Written by Bryan Kortis, the National Program Director at Neighborhood Cats in New York City
I learned about targeting by accident. The first colony I ever TNR’ed was near where I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The 30 or so cats lived in the inner courtyards of a nearby block and could be seen running around in an empty grass lot, a rare bit of open space in that densely populated, high rise neighborhood. I had never heard of TNR when I first started working with the colony, but after dealing with six teenage feral kittens as fosters, I caught on pretty quickly. Over the next year, two neighbors and I trapped the cats one or two at a time. We had to move slowly due to the lack of services in New York City for ferals at that point, plus we had to pay for everything out of our own pockets. After about a year, all the cats except a black and white mix named Grandma, who took a few years and a drop trap to capture, were fixed and the colony was under control.
The transformation was dramatic. No more kittens (except occasionally from Grandma), no more screeching in the middle of the night, no more noxious smell in building basements from unaltered males spraying, plus the cats became less visible now that they weren’t mating and driven to roam. We didn’t realize it then, but we had just discovered the power of colony-level targeting – staying with one group of cats until all or almost all were spayed and neutered. Our lesson in targeting though had just begun.
The Upper West Side was teeming with feral cats and it wasn’t long before others in the neighborhood who also took care of street cats heard of our success and wanted their colonies fixed, too. We turned our little group into a nonprofit and started in on the 20 cat colony directly across the street from our original one. Then we trapped a nascent colony of a mom and her young kittens in a tennis court clubhouse (now another high rise). There was the mega-colony of dozens of cats who occupied the backyards of a long block stretching from Central Park West to Columbus Avenue, four colonies totaling 65 cats who lived in a nearby park, a colony in a large parking lot, and so on. One by one, we TNR’ed colonies solely on the Upper West Side. It wasn’t because we were trying to be strategic, but because that’s where we all lived and, due to having other day jobs, where it was practical for us to trap.
After a couple of years, when word of our work had spread throughout the City and the requests for help from all five boroughs far outpaced our capacity, we approached other, larger animal welfare agencies to see if they would provide support. One agency was the City’s official shelter, now known as Animal Care Centers of NYC. When we told the director about our efforts, the first thing he did was look up the intake data for the Upper West Side zip codes where we’d been trapping. Much to our surprise and delight, since we had started doing TNR, stray cat intake from our zip codes was down over 70% compared to a slight rise in the rest of NYC. That’s when the lightbulb went off and the power of targeting entire areas, like zip codes, neighborhoods, downtowns, etc., became clear.
Community-level targeting works because when all or close to all of the colony cats in an area are fixed, there are not enough unaltered cats around to repopulate the colonies as their numbers go down. Abandonment of new, unaltered cats can counter this progress, but only if it occurs at a rapid enough rate and there is no adequate intervention (such as adopting out or fixing the new cats).
Mine is not the only positive experience with targeting. The first large-scale TNR program in the United States took place in Newburyport, MA, in the 1990’s. All the cats living on the town’s tourist-popular riverfront – approximately 300 – were either sterilized or adopted out by the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society. Over the next decade, the cats gradually died or were taken in due to old age and the riverfront cat population became extinct. Dr. Julie Levy led a two-year targeted TNR study on a zip code in Florida. By the end of the study period, intake to the county shelter had fallen five times faster in the target zip code then in the rest of the county (a 66% decline compared to a 12% drop). During my time as a grants manager at PetSmart Charities, I oversaw hundreds of targeted TNR projects and the pattern was plain – properly done targeting works, according to whatever metric is employed.
Despite this track record, the benefits of focusing TNR resources on specific geographic areas, especially those in high need, is not yet fully grasped by the animal welfare field. TNR programs and individual trappers too often still operate on a first come, first serve basis and work randomly throughout large service areas, never concentrating their efforts or resources in one part of town. As a result, cats and caretakers are helped for sure, but the full potential of what could be accomplished with those same resources is not realized. It’s time for all of us doing this work to take it to the next level. Act strategically and make targeting a part of your TNR work. That way, we’ll get to our goals – whether fewer cats on the street, less intake, less euthanasia, fewer complaints – much faster.
Levy, J.K., et al, Effect of high-impact targeted trap-neuter-return and adoption of community cats on cat intake to a shelter, The Veterinary Journal (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.05.001.
Spehar, D., Wolf, P., An Examination of an Iconic Trap-Neuter-Return Program: The Newburyport, Massachusetts Case Study, Animals (2017) 7, 81; doi:10.3390/ani7110081