the primary focus of the handbook is on the nuts and bolts of setting up and effectively running a return-to-field program. The guide covers staff training, messaging, interviewing the finder (the person who surrenders the cat), assessing a cat’s eligibility for RTF, housing, veterinary care, personnel, data collection and more. Sample forms, protocols and contracts are also included.
Does your shelter have a return-to-field program? If yes, the handbook may help streamline your processes. If not, the guide can help get one started. The sooner your RTF program is up and running, the sooner you’ll start saving more lives!