Cat Foster Coordinator
Posted February 10, 2019 at 01:37 PM Under "Live Outcomes"
TNVR at County Shelters

I am a volunteer for a local animal rescue, and I also co-founded a group that takes pictures and videos of cats at our local county shelter to market them and increase their chances of making it out alive. Our shelter started a TNVR program several years ago. We have more recently been seeing even friendly cats (and kittens!) being scheduled for TNVR. I am very concerned that these cats are cats who had owners that moved away and left, or they are cats who are lost and unfortunate not to have been microchipped. Friendly kittens being TNVR'd when there are so many empty cages at the shelter, is just wrong in my opinion. The rescue group that I volunteer with and foster for, has saved many of these friendly kittens after finding them on the feral cat patio about to be TNVR'd after being transferred from the shelter to this vet clinic that is a partner with this shelter. Many times we have received contact forms through our rescue, stating the people brought these friendly cats to the shelter to be adopted because they do not have a food source where they are living, and the shelter staff noted in the records that the cats are very friendly, yet they were still "TNVR'd" back to the location where there was not a food source for them.

I am posting this because i want to get a feeling for what other county shelters around our country are doing. When i inquired with our rescue coordinator at the shelter about what criteria makes a cat become eligible for TNVR, here was their response: "We follow TNR best practices recommended by animal welfare organizations and Best Friends references most of our reasoning behind why we TNR friendly cats. In the majority of cases, if a cat is friendly and is healthy body condition they either have an owner or a caregiver already taking care of them. Many indoor/outdoor or outdoor owned cats end up getting picked up or brought to the shelter as strays and actually do have a caregiver caring for them. If a cat is in good condition it generally means that they are thriving in their current environment. We TNVR all stray cats that meet the criteria whether they are friendly or not. Kittens that are over 2 lbs. and friendly go into adoptions."

Even though they say they put friendly kittens up for adoption, we keep finding them scheduled to be TNVR'd and have heard from good samaritans about friendly kittens with ear notches that had come from this shelter.

I would welcome any feedback from other cat advocates. Do you think this is responsible TNVR? Do you feel that, if there is room at the shelter, friendly stray cats should be put up for adoption and given the chance to find a home rather than going back out to the streets? Do you feel friendly kittens should ever be TNVR'd?

Thank you so much!

  • Bryan Kortis    February 14, 2019 at 06:35 PM
    Best Answer

    hi, Jen,

    What you're talking about I think is more accurately described as a Return to Field program, not a TNR. With TNR, cats are trapped at a known site, usually with the knowledge of the caretaker, and the intent is to fix them and bring them back. With Return to Field, cats are surrendered at the shelter and then ususally the shelter makes the decision to fix them and put them back where they came from, not the person who brought them in.

    Any cat that is a candidate for Return to Field should, in my opinion, be given an individual assessment that takes all known circumstances into account. Friendliness is one factor, and so are health, how safe the location of origin is, how involved the finder is in the cat's care, if at all, the reasons the finder is surrendering the cat, indications the cat has been in the area for some time versus circumstances that indicate the cat was recently lost, how crowded the shelter is, what the demand is for adoptable cats and kittens, etc. I guess my point is that the decision whether to Return to Field should be an individualized one, never one that's automatic. There may be times of the year, for example, when the shelter is crowded, a candidate cat has been seen in the area for years and has been thriving. In that case, return to field makes a lot of sense. But if there's room at the shelter, no one ever saw the cat before and her health is borderline, then not returning seems a better choice.

    Hope that helps!


    • Bryan Kortis    February 14, 2019 at 06:42 PM

      Sorry, the last couple of hypotheticals I listed would allow a friendly cat.

      • Jen Tate    February 14, 2019 at 09:03 PM

        Thank you for this feedback, Bryan! I definitely think our shelter should not be lumping them all into "if they meet the criteria (weight, health, location they came from) they should go back to where we found them". Especially when there are SO !!! many empty cages there right now! As in rooms and rooms completely empty. Lobby almost completely empty. I would guess 25 % of the lobby has cats, possibly even less. I go every week and it has been a long while since it has been anywhere near half full. Many anti-shelter, anti-director folks are accusing this director of doing this in order to make his numbers look good (live release numbers and low cost for operation, since it is much cheaper to transfer them to the humane society to be fixed and returned to where they were picked up than it is to house them for a month or longer, treat medical conditions, feed, and find them homes) equals making him look good, which equals him getting a salary increase.

        My goal here was to try and find out if other shelters were doing this same practice - fixing and returning (or just vaccinating and returning if already fixed) to where they were found, despite very friendly temperaments. Or if ours is the only one doing so. If ours is the only one doing so, then they can't claim they are following practices recommended by organizations such as Best Friends. (right??).

