Having completed one year of a Free-Roaming Cats: Return-to-Field (FRC:RTF) strategy in the ASPCA Partnership Community of Charleston County, SC, a number of lessons have been learned—and some concerns have been observed in communities attempting to replicate the program "overnight."
Animal organizations across the nation, under growing pressure to reduce euthanasia, are lured into a silver bullet approach to save animals. Implementing a FRC:RTF strategy without thorough consideration appears to be a "numbers game," bringing to mind similar approaches by organizations "warehousing" animals in inhumane conditions in order to reduce euthanasia at all costs.
A FRC:RTF strategy should not be unilaterally implemented by an animal organization without regard to the animal's continued health and welfare, animal control support, community opinion, board/staff/volunteer thought and insight, input from the veterinarian community, legal implications, field expertise and sustainability.
Taking the Initiative
The Charleston approach was not perfect, but the organizations did a fine job of due diligence prior to launching the program, which was a part of a broader two-year initiative addressing free-roaming cats:
Free-Roaming Cat Initiative (2-Year Pilot)
- Service 3,000 Free-Roaming Cats: Return-to-Field (FRC:RTF)
- Service 1,000 Free-Roaming Cats: Return-to-Colony (FRC:RTC)
- Develop a system to increase kitten adoptions from feral colonies
- Create a food bank for feral cats
- Build trapping capacity
- Recruit and train a cadre of volunteers to assist with FRC:RTFs
- Develop and implement a collaborative marketing plan to educate and dispel myths
- Expand and strengthen a collaborative effort (i.e. Task Force) for ferals
Next Top Model
Charleston's ASPCA Partnership Steering Committee began considering this strategy, based on the Jacksonville, FL, Feral Freedom model, in July 2009. The Jacksonville model was chosen due to the similar climate in Charleston (Avg. high in July is 91°/Avg. low in January is 41°), geography and proximity to each other.
A workgroup was formed to explore the feasibility of replicating the program in Charleston. The workgroup visited the Jacksonville program on two separate occasions. Impressed with the first visit, the group invited Rick DuCharme, Executive Director, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, to visit Charleston and explain the program to a larger audience of animal welfare leaders. The Steering Committee decided to move forward with the strategy; however, the ASPCA required that the strategy be well researched and legal prior to funding a pilot project for two years.
Making it Legal
The Steering Committee approached ASPCA partner agency Humane Net to lead the effort on behalf of a unified animal community. The workgroup recruited Humane Net's Charles Karesh to quarterback the legislative process due to his broad relationships with elected officials. Karesh and the ASPCA's Joe Elmore, CAWA, CFRE, PHR, Director, Community Initiatives, met individually with nearly every councilmember of the City of Charleston, City of North Charleston, Town of Mt. Pleasant and Charleston County. The legal staff of all four governments vetted the changes in ordinances to allow for the initiative without conflicting with South Carolina statutes. Numerous committee and council meetings were attended and a healthy public debate ensued. Each government required 3 readings of the proposed ordinances prior to passage.
Throughout the legislative process, meetings were held with various local reporters and editors, as well as animal shelter boards, staff, volunteers and key donors. The shelter/clinic veterinarians, active in the local veterinary association, rationalized the strategy and gained the support of the veterinary community. The ASPCA's Elmore met with animal control officers at six agencies to gain their support. In addition, field expertise was consulted, including the ASPCA's Dr. Margaret Slater, DVM, PhD, Senior Director of Epidemiology, Shelter Research and Development, and Dr. Stephen L. Zawistowski, Ph.D., CAAB, Science Advisor, as well as Dr. Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, and Bryan Kortis of Neighborhood Cats.
Dr. Slater was particularly helpful in providing feedback on what constitutes a "return" vs. "relocation." For Charleston's community, representing 338 people per sq. mile, a 300-yard radius from where the cat was trapped was deemed justifiable as a "return."
The animal community did its homework and preparation, and in spite of a strategically timed editorial from the largest newspaper in the region opposing the FRC:RTF strategy, all four governments overwhelmingly passed the initiative.
As part of each ordinance, a resolution was adopted requiring that "ownership" of the "community cats" be encouraged. This aligned with the spirit of the initiative.
Educational postcards were developed for distribution in neighborhoods and communities where cats were prevalent. However, unlike Jacksonville's program, the FRC:RTF strategy in Charleston utilizes face-to-face communication between residents and animal control officers and shelter staff as the primary means of disseminating information about the program.
Download a sample of the postcard Charleston distributed here.
Upon passage of the new laws, the primary shelter implementing the program was overwhelmed with phone calls from citizens who were now comfortable with calling animal control agencies to have the community cats participate in the program.
Without prompting, animal control agencies stepped forward to return the cats they had trapped, relieving the animal shelters/clinics of that burden.
Successes Earned, Lessons Learned
Through a six-month preparation process, the infrastructure was put in place to save over 1,000 free-roaming cats in 2010 who would have been euthanized without the program. In addition, numerous citizens surrendered cats they had been feeding to participate in the program.
Pearl Sutton, Director of Operations at Charleston Animal Society, reported that of the hundreds of calls she took regarding the program in 2010, only three were complaints.
With the help of the ASPCA, Charleston's organizations recently placed a third order for a large number of traps to meet the overwhelming public demand for the program.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned is that most citizens want to help sustain free-roaming cats, but don't want to self-identify as the custodian of the cats, rather treating them as community cats.
It seems that, sometimes, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy actually works—and when it comes to cats, that's just fine in Charleston.