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Return to Field is saving shelter cats

Updated: Feb 20




When a cat enters a shelter, the odds are about 45 percent that the cat will be euthanized, estimates the No Kill Advocacy Center. However, should that cat be unsocial or feral, the chances are nearly 100 percent that the cat will be euthanized. Fortunately, a new attitude about healthy community cats is saving lives in a growing number of U.S. shelters.


Called Return to Field (RTF), the initiative grew out of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs run by many cat rescue organizations and individuals. Under TNR, community cats are spayed or neutered, ear tipped and returned to the community where they reside. On an ongoing basis, caregivers provide food and water and monitor cats for health issues.


Return to Field, like TNR, enables healthy, but unadoptable cats due to their temperament, to be altered and then returned to the area where they were found. RTF programs generally are run in collaboration with a shelter and a no-kill animal welfare organization that takes on responsibility for ongoing care of the cats. However, in some case, according to Best Friends, some shelters are offering RTF programs themselves as part of their humane approach to community cat management.


Momentum behind RTF

Alternatives to RTF programs, such as trap and euthanize, are viewed by many leading animal welfare organizations, such as the ASPCA, as unsuccessful in reducing cat populations as well as inhumane. The ASPCA says:


“With the exception of closed populations of cats on islands, attempts to eradicate cat colonies almost universally failed. Cats who are removed are replaced through reproduction, the movement of other cats into the territory and the addition of lost and abandoned animals who repopulate the vacated space.”


In some shelters, RTF has been expanded to include any unidentified cat that is healthy and old enough to fend for itself when the chances of a positive outcome in the shelter are slim, writes the Million Cat Challenge. Shelters with RTF programs assess the health status of the impounded cat as evidence that is has access to sufficient food and shelter to live outdoors and survive, provided that they are returned to the same location where they were found.


Successful RTF programs

Some examples of successful RTF programs include:


Operation Catnip, Gainesville Fla.

According to the Million Cat Challenge, Operation Catnip in Gainesville, Florida, performed about 3,000 TNR surgeries each year for community cats using monthly high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter. The program was successful in reducing cat intake at the municipal shelter over time, resulting in a reduction of euthanasia at the local shelter from 81 percent to 42 percent over 13 years. In 2012, the program was expanded to include a shelter-based RTF. By neutering and returning these shelter cats who otherwise faced euthanasia to their neighborhoods, cat euthanasia plummeted to 13 percent in 2012.


Los Angeles Stray Cat Alliance and Long Beach Animal Care Services

In 2014, the Stray Cat Alliance out of Los Angeles began an RTF program at the Long Beach Animal Care Services. Under the program healthy stray cats, who did not have a live shelter outcome, were returned to their neighborhoods. As a result of the program, intake decreased by 22 percent and the live release rate went from 27 percent in 2013 (before the program began) to 72 percent projected for 2017.


Organization and individuals learning how to work with local shelters to implement

RTF can download the Return-to-Field handbook written in collaboration between the Humane Society of the United States, Neighborhood Cats and Alley Cat Advocates.

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