        Thanks again!

        • Jen Tate    February 14, 2019 at 09:09 PM

          I wanted to add, i also sent an email to Best Friends (the email address related to feral cat programs) to ask if this really is something they are recommended shelters do, TNVR cats who meet basic criteria, temperament not being one of them.

          • Jennifer Adkins    February 18, 2019 at 01:53 PM

            Best Friends' best practices for TNR and RTF are that cats that meet the criteria, which is pretty standard throughout different agencies: healthy weight and body condition, appropriate age, and no identification (either a collar with ID tags or a microchip). There is no eligibility based on temperament. The recommendation is to RTF all cats that meet this criteria because 1) they're most likely being cared for by someone in their community OR will find their way back home being returned to their neighborhood and 2) it frees up resources in the shelter for cats that ACTUALLY need adoption services. The likelihood that a community cat has someone in its neighborhood that cares for and loves that cat (and is missing them!) is high, and as Cameron mentioned, we'd basically be stealing this cat from the community that loves him. Cats that are being surrendered for adoption by their owners, and young kittens, or special needs cats, are the cats that really need our resources and our help finding appropriate homes. This is why Best Friends, among other rescue organizations and TNR/RTF/CCP programs, advocates for any eligible cat to be returned.

            As Bryan pointed out, besides meeting the basic criteria, it is also important to consider each cat individually to find the best outcome. While it is encouraged to return any cat that meets the eligibility requirements, there are also individual circumstances that this may not be appropriate. For most "stray" cats, though, returning them, and therefore freeing up resources, space, and lowering the chance of disease in the shelter, is the best outcome, regardless of temperament. I hope this helps!

  • FlyngMonkee    February 17, 2019 at 04:34 PM

    Hi! If a friendly cat or kitten is brought in as a stray we hold it for the legal time frame for our state. Then the cat or kitten goes up for adoption. We only do TNR or Community Cat if the person who brought in the stray is willing to be a caretaker. We can't legal return a cat to an area if there is no "owner" "caretaker" whatever we want to call them. Otherwise I would consider it as abandonment. The truly feral that is brought into the shelter was brought in by someone that considered it a nuisance. So, you will just be getting it back when they try to trap it again. or worse they poison it.

  • Jenn at High Plateau Humane Society    February 17, 2019 at 09:19 AM

    Jen Tate, in my opinion returning cats to the field should be the LAST thing considered if it is not known that a caretaker is ready to receive the cat. That would be a death sentence in my area where winters are long and cold, and coyotes are everywhere. Our organization would certainly NEVER consider returning an adoptable cat or kitten to the field, and I am very surprised that this is done!

    As the only organization in our County that takes in cats, our goal is to reduce feral colonies and strays through spay/neuter, natural mortality and re-homing. Every adoptable cat that comes to us is found a home, and we are working to establish a barn cat program so that we an be of more help to the feral cats in the area as well.

  • Bryan Kortis    February 16, 2019 at 07:01 PM

    I personally participate in a couple of Return to Field programs and for sure the vast majority of eligible cats, like 85 to 95%, are returned back to their original territories and I agree with that. The problem I see though, and Jen is getting at this in her posts, is that each cat is an individual and needs an independent assessment and as much info gathered as possible. Simply saying "the cat is healthy, so she's doing fine, she's friendly because people are caring for her and should be returned" is too impersonal an analysis for myself. I have seen cats presented for RTF who, upon learning more about their situations, were most likely recently lost or abandoned. Sometimes there are clues from the finder's observations - they have never seen the cat before though they're aware or even feeding other cats in the area. Sometimes the cat offers clues - perhaps she made her way to someone's porch and then hasn't left it for two weeks, preferring to stay at all times right where she's being fed - that's not the behavior of a normal community cat. Any time we forget while doing RTF or TNR that we are dealing with individual beings with their own unique situations, I think we take a step backwards.

    • Scott PRC Tampa    February 18, 2019 at 07:24 AM

      Our shelter in Hillsborough County (Tampa) is clearly the shelter Ms. Tate is writing about. We've held off replying until we gave others a chance to chime in since it seems like the request was made to see what others are doing. However, not it is time to bring some other facts to the table. We run a very conservative TNR and RTF program. In 2018, of the 11,266 cats that left the shelter only 12% or 1364 combined left in those two programs. It's not the 80% seen in some other places and its not the 40-50% used in Jacksonville when the original pilot programs took off successfully. We directly adopted 6503 cats to people and sent another 1679 to rescues and shelters for placement.

