1. Educate Yourself
What is Happening in Your Community?
Your first step in a campaign for change will be to orient yourself to your local government structure, identify the appropriate decision makers, and build lines of communication with them. Review Alley Cat Allies’ Guide to Local Government: Animal Control to better understand how various jurisdictions manage animal control.
Next, determine what kinds of ordinances and laws are already in place. Does your community have laws that specifically apply to feral—or unowned—cats? Are other laws in your city or town being applied to feral cats? Does your community need new laws to help protect feral cats and their caregivers? Have laws been proposed that could help or harm feral cats?
When investigating your city or town’s approach to feral cats, often called community cats, it’s also important to consider who can help you in your efforts to advocate for community cats—and who might be an obstacle to your advocacy work. Do some research. Look up news stories about community cats, contact local animal rescue organizations, and talk to community cat caregivers and veterinarians that you work with.
Determine whether there is already a person or group advocating for your community’s cats—you might be able to join forces with them. If there are people who are pushing for inhumane policies for cats, determine who they are and why they want these policies. Consider whether you might be able to work with them to develop a humane approach to cats that better meets the community’s needs. Sometimes all you need to do is educate people on why certain policies are ineffective and inhumane, and offer alternatives. Other times, it will be more difficult to persuade people to make changes and adopt new approaches.
The next step is to consider types of ordinances and policies that could help feral cats.
How Ordinances and Policies Affect Cats
There are a range of laws at the local (city or county) level that help—or hurt—cats. Laws at the local level are generally called ordinances. This section gives you an overview of different types of policies and ordinances that might be proposed or passed in your community, and the implications that they could have for cats and their caregivers.
Learn more about different ordinances and policies that affect cats:
Ordinances that claim to support Trap-Neuter-Return sound good—and are sometimes good—but they are actually sometimes harmful for community cats. Sometimes feral cat advocates contact their local lawmakers under the mistaken impression that their community must pass a TNR ordinance. But if feral cat caregivers are not struggling with opposition from animal control officers or hostility from neighbors, it is usually preferable not to pursue an ordinance.
Well-intentioned ordinances, like those that purport to support TNR, can cause more harm than good if they create regulations and restrictions—and subsequently, penalties and liabilities against caregivers and TNR providers—where there were none.
The most problematic TNR ordinance provision is mandatory registration. Mandatory registration means that feral cat caregivers are legally obligated to register with animal control or another local government agency and include personal information about themselves and sometimes even the location of the cats they care for. People who fail to register but continue to engage in TNR could be fined or even prosecuted for breaking the law.
Despite these concerns, there are some cases where TNR ordinances are needed.
Learn more about TNR ordinances, determine whether your community could benefit from one, and read sample TNR ordinance provisions.
Leash Laws: Restrictions on Outdoor Cats
Ordinances that prohibit cats from being “at large” essentially mandate that all cats be kept either indoors or on leashes. These laws are dangerous and cause more cats to be killed in pounds and shelters. That is because any cat who is outdoors—whether she is someone’s pet who is let out for a short period of time or a community cat—is subject to impoundment. Virtually 100% of all community cats impounded are killed, and 70% of all cats in pounds and shelters are killed.
Some people mistakenly believe that leash laws should be applied to cats because most cities have leash laws for dogs. However, animal control laws originated to protect humans and human property against certain damages dogs caused. Cats and dogs are unique species, and treating them the same simply doesn’t work.
Furthermore, unowned cats such as feral cats have no owners or indoor homes. The best approach for these cats is TNR, the only way to effectively manage the feral cat population. Leash laws are incompatible with TNR.
Read more about leash laws.
Licensing refers to when a municipality requires cat owners to license or register their pet cat with a government agency. Like leash laws, licensing ultimately results in more cats being impounded in animal pounds and shelters, where 70% of cats impounded are killed. Licensing is particularly misleading and harmful, because it fails to achieve any of its stated goals. Furthermore, Good Samaritans who are caring for community cats might be unfairly treated as owners and be cited or bullied into stopping care.
Read common myths about licensing.
Feeding bans are laws that prohibit residents from putting food outside for animals, such as pet or community cats. Feeding bans do not help stabilize community cat populations, and they undermine and discourage Trap-Neuter-Return programs, the only effective approach for stabilizing feral cat populations. With a feeding ban in place, TNR is impossible to carry out. If a community is concerned about its feral cat population, TNR is the only answer.
Read Alley Cat Allies’ Feeding Ban Position Statement.
Alley Cat Allies strongly supports spay/neuter for pet and community cats, but mandatory spay/neuter laws are misguided and ineffective. While the impulse behind these laws is positive, such laws do little to stabilize the overall cat population. Ironically, mandatory spay/neuter laws are more detrimental than beneficial to cats. This is because such laws ignore feral and stray cats, who represent the vast majority of intact cats. Only three percent of feral and stray cats are neutered, as opposed to 82% of all pet cats.
Further complicating the issue is that in homes earning less than $35,000 annually, only 51% of pet cats are neutered. The root of the problem is the lack of affordable spay/neuter services for pet owners and community cat caregivers. To successfully address the problem, resources should be directed toward expanding low-cost spay/neuter rather than spent administering an ineffective law.
Some communities have laws that restrict the number of animals a person may own. These laws are intended to protect the community from unsafe or unsanitary conditions and to protect animals from inhumane treatment. Some limit laws are aimed at preventing hoarding, a psychological disorder where someone maintains more animals than he or she can adequately care for in an enclosed space.
In reality, limit laws actually increase the number of animals “euthanized” in shelters. Potential adopters should be encouraged to adopt the number of animals that they can provide a loving home for, and should not be restricted by an arbitrary number. These laws deter people from adding another member to their family.
Limit laws also become problematic for feral cat caregivers when the number of cats they care for exceeds the number of animals that a person may “own.” Limit laws should be written so that there is an exemption for feral cats and feral cat caregivers. Caregivers are not the owners of these cats and should be treated accordingly. The right way to protect the welfare of animals and public health is to address specific problematic behaviors—not to pass punitive and arbitrary laws.
See the Resources section in this toolkit for sample letters to legislators about each type of policy or ordinance.
How a Bill Becomes a Law
Legislation might seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! Each city and county has a unique lawmaking process. However, these are general steps that most cities and counties follow. In addition to laws, local governments may also pass resolutions, which create policy rather than law.
- Legislation is usually submitted by city councilmembers or county commissioners. Sometimes government staff may also introduce laws. Citizens usually cannot propose legislation on their own, but they can request a meeting with an elected official and ask them to champion a particular law.
- After the legislation is submitted, it’s then sent to the legal department for review. Sometimes it is also analyzed to determine the financial impact of the proposed law.
- Administrative staff, sometimes the clerk, formally prepares the ordinance for introduction and assigns it a number and a date to be introduced. At this point, you can submit letters or emails stating your stance on the bill to elected officials.
- The bill is introduced at a council or commission meeting. At this time, the council or commission may hear from the public. This is your opportunity to testify on the issue. Legislators may also discuss or debate the merits of the bill.
See the Make an Impact section of this toolkit for tips on public speaking and preparing public testimony.
- In some communities, the bill might be voted on the same day it is introduced. In other places, the bill is considered at multiple meetings before being voted on. Alternately, a bill could first be considered in a committee that is composed of a smaller number of councilmembers. The committee may choose to pass the bill along to the full body, amend the bill, or recommend against its passage.
At any step along the way, the bill can be amended.
Next: Make an Impact