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The laws that oughta be

Crafting ordinances to facilitate community cat programs

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2015

While trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs have proliferated around the country in recent decades, local laws haven’t always kept pace with the times. Many laws were written before TNR was a widely accepted tool for humane cat management. And while ambiguous ordinances may not expressly prohibit the practice, they can leave cats, caretakers and TNR practitioners vulnerable to how their animal control agency and local officials choose to interpret the law. Volunteers who trap cats and later return sterilized, vaccinated animals to their outdoor homes may worry that they’re doing something borderline illegal; caretakers may fear that any change in municipal leadership could threaten the lives of the cats they look after.

Ordinances that explicitly authorize TNR can alleviate anxiety for volunteer trappers and caretakers while legitimizing the practice in the eyes of local officials. Such laws may spell out how TNR is conducted and may include standards for caretakers and the responsibilities of the organizations that oversee the programs.

While this may sound simple, effective laws require careful thought and planning. The goal is to pass an ordinance that eliminates legal barriers to TNR, doesn’t construct new ones, and protects cats as well as the individuals and organizations practicing TNR.

Someone who has learned how to avoid the pitfalls is Kim Diana Connolly, vice dean at the SUNY Buffalo Law School and a longtime animal lover. In 2013, Connolly formed a pro bono project at the school, engaging students in drafting a model cat ordinance and lobbying to get it approved in several western New York communities. The project is now an official law clinic, and students assist municipalities and organizations on drafting cat ordinances.


  • Unsure of whether you need to change an ordinance? Check out the flow chart provided by the Animal Law Pro Bono Project.
  • Learn the ins and outs of the legislative process in “Lobbying 101 for Cat Advocates,” available at
  • The HSUS offers policy recommendations as well as many other resources.
  • Neighborhood Cats lists several examples of TNR ordinances.

Regardless of whether you tap into a local law school or seek advice from The HSUS, Alley Cat Allies, Best Friends or any other organization ready to assist in cat-related policy work, Connolly says that drafting a solid bill is just part of the challenge. She encourages cat advocates to become volunteer lobbyists. Enlist folks who are involved in local politics: They can open doors and find approaches that may be new to you. A broad-based coalition will also do wonders for your effort by demonstrating that humane cat management is important to many community members—not just “official” cat advocates.

Keep in mind that changing the law won’t in itself drive change on the ground without the resources and people power to actually do the TNR. Engage your community and research funding opportunities in advance, so you can explain to officials that your plan may be bringing resources into your community. This way, Connolly says, “when the municipality says yes, you’ve got a plan!”

What’s in a Law?

  • Here are some tips to help you navigate the legal aspects of drafting a TNR ordinance.
  • Analyze your municipal ordinances. Look at definitions and standard terminology, and pay attention to what sections of the municipal code may be relevant. Read all the animal-related ordinances, including those pertaining to wildlife, trapping, animal control and shelters, to make sure there’s nothing that could create problems for a TNR program.
  • Enlist the support of someone who speaks “legalese.” Ordinance language can be confusing, so it helps to have someone familiar with the terminology to explain provisions and help draft appropriate language. Many attorneys offer pro bono services or may be interested in joining your board.
  • Get to know the stakeholders, and do your research. If you identify what seems to be problem language, talk to council members, animal control, public health and other officials to see how they will interpret and enforce the law.
  • Examine the animal-related definitions in your ordinance. Sometimes the greatest conflicts can arise out of tiny details: Seemingly obvious terms like “cat,” “domestic,” “feral,” “community,” “free roaming,” “owner,” “keeper,” “harborer,” “trap-neuter-return (TNR),” “abandoned” and “at-large” can be defined in a way that could hinder your work. For example, you will want to ensure that all cats are considered domestic and that feral cats are not exempted from domestic cat protections. All cats are the domestic species felis catus and should be defined as such. Problems can arise when feral cats are defined as “wild.” Some states have had hunting seasons proposed for this “wild animal.”
  • Language intended for pet cats can sometimes interfere with community cat work. For instance, licensing requirements can be worded in a way that may be unrealistic and unfair if applied to volunteers and community cat caregivers. Make sure to address these types of conflicts by drafting exemptions for anyone caring for cats who are not theirs. Even the definition of “owner” can be modified to accommodate this clarification.
  • Language addressing animal abandonment may be included in the definitions section of the code, the anti-cruelty statutes or both. Historically, abandonment laws have applied to people leaving an owned animal someplace where common sense says the animal will suffer. TNR programs intend the exact opposite: to make the cats healthier and better fit for their environment. Make sure that language about “abandoned” animals cannot be applied to TNR or associated activities.
  • Laws or policies regulating shelter operations, such as holding periods for stray cats, can affect your community cat program. Review such regulations carefully.

About the Author

Katie Lisnik is the Director of Companion Animal Public Policy at The Humane Society of the United States, focusing on raising awareness and effectiveness of pet related public policy at the federal, state and local level. Priority work includes increasing interventions for and reducing community cats populations through sterilization and vaccination programs, ending the use of gas chambers in animal shelters, ending the abusive greyhound racing industry, as well as keeping more pets in their homes and preserving a strong human-animal bond. Katie has an MS in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University; she is the Past President of the New England Federation of Humane Societies; and a former Board Member and advisor to the Maine Federation of Humane Societies.