      We give every cat the best opportunity at the best life we can. You will regularly see ear-tipped cats in our adoption area, we adopted out FIV+ cats with educational materials and if we find the right rescue or adopter we even adopt asymptomatic FeLV cats to experienced caregivers. There are a whole host of factors that go into determining whether a cat goes up for adoption or whether it is returned to field. Many of those have been discussed by others so I won't go through them all. The bottom line is that it is a multi-functional team that determines the outcomes of these cats/kittens. In their best collaborative determination they do what they think is best for the individual circumstances. Sometimes cats are too 'feisty' to be handled, sometimes the person surrendering them asks they be returned, sometimes other caregivers in the area request the cat be returned, and sometimes the behavior of the cat (like lack of using litter box without any medical problems) may put a cat back where it came form rather than keeping it for adoptions.

      The ridiculous claim that it is an attempt to make the numbers look better is simply without mathematical merit. A small handful of pets will not sway numbers of 10,000+ outcomes. On the other hand, large programs that are working in other communities where large numbers 9,000 cats or large percentage 80%+ are part of the program will see impact in the live outcome rates. That's not to say those programs are wrong for their communities - shelter population management is an art that requires local efforts and is often based on available resources as well as programs.

      Finally, never in my career have I received a bonus from my employer based on the live outcome rates of my shelters. If my legislative body or administrator have goals my job is to work to those goals. But I believe in sustainable programs. When I left Jacksonville the live outcomes continued at the same level or higher at the public shelter because the programs were developed to be sustainable and repeatable.

  • SteffiBruninghaus    February 16, 2019 at 06:52 AM

    To follow up on Return To Field, that is one of the legs of the Million Cat Challenge ( I am involved in it at our shelter. It took me a while to become comfortable with returning cats where there is no known owner (for clearly socialized and handlable cats) or caretaker (for cats that appear to be community cats), but if the cat is in good body condition, it has a source of food and shelter and should be back home, albeit missing its reproductive organs, asap. Coming from TNR, it was a bit of a leap of faith that it is not abandonment. And, touching on another point, Capacity for Care is also a core element of the MCC. The bottom line of CFC is that having empty cages at a shelter does not necessarily mean that the shelter should fill these cages - the number of cats in the building should be driven by the number of cats that are adopted out, not by the available space. I found it a bit counter-intuitive, but there are some excellent talks on the MCM website that explain it much better than I could.

  • SilverCometAWA    February 11, 2019 at 09:50 AM

    I agree with you that friendly cats should be transitioned to adoptions, and preferably indoor-only homes, versus TNVR'd with the assumption that a healthy looking cat must have a caregiver somewhere. First, if the cat is owned, it's probably not legal to TNVR without consent; second, a healthy cat can quickly become unhealthy when exposed to natural predators, cars, toxins, cats with infections over the long-term when vaccinations aren't current, evil looking for bait for dogfighting, etc. The only exception I can think of is when a shelter is perpetually full and intake would likely result in death for space. I assume cats are scanned for microchips prior to vetting to ensure return to owner when possible. Will be interested to see other thoughts on this...

    PS...if you need cats, I can fill you up! Lmk and we can set up a Doobert! I'm in GA. :-)

    • Cameron Moore    February 15, 2019 at 07:12 AM

      Friendly cats are friendly for a reason.... because they are people's indoor/outdoor cats and/or because multiple families are caring for them. If these cats are picked up and rehomed, you are basically stealing someone's cat. I personally have several friendly cats who live on my porch. They choose not to live inside, they are miserable if I try putting them inside.

      I do advocate for cats to live indoors, but some cats choose how they want to live. We need to quit taking healthy cats from their outdoor homes and rehoming them. This not only wastes our limited resources but also takes homes away from others who truly need them.

      When I first got involved in helping community cats I thought I needed to get every one of them off the street. Along the way I met so many people who had loved and cared for these cats for years and started to realize that they all don't need to be 'saved', they just need our help with sterilization and vaccination.

      Just something to consider....

      • Jen Tate    February 15, 2019 at 08:55 AM

        I understand that is a possibility. I think the key is gathering as much information as possible when these cats are picked up in the field and taking all aspects of the situation into consideration. We are seeing many who are being TNVR’d back to an address where nobody is living and there isn’t a reliable food source. Also, how do they determine a cat who is thriving in current environment because they have a caretaker and food source versus a cat who recently became lost or abandoned when their owner moved away and tossed them out? Should those cats be returned where they were picked up simply because their weight, location, and current health fits them into that category of eligibility? Even tho they are of good weight and health at the time they were picked up doesn’t mean they will continue to be (such as if they were recently abandoned or lost)

        • Cameron Moore    February 17, 2019 at 05:02 PM

          %Jen, one more thing I would suggest if you aren't already doing so is to leave behind literature in the area where the cats are released that explains about the program, who to call if you're seeing outdoor cats, tips for keeping cats out of your garbage, what to do if you find newborn kittens, etc. We found that citizens are more likely to reach out for help or speak up about the cats when they know that they aren't simply going to be euthanized at the shelter. I've met more people on the streets as I was returning cats and passing out the door hangers that were caring for the cats versus those who didn't want them around. You can bet that if a cat was looking sickly or puny that they were calling us to get some help or to let us know.

