This letter to the editor was published in the Lakeland Gazette on September 15, 2022.

News reports in recent months paint a clear picture that Polk County has reached a crossroads in its approach to animal protection and cat management, with two distinct paths forward. One option – continuing to kill cats and kittens – would reinforce Polk County’s reputation as one of Florida’s deadliest areas for animals and further lose the trust of the community. The other option is to pursue humane, evidence-based nonlethal policies for cats that will save taxpayer dollars, as well as assure residents that Polk County is evolving and improving for animals and people alike. This is, of course, an easy choice to make.

In the last several years, Polk County has routinely topped the annual list of Florida counties with the highest number of animals “euthanized,” though killed is the more accurate term. While killing cats may have been the norm decades ago, it has since been cast aside by many municipal leaders, who discovered firsthand that years of ghastly “catch and kill” policies amounted to nothing. Rounding up and killing cats simply does not work to manage outdoor cat populations and is overwhelmingly unpopular with the public.

Removal of cats through killing or other means may briefly reduce the number of cats in an area, but it is only temporary. Other cats quickly become attracted to resources such as food and shelter and move in to take advantage of them. The cats breed, and the population rebounds quickly. This phenomenon is known as the Vacuum Effect, and scientists have observed it in cats and other species.

This is why, even though some communities have been killing cats for decades, they are no closer to driving away all outdoor cats. Cats live outdoors and always have, and they are here to stay. Lethal policies only serve to drain critical community resources and spill innocent cats’ blood for no gain.

Beyond being ineffective, the large-scale killing of cats is reprehensible to the majority of the public. In a nationwide poll Alley Cat Allies conducted with Harris Interactive, 84 percent of Americans said they prefer that their community use tax dollars to adopt sterilization as its cat control policy instead of bringing cats found outdoors into shelters to be killed. Polk County and its cats deserve better.

Cats Are at Home Outside

To build the best strategy, we first need a better understanding of the cats who live outdoors in our cities and towns.

It is perfectly normal for these cats, known as community cats, to live outside. In fact, the concept of cats as indoor-only companions is a human invention that is less than 100 years old, only made possible with the introduction of kitty litter. In the centuries before, cats lived exclusively outdoors.

Some question the relationship between cats and other wildlife, such as birds. But here again, we can take our lead from research and facts. Scientific evidence consistently exonerates the domestic cat species of being a major threat to wildlife populations, and researchers have debunked grossly exaggerated estimates of birds killed by cats outdoors. Leading biologists, climate scientists, and environmental watchdogs agree that climate change, habitat destruction, and development are the leading causes of species loss, and to a dramatic degree. Attempting to pin blame on cats conveniently ignores the reality that the solutions lie squarely in our hands.

The Humane, Nonlethal Approach

There is a better way than killing – better for cats and better for Polk County.  Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR for short, is the only humane and effective approach to addressing outdoor cat populations.

Through TNR, community cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, ear-tipped for identification, and returned to their outdoor homes to live out their lives.

TNR is sound public policy. Scientific studies show that it effectively and humanely addresses the community cat population, reduces shelter intake and killing, and reduces calls to animal services, which saves taxpayer dollars.

Scientific studies show that TNR ends the breeding cycle, meaning no new kittens are born outdoors while improving the lives and health of community cats. When cats are free from the burden of reproducing, their relationships improve with the people who live near them. And many diseases associated with reproduction, like cancer, are prevented.

Thousands of communities, including many in Florida, have embraced TNR at the grassroots level or as official government policy. It is popular because it works, in rural and urban settings, cold and warm climates, and everywhere in between. Polk County has an opportunity to truly engage with compassionate people in its community to protect cats, reduce outdoor cat populations, and improve neighborhoods countywide.

It’s An Easy Choice

People want to know their county has their back and is committed to forward-thinking, humane standards of care for animals. Polk County has the chance to choose this effective, nonlethal path forward. And it does not have to take the journey alone.

As a leader in the movement to protect cats and kittens, Alley Cat Allies stands ready to help Polk County by sharing strategies for community cat populations that are proven to work. But first, Polk County must realize that the public will never support killing cats en masse, and that any solution must be based on proven science and reflect the values of the community.

Alley Cat Allies is the worldwide organization that works to protect the lives of cats and kittens. First established in 1990, today the organization has over 1 million followers worldwide.