Fairfax County Animal Shelter–Fairfax, Virginia
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter is a municipal shelter serving Fairfax County, Va., the most populous jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Fairfax County has one of the highest median incomes in the nation but also includes some low-income areas where poverty is on the rise.
In 2008, the shelter started one of the first Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs in the region. Since then, it has become a powerful advocate for expansion of TNR throughout the greater Washington, D.C., area. As of October 2013, more than 3,500 feral cats had gone through the shelter’s TNR program. The shelter relies heavily on volunteers and credits them for helping make TNR an enormous success.
- Lives saved. Since the Fairfax County Animal Shelter adopted its TNR program in 2008, its save rate for cats has more than doubled to 90%. The intake of cats into the shelter dropped by 16% from 2008 to 2012. The shelter reports a 22% reduction in kitten intake from 2011 to 2013. In the spring of 2013, during the height of kitten season, Fairfax County Animal Shelter had fewer kittens than it had ever had before.
- Community partnerships. More than 350 residents have joined forces with the shelter, volunteering with the TNR program and helping manage feral cat colonies in Fairfax County. The shelter also supports a robust foster program that includes people trained in the care of neonatal kittens and animals requiring socialization or specialized medical treatment.
- Creative solutions. In Fairfax County, there are no laws or policies prohibiting free-roaming cats. The shelter’s policies reflect this, and staff members work hard to ensure that any eartipped cats brought to the shelter are returned to their home colonies. Some cats are spayed/neutered and transferred into the shelter’s barn cat adoption program, another innovative and lifesaving program for cats.
In 2007, responding to the endless influx of cats and kittens into the shelter, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter decided to make a change. Shelter Director at the time, Karen Diviney, chose TNR because “it works and... is the humane solution.” She says that after “dipping [their] toes in the water” with a small, successful pilot program, she sought government approval for a countywide TNR program. It was launched in October 2008. Since then, the shelter has vaccinated and returned more than 3,500 feral cats in Fairfax County.
How the TNR Program Works
Since the TNR program started in 2008, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter has made enormous strides in the humane stabilization and reduction of feral cat populations. TNR, which current Director Tawny Hammond calls “the compassionate solution,” is at the heart of its work. The shelter covers all the costs of TNR and at times goes beyond basic care—cats in need of medical care or treatment for parasites are also covered under the program. Because the shelter doesn’t have its own spay/neuter clinic, it contracts with the Potomac Spay Neuter Clinic, a low-cost, nonprofit facility committed to ending the killing of healthy and treatable cats and dogs.
- Beyond clinics. Up until late 2012, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter provided funds for two feral cat spay/neuter clinics a month, with a limit of 60 cats per clinic. But shelter staff felt the limits were slowing down the pace of TNR. Now the shelter’s volunteer trappers work directly with the spay/neuter clinic to schedule surgeries at their convenience. The new system makes it easier and faster for trappers to get their cats treated and returned, reducing stress for both the cats and their caregivers.
- An educated approach. The shelter requires all potential volunteers to take a training course on Trap-Neuter-Return and sign “Caregiver Agreements,” promising to fulfill the terms of TNR. The shelter provides loaner traps for TNR. While a core group does most of the trapping, the shelter credits the large base of well-trained volunteers for much of its success.
- Sustainable funding. The Fairfax shelter estimates it costs between $65 and $85 to put a cat through the TNR program, depending on whether the cat needs extra services like ear cleaning, grooming, or flea treatment. The shelter covers all the costs of TNR without using tax dollars, relying on revenue from Virginia’s spay/neuter license plate, a private trust fund that accepts citizen donations, and fundraisers hosted by a well-organized group of shelter supporters.
Fairfax County Animal Shelter staff members report a growing list of positive changes since the shelter began its TNR program in 2008. One of the most significant is that the shelter currently does not kill animals assessed as healthy, adoptable, treatable, or able to be rehabilitated. The shelter has succeeded in part because it is no longer strained by a constant influx of cats and kittens.
Establishing a TNR program takes work and planning. Diviney says it’s crucial to “do it right and beyond reproach.”
Her suggested guidelines include:
- Develop a strategic plan.
- Have funds to get the job done.
- Secure a provider of low-cost spay/neuter services.
- Select a point person committed to doing the groundwork/setup.
- Start small and document all successes.
- Keep detailed records.
- Know the political environment and let the powers that be know what you are doing.
- Cultivate and train volunteers.
- Educate your staff. Sometimes the biggest obstacles can be internal.
Fairfax County Animal Shelter Director of Communications and Outreach Kristen Auerbach says TNR has made a “huge and positive difference” for both animals and staff. The shelter continues to move forward and hopes to soon include not only feral cats but also stray community cats in the growing TNR program.
Diviney says one of the biggest accomplishments of TNR has been simply helping people “see” a little differently and understand that returning feral cats to their original colonies is not abandonment.