How the “No Kill” Movement Betrays Its Name

To freelance like this means staying out late to trap, keeping the captured cats overnight, delivering them to a clinic in the morning, picking them up in the afternoon, housing them for a second night, and then returning them to where they were trapped. Raff, who works in member services for an H.M.O., and Kroh, who had a long career in management with Panasonic, devote much of their free time to the endeavor. Even at clinics that accept city money for sterilizations, volunteers are obliged to pay for the antibiotics the animals might need, and most clinics charge them for vaccines as well. Earlier, Raff had told me that she has three companion cats, her “roommates,” which live indoors with her. “We’re not crazy cat people,” she said. “I just want the overpopulation to stop. Cats don’t deserve to be outside. They’re getting killed—Orly and I drive around and look in the gutters. I don’t want to put them back on the street, but there is no other option.”

The kitten rescuer, Christine Hernandez, arrived in a four-door sedan and apologized for not coming sooner. She took the kitten from Kroh and kissed its head, whose shape recalled E.T. She agreed that the cat situation was dire, and she laughed about the feral cats in her own yard, which, she said, wanted only “human level” food; they wouldn’t touch Whiskas. After snapping some pictures, soon to be posted on Instagram, she departed in a chorus of thanks.

There ensued a long vigil. The two occupied traps, draped with towels, were silent. All across the city, more kittens were being born. Raff’s days begin before six in the morning, but she hates to quit before she’s filled her quota. “It’s luck, not science,” she said. “Some places, we have to go three times—the cats are too smart. They’ll sit outside the trap and just look at it.”

Close by us, a cat in heat let out a yowl. Another sat for a long while by the trap, just looking at it. Toward eleven o’clock, a curtain stirred in the problem house. We were still being observed.

“Let’s give it five more minutes,” Kroh said.

“You guys can go,” Raff said. “I’ll sit in my car and watch.”

“She’ll get that third one,” Kroh assured me.

“It’s very addicting,” Raff allowed.

“Trapping is actually really fun,” Kroh said. “When I come home, my husband’s always, like, ‘How many did you get?’ ”

When I come home from birding, my partner asks me much the same question. With a feeling of defeat, I got in my car and drove back to my hotel. There I found that Raff had texted me a photo, time-stamped 11:35 P.M., of a short-haired cat in her last trap. “Ear tipped!!” she’d written, in frustration. “I’m done.”

Both cat-specific advocacy groups, such as Alley Cat Allies, and national animal-welfare heavyweights, such as Best Friends Animal Society, maintain that trap-neuter-return is the only approach that’s been proved to be effective in addressing the problem of outdoor cats. Whether this is true depends on the effect you’re looking for. If the aim is to keep feral cats out of city shelters, then the “return” part of T.N.R. is, by definition, effective. If the aim is to quiet public complaints about yowling and spraying, the “neuter” part can be locally effective. If the aim is to protect more cats against certain diseases, the “trap” part can be coupled with mandatory vaccination. But the City of Los Angeles, like most places that adopt T.N.R., promises more than that. A stated objective of its Citywide Cat Program is to reduce the number of street cats, through T.N.R., while leaving them in their “natural outdoor home.”

When I spoke to the general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, Staycee Dains, at one of the city’s six shelter facilities, she was frank in her assessment of this objective. “There’s a lot of evidence that T.N.R. is not effective at reducing the cat population over all,” Dains said. She added that T.N.R. is effective in preventing individual cats from breeding. “It’s better than nothing.”

When T.N.R. is done well, as Gail Raff and Orly Kroh do it—getting to know a particular cat colony, revisiting it until every adult cat has been trapped and fixed, and continuing to monitor it for new arrivals—individual cats will benefit, and the colony population may stabilize. At the most local of levels, Raff and Kroh are making a difference that’s meaningful to them. At a larger scale, however, the math doesn’t work. Because cats multiply so quickly, at least seventy per cent of a population needs to be sterilized before the numbers will plateau. Even if Los Angeles could sponsor hundreds of thousands of surgeries in a short span of time, it would be impossible to quickly trap three-quarters of a population so vast and fluid and furtive. As long as the streets are considered cats’ natural outdoor home, there will also be further abandonment of house cats by people unwilling or unable to take responsibility for them.

The handful of studies reporting success with T.N.R. have been seriously flawed in one or more ways. The methodology for keeping track of cats was porous, or the cats were confined to a strictly patrolled location, such as a university campus, or the population reduction was achieved by removing lots of cats for adoption. One of the best-known demonstrations of T.N.R., at the Ocean Reef Club, in Key Largo, Florida, has been running since 1995. The project sharply reduced the number of cats on the property, but, despite being in a gated community, and despite continuous neutering and adoption, a sizable breeding population stubbornly persists.

The embrace of a strategy with no firm basis in science, in city after city, has coincided with the rise of a movement known as No Kill. Fifty years ago, American animal-control facilities euthanized perhaps a million cats and dogs a month for population management. By the early two-thousands, that number had fallen dramatically, owing largely to public awareness of the importance of having one’s pet fixed. The No Kill movement, which came to be led by Best Friends Animal Society, sought to bring the number down to zero. (No Kill doesn’t mean no euthanasia; to allow for untreatably sick or aggressive animals, Best Friends deems a shelter to be No Kill if it releases, alive, at least ninety per cent of the animals it takes in.) Having worked to reform shelters in Utah, its home state, Best Friends set its sights on Los Angeles, where a persistently high kill rate had made city officials the target of protests and property crimes. Best Friends launched a vigorous advertising campaign and organized a coalition of animal-rescue groups to work with L.A. Animal Services, which was perennially under-resourced. By increasing its private partnerships, Animal Services could off-load more rescue and adoption work, thereby raising its live-release rate and saving money.

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