In our “From the Field” series, we share reflections and field notes from our staff members who work hands-on, every day, to protect and improve the lives of cats.

Hello, it’s Alice Burton, Alley Cat Allies’ associate director of Animal Shelter and Animal Control Engagement. I wanted to give you an update on the work I’m doing to transform shelters and save cats around the nation.

This December, I traveled across the country to California to help make a difference for cats, shelters, and citizens in the state. First, I delivered food and other supplies to animal welfare organizations impacted by the devastating Northern California fires of October 2017. Then, I visited the city of Antioch to provide guidance to animal shelter staff, Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) organizations, and citizens trying to create humane change for community cats.

Antioch is a suburb located about 45 minutes from San Francisco. With no local low-cost spay and neuter clinic, TNR advocates often drive 25 miles or more to get cats spayed or neutered. Fortunately, support for TNR is quickly gaining in the area. In just one year, Antioch Animal Services has gone from skeptical about TNR to working closely with advocates to save community cats’ lives.

Cat Cottle, the shelter supervisor and an animal control officer, reached out to Holly Cuciz, co-founder of PAWSitively S.A.F.E. (Saving Animals From Euthanasia), a local non-profit animal rescue, about community cat education. Holly contacted me and asked if I would come out and lead a workshop in Antioch. As experts on TNR, she knew that Alley Cat Allies could inspire folks to embrace the program. I was happy to lend my expertise. I headed to Antioch Animal Services to speak with shelter staff and co-host an educational Trap-Neuter-Return seminar for staff, animal control officers, elected officials, police officers, and residents.

On December 13, I joined my workshop co-hosts Cuciz, Julie Rassumen, the other co-founder of PAWSitively S.A.F.E., Karen Kops, president of Homeless Animals Response Program (H.A.R.P.), and leading community cat advocates Jeff Klingler and Kim Charef to tour Antioch Animal Services and learn how the shelter approaches community cats. Cottle walked us through every room of the shelter, including the separate holding areas for stray and community cats.

PAWSitively S.A.F.E. was already familiar with the shelter and its staff. Over the last few months, they developed a lifesaving system for cats with Antioch Animal Services. They systematically take community cats from the shelter, have them spayed or neutered, vaccinated and eartipped at a clinic, and then return them to their outdoor homes. By practicing this version of TNR—also called Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR) or Return to Field (RTF)—they can move unadoptable community cats out of the shelter more swiftly. With thousands of animals entering the shelter each year (half of them are cats), shelter staff members are quickly discovering how vital these RTF efforts can be.

“If it’s healthy and it’s feral, it’s going back where it came from,” Monica Hueston, an interim shelter manager, told us. “It’s better for the shelter and the cats.”

Cuciz says she’s optimistic about the future of Antioch’s community cats. “We’re very excited about the direction of the shelter and working closely with the staff” she told me. “It’s all about community buy-in; about everyone accepting life with community cats.”

As a former animal control officer, I also know from experience that the key to saving cats’ lives is engaging and encouraging the community. I shared with shelter staff how to work with residents so that they would be receptive to community cats living among them, and to help them understand that these cats are thriving and healthy outdoors and do not belong in the shelter.

I echoed these important points the next day in my presentation, The Benefits of an Animal Control, Animal Shelter, and Community Supported TNR Program, which was hosted in the Antioch Police Facility. Cottle and Hueston, Mayor Sean Wright, Council Member Monica E. Wilson, and Antioch Police Chief Tammany Brooks attended the seminar—a promising sign of the city’s support for TNR.

“It takes a village to help these cats,” Council Member Wilson said, adding that she has adopted two cats from Antioch Animal Services. “It’s a true community effort, and we’re here to support the community members involved.”

During the presentation on the basics of TNR, I told attendees how I went from skeptic to believer while working as the chief of animal control at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, VA. I talked about the Animal Welfare League’s amazing success with TNR. If you were to give a TNR grant to my former shelter now, I told the audience, the staff wouldn’t be able to spend the money and meet the grant requirements. There just aren’t enough cats anymore to do TNR! That is a goal that every community should work toward.

At the end of the seminar, Chief Brooks said he appreciated the opportunity to learn more about TNR and was now better able to explain its benefits to community members. “When you talk to people who are against TNR, it’s usually because they don’t understand its benefits,” he said. “I really wanted to educate myself on TNR so I can know enough to respond to questions about it and arguments against it.”

Committed to learning where citizens needed the most help with community cats, Antioch Animal Services also set up a map of the city so presentation attendees could mark areas where they knew cats were living. By the end of the night, the map was dotted with pink stickers—some indicating cat populations of 50 or more.

It’s a sign that our work is far from over, and that there are still thousands of community cats in Antioch in need of TNR services. But now I know firsthand that the city has a dedicated family of cat advocates, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to share my experience and expertise with them, the shelter, police, and residents. I, and all of us at Alley Cat Allies, look forward to seeing Antioch continue to make humane change for cats.

Until next time,

Alice Burton
Associate Director of Animal Shelter & Animal Control Engagement