Trap-Neuter-Return Projects May Bring Conflicts Over Euthanasia


Animal People was instrumental in introducing Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR, also called Capture-Neuter-Release or CNR) to the United States, beginning in 1991 with a seven-month trial of the method on feral cat colonies in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut. What we learned from working with feral cats is applicable to free-roaming dog populations.

From the beginning, our goal was to reduce the feral cat population at the target sites to zero as rapidly as possible.

There are two preconditions for zeroing out a population of feral animals through TNR:

  1. At least 70% of the animals and preferably 100% must be sterilized; before the 70% figure is reached, there will be no net reduction. In addition, every effort must be made to trap and sterilize 100% of the cats or dogs at each site as rapidly as they can be identified.
  2. Sites must be monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure that all newcomers are identified, caught, and sterilized before they begin breeding.

Animal People stipulates as fundamental humane considerations that all puppies and kittens who can be socialized for adoption should be; that no ill, elderly, disabled, or debilitated animals should ever be released; and, as the prime directive for practicing TNR successfully without rousing community or politically problematic opposition, no animal should be released into or returned to hostile or otherwise unsuitable habitat.

Hostile habitat is anywhere the animals will be at high risk of being injured or killed (accidentally or deliberately) and most especially places where the community is intolerant of the presence of free-roaming dogs and cats, which puts the animals at high risk of being poisoned, beaten, shot, or subject to capture and extermination at the discretion of residents, municipal agencies, or other governmental authorities.

Highly visible habitat, where feeding animals may encourage people to abandon their pets, should also be considered unsuitable. Also, when people see animals clustered near feeding sites in highly visible habitat, the effect is to magnify the presence of animals in the area, so that there seem to be more animals than there really are. In addition, left-over food will attract insects, rodents, and other creatures deemed even more undesirable than dogs and cats. Unsightly trash and food scraps left at the site lead to legitimate complaints.

Many of the situations in which maintained colonies of vaccinated and sterilized animals have been subsequently rounded up for extermination by local officials seem to have resulted from disregard of the prime directive of never releasing or returning an animal to hostile or unsuitable habitat. The outcome of trying to “save” animals by keeping them in unsuitable locations is not only an enormous waste of resources (including time and money spent on sterilization and vaccination), but often leads to great suffering of the animals at the hands of people who have no compassion for them.

Up to the point at which captured animals are either anesthetized for sterilization or overdosed with an anesthetic for euthanasia, the experience of the captured animals is exactly the same: they are caught using a trap, net, or some other device; they are held for a period of time in a pen, cage, or in the trap in which they were caught; they are given an intravenous or intramuscular injection of sedative, followed by anesthetic.

If the animal is euthanized with the anesthetic, there is no further sensation.

If the animal is surgically sterilized, then there is confusion upon awakening, followed by the sensation of pain from the surgical site. Ideally the animal would be administered at least one injection of analgesic before waking, but even then, the pain of abdominal surgery such as an ovario-hysterectomy is not negligible.

Moreover, the fear and stress involved in being forcibly captured, handled for medical procedures, caged post-operatively for a period of time that may be hours or days, and finally returned to the streets or other habitat should not be under-estimated.

If an animal is being returned to friendly habitat with the prospect of a relatively typical life subject to normal risks, the pain and stress involved in surgical sterilization would certainly seem to be justified–particularly since surgical sterilization has the effect of improving the quality of life for dogs and cats by (arguably) reducing aggression in males, eliminating fighting by males over females in estrus, and in improving mortality in females by eliminating the health risks attendant on pregnancy, birthing, and lactation.

But if, after sterilization, the animal is released into or returned to a site where the animal is unwanted, it should be expected that the animal may be chased away by people throwing rocks (or worse), or eventually injured or killed by those who don’t want him. If the animal is released into or returned to a site where care is not provided, or where food, water, and/or shelter are not readily available, then the animal will die a slow death, probably out of sight of the “rescuers” who thought they were doing him a favor by subjecting him to the stresses of capture, surgery, and post-op pain, and then abandoning him somewhere to either scratch out a living or to die. Either way, it will be a poor and pitiable quality of life.

A new and controversial development in the history of TNR in the US is that some heretofore conventional animal shelters have begun attempting to reduce the numbers of cats they euthanize for lack of adopters (a component of what is referred to as the “kill rate”) by releasing spayed-or-neutered former pet cats into areas the shelter has deemed safe zones. Even if these are relatively safe zones for cats based on certain criteria, they are completely unfamiliar territories to the cats being left there. There would be no way to guarantee that the cats would find caretakers to feed them or even locate shelter from the elements. Such a practice is essentially the same thing as a person abandoning his unwanted cat in a neighborhood or even in the woods, “to give it a chance,” rather than taking the cat into an animal shelter.

The humane community long ago began misusing the term “euthanasia” as a synonym for all killing done within animal shelters, even when it included such painful methods as death in decompression tanks. So, of course, “euthanasia” has been adopted as the word of choice by animal control agencies and government officials who wish to kill free-roaming cats and dogs under any pretext and by any method, regardless of how painful it may be. “Euthanasia” is now even being used by animal industries of all kinds to describe killing of animals; for example, the meat industry is referring to mass killings of entire barns of poultry because of outbreaks of disease by smothering the birds with foam as “euthanasia.”

The word “euthanasia”––literally meaning “good death”––is most properly used to describe “mercy killing,” or putting to death hopelessly suffering creatures in order to relieve their misery. At this time, the only approved method of euthanasia of dogs and cats is an overdose of anesthetic, usually administered intravenously.

There is much contention in the animal protection community over whether or not the word “euthanasia” may accurately be applied to painlessly ending the lives of animals who are not currently suffering, but who are in clear and present danger of experiencing a miserable death, such as the certainty that poisoning or shooting of strays will begin soon. Either way, true “euthanasia” is administered for the presumed benefit of the one being euthanized (animal or human).  It is not euthanasia if it is being done for the convenience of shelter staff.

Sometimes euthanasia may not seem to fit a particular definition, but people can feel that they know the definition applies because they fully understand the situation. As with most moral decisions, it is best to let our conscience be our guide, but because our consciences do not speak to others, it is best to have a euthanasia policy before starting a shelter or a sterilization project for homeless animals.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Author

Kim Bartlett is a veteran of 40+ years in animal rights advocacy. She earned humanitarian service awards from various animal welfare organizations in Texas for volunteer efforts in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1986, Kim left Texas to become editor of The Animals’ Agenda magazine, a position she held until 1992, when she co-founded Animal People. Her interest in international animal affairs brought Animal People into the forefront of humane outreach to the developing world. While anthropologist Margaret Mead was known for teaching that "a small group of committed people can change the world," Kim believes that runaway human population growth has rendered one-person-at-a-time activism futile. Says Kim, "The growth of the human population in the developing world has outstripped our efforts at awareness building, ever since the rise of the modern animal rights movement in the 1970s. Only in countries with relatively stable populations has the animal rights movement sustained a lasting effect. Mass media, now including online social media, is essential for educating people and effecting change on a global scale." Recent paradigm shifts in human attitudes toward animals - startling and unpredicted shifts - including the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, in which leading neuroscientists joined to declare the consciousness of animals, and Pope Francis’ encyclical, "Care for Our Common Home," which calls for kindness toward animals and an entirely different understanding of “dominion,” give Kim hope that a completely new human relationship with animals lies somewhere ahead of us. Click to see author's profile.

Leave A Reply