Conference: The Outdoor Cat, Science and Policy from a Global Perspective. December 3-4, 2012.
While I was in Texas, my supervisor sent me an email: Would I like to go to this conference? Quite frankly, I was tired. The Texas conference was to be my last travel for the year, and I was counting on a period of rest for December and January, before I boarded yet another plane in February--back to Texas once again. When I opened the conference schedule, I saw old friends Robert Schmidt (Utah State) and John Hadidian (HSUS)from my wildlife control days. What were they doing on a cat conference schedule? BIOLOGISTS at a cat conference? It was like opening a Christmas present that contained your most dreamed-of gift, that you did not-at-all expect to receive, because it was too expensive for your family to afford. Also speaking was Kate Hurley, whom I knew from Adoption Options. There were a number of conservation professionals on the schedule as well.
I had to go. It was as if my boss had said "Here, I found this conference just for you. Merry Christmas."
Old colleagues, my favorite subject, new ideas, and sunny California. You couldn't ask for better.
Well, three out of four ain't bad. I disembarked to a cold, rainy southern California while temperatures in the New York I had left spiked to the high 60's. My usual weather curse had struck again. Oh well. On to the conference...
Kate Hurley, DVM, is my new rock star. It was she who pulled out stats that illuminated the fact that in some cities where the number of street cats brought in to shelters is high, and adoption rates are therefore low, the adoption rate by average citizens who have found a cat and were wait-listed is higher than the shelter's adoption rate. In other words, in some areas, a cat is more likely to be re-homed or returned to her owner if she remains on the street or is taken in by an average citizen, than if she was taken to the shelter---the place where we are all told we should take a stray cat to best save her life.
When people/cats on the wait list were called back, a significant number had already found a new home for the cat, found the owner, or had chosen to keep the cat, while they were on the wait list. This percentage was higher than the adoption rate at some shelters.
(I am requesting presentations, and hope to have data in hand down the line).
This led Dr. Hurley to ask the question, in communities where there is no legal mandate requiring shelters to take in cats (most have a legal mandate to take in dogs), should shelters be stepping into the role of a cat shelter if for the most part what they are doing is warehousing and killing them? Is this the role of a cat shelter?
It was a new way of looking at data. I had seen the data before, but I had never compared high-volume shelter adoption rates to the success rates of the public itself.
This is not to say that every cat should be left on the street. We don't necessarily want to create a larger generation of cat hoarders. It does however raise a serious question: Are cat "shelters" actual shelters? What real impact do they have that justifies this level of killing? What other options might there be? If we don't recognize our failures, we won't look for other options. Kate challenged us to keep our minds open to other options.
Most shelters succeed very well at balancing human safety and dog control welfare. You don't, in general, find packs of dogs roaming the streets. Return-to-owner numbers and adoption numbers for dogs are significantly high, and are increasing. Those shelters that are not succeeding have tools to improve. They have other shelters they can look at as templates.
Can large municipal shelters expect similar success with cat control, or are we just throwing millions of dollars down a black hole of failure? Is killing hundreds of thousands of cats that have no real chance of adoption improving the situation? No. Are we at least maintaining the status quo? Is killing cat responsible for fewer numbers of cats killed nationwide each year, or is instead that due to spay/neuter and creative adoption? Does mass killing have any real impact other than destroying the reputation of shelters, increasing staff turnover, and turning remaining staff--originally conscientious, sensitive people--into robots who are increasingly insensitive to the suffering of their charges?
These were the themes of the conference, in my experience:
DATA, where data had not been available before in cat-centered conference
NEW QUESTIONS, that had not been raised to the cat and conservation community on a conference level.
ILLUMINATION OF PARTNERSHIPS between conservationists and cat welfare people, when we traditionally are treated to polarization of issues between so-called "bird lovers" and so-called "cat people." The media, and hard-line advocates on both sides, tell us we can't possibly work together. One speaker mentioned he had been contacted by the media for comment, and was told by the reporter that his comments likely wouldn't be used because he was too moderate (i.e., not crazy-sounding enough to bring in those on-line clicks and links due to preferred sensationalism). This conference was about working together to benefit both wildlife and cat populations and to bring about that shared goal of reducing outdoor cat numbers.
The audience appeared to be composed primarily of animal welfare advocates, which disappointed me. There was a respectfully large contingent of males, which was heartening (more than I have seen at any conference dedicated to cats only), and a good representation of animal control people--which might account for the male presence. When I saw the men, I hoped that this meant the conference had brought out biologists and concerned skeptics from the conservation field who were looking for answers, or at least looking to understand this complicated issue of how to manage outdoor cats. I didn't necessarily hope for converts. I did hope for answer-seekers. Yet from my questioning, it appeared this had not happened. Certain people had in fact been invited outright, but they elected not to come.
Perhaps at some point, those who view themselves as conservationists first and foremost, will come to experience the willingness to at least listen to new ideas, as animal control professionals (often criticized as a field that kills animals) clearly were willing.
Therefore, my first question to anyone "high-up" in the anti-cat audience out there will be: WHERE WERE YOU? Did you stay away just because HSUS was a sponsor? Did you not look at the speaker list and see the quality and diversity there? Were you not at least interested in seeing what the "opposition" was saying if you did in fact view this conference as "opposition?" You ought not have. There were welfare advocates enough in the audience who were uncomfortable when programs were outlined, in Hawaii and New Zealand, that included an aspect of acknowledged killing (while also including non-lethal components). There were hard--but fascinating--control ideas to be heard on both "sides"---if one must take sides.
I raise a similar question for certain cat advocates. Alley Cat Allies was not on the speaker list, nonetheless they sent four people. Good for them! I hope that I just missed representatives from certain other animal advocacy groups (after all, it's not like we have our affiliation branded on our foreheads) however there was one advocate in particular I expected ought to be there who was conspicuously missing. Let's hope he sent a representative in his place.
To the speakers, you have my hearty bravo. It took guts to stand up there and say hard words about the state of outdoor cat issues today. It takes guts to voice that new idea that seems to be yours alone, and share it with a large audience of people who might find that idea shockingly new. It takes guts to say "I used to believe X, but then I listened to other people and now I believe X+Y. Maybe tomorrow I will have learned even more and will amend that to Z." I hope by the rapt faces of your audience, you found it worthwhile. There were filled chairs for every speaker. Those who walked out for a break returned. Only a handful of people left before the end and most likely due to commitments. The last presentation (among two days of presentations) was as full as the first.
I'll have more to say on this, but I worry if I don't get this down, life in general will steal the moment from me.