          I feel that we often let the fear of the unknown drive our decisions (who exactly is feeding and caring for the cat for example). When you're in the neighborhoods and talking with residents who turn out to be the caretakers, you definitely feel much better about returning the cat, but we have to trust that cats are for the most part not starving on the streets. Yes, there are always exceptions, but with over 30,000 cats that have come through our program and data collected on each one of them, the majority (99%) were healthy!

          Keep in mind that the first 18 months of our program we microchipped every community cat that came through our RTF program because our adversaries told us we were doing an awful thing by returning cats to their outdoor homes. They told us we were going to be scooping up their dead bodies all over the city. So we figured if we microchipped them all, we would know exactly who they were, how long after they were returned that they died, etc. I know that sounds gruesome, but we needed data to prove one way or another. Well after 18 months and over $30,000 in microchips we learned that the cats weren't dying in mass, in fact, the majority of the calls I received about microchipped cats were from families who adopted them off the street and only learned about the chip after taking them to their vet for spay/neuter or their first exam. While the information that the microchips gave us was interesting (the cats were almost always picked up on the same street where they initially came from) and made us feel good (to know that someone adopted them), it wasn't worth the overall cost. We didn't have an endless budget for the program and knew that we could make a bigger impact sterilizing more cats with that money versus microchipping.

          I've attached a few sample handouts that communities around the country have used in their RTF programs. I promise you that your citizens will let you know if a cat is starving outside of their home or if they are sick. They will also share with you if their neighbors moved out and this was their indoor only cat. If it's an outdoor cat, it most likely has multiple food sources.

          Just a reminder too that more people adopt their cats off the streets than they do from any other source. Cats are smarter than we give them credit for.

          • Jen Tate    February 18, 2019 at 09:01 AM

            Since i'm a third party basically (i'm not at all involved in returning the cats to the locations), I wouldn't be able to leave behind literature. But i do like that idea and will see how I might be able to suggest that to the organization returning them.

          • spetee    February 18, 2019 at 08:13 AM

            Thank you so much for sharing these!

  • spetee    February 10, 2019 at 07:31 PM

    I will be anxious to see the replies to this as we are just slowly starting a TVNR program and I’m not so sure all our staff is on the same page as to what should be put up for adoption and what should be TVNR’d.

    • Peter    February 15, 2019 at 07:50 AM

      Let me echo some of the points made by Bryan and Cameron...

      Best Friends has community cat programs all over the country, and we support a number of Network Partners doing the same kind of work. As a rule, we generally return cats to where they were trapped as long as they (1) have no identification, (2) are healthy, and (3) are neither too young or too old. Even in colder parts of the country (e.g., Baltimore and Philadelphia), our programs returned 80–85% of the thousands of cats “enrolled” to the location where they were trapped.

      Many of these cats are sociable—probably (as Cameron points out) because they have people in the community who care for them (and would miss them if they disappeared). This also explains why the vast majority of cats we see are healthy and appear to be thriving outdoors.

      And to Bryan's point: a key factor to consider when making the decision to return a cat is the local shelter. As you know, in many communities, cats at the shelter are at much greater risk than the community cats living outdoors. (Thankfully, this is changing!) For a more detailed discussion on this topic, I invite you to check out this blog post from Holly Sizemore, our Chief National Programs Officer.

      • Jen Tate    February 18, 2019 at 09:05 AM

        Can you give the parameters of what too young and too old are? Thank you!

        • Jennifer Adkins    February 18, 2019 at 09:12 AM

          Hi Jen,

          Typically the best practices for age in community cats that are being returned are kittens 8-12 weeks are returned ONLY if there is a known caregiver and the kitten is returned directly to that caregiver so they can watch out for the little guy. If the kittens are 12-16 weeks, they need to be returned to the EXACT location they were found, and attempts to identify a caregiver in the neighborhood should be made.

          As for age limitations for older cats, there really is no cut-and-dry "cutoff" number. It comes down to, again, evaluating the cat's well-being and ability to thrive in the environment he came from. If he is of good health and body condition, and seems to be thriving in his neighborhood, then he should be returned.

      • Peter    February 18, 2019 at 08:23 AM

        One final point: if we promote most/all "friendlies" for adoption, we are almost certainly stealing pets and confiscating cats who are highly valued by people in their communities (who are not necessarily owners in the legal sense). I think this is a particular risk when the cats are coming from poor areas; our good intentions can have unintended consequences.