Case Studies| Animal Shelter

An Advocate from Experience for Trap-Neuter-Return

Quick Facts

Where: Fairfax County, Virginia

Communities served: The entire jurisdiction of Fairfax County

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) Program adopted: 2007

Increase in live release rate due to TNR: Over 40 percent

Annual operating budget: $243,401


Cat intake: 1777
Cat live release rate: 53 percent
Cats helped/kept out of the shelter through TNR: 0


Cat intake: 1,609
Cat live relase rate:93.7 percent
Cats helped/kept out of shelthers through TNR: 650
How They Saved Lives:
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter increased live outcomes and saved cats with TNR, relying on volunteers, creative approaches, partnering with a veterinary clinic, fundraisers.

The Benefits of TNR:

  • Fewer cats killed in the shelter
  • Improved shelter staff morale and decrease of turnover rate
  • Money that would have been used to “euthanize” cats is redirected to adoptable animals
  • Improved reputation within the community


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


Staff at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter knew change had to be made. In 2007, they were responding to an endless influx of cats and kittens. Karen Diviney, the shelter director at the time, decided to pursue Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) because “it works and… is the humane solution.” Diviney says that after “dipping [their] toes in the water” with a small, successful pilot program, she sought government approval for a countywide TNR program.

The program, one of the first in the region, launched In October 2008. Since then, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter has become a powerful advocate for expansion of TNR throughout the greater Washington, D.C., area. The shelter’s save rate for cats has more than doubled to over 90 percent. As of 2019, nearly 10,000 cats have been helped by the TNR program.

As a result of its TNR program, the shelter no longer kills animals assessed as healthy, adoptable, or treatable. 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.

Steps to Success

  • Community partnerships. Because the Fairfax County Animal Shelter doesn’t have its own spay and neuter clinic, it contracts with the Potomac Spay Neuter Clinic, a low-cost, nonprofit. The shelter’s volunteer trappers work directly with the clinic to schedule surgeries at their convenience. The system makes it easier and faster for the volunteers to get the cats treated and returned outdoors, reducing stress for both the cats and their caregivers
  • Finding strength in volunteers. More than 350 residents have joined forces with the shelter, volunteering with the TNR program and helping manage community 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.
  • 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.
  • Engaging the people. To help the community get more involved in the TNR program, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter holds TNR workshops each month and loan traps to participants. Many community members will assist with trapping and transport even if they aren’t regular volunteers.

Challenges and Solutions

  • Concerned community members. In Fairfax County, many people still don’t know that Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is an option for community cats that is humane and effective. Fairfax County Animal Shelter staff invest time and resources into education and outreach about TNR and other nonlethal programs for cats. The shelter reports that once people know about TNR, they are happy and relieved to know there’s something they can do to help these cats live better lives, with vaccinations and without reproducing.
  • Diviney says one of the biggest accomplishments of TNR has been simply helping people “see” a little differently and understand that returning community cats to their original outdoor homes is not abandonment: “We help them understand that these cats have a life, that it needs to be respected.”
  • No laws about free-roaming cats. In Fairfax County, there are no laws or policies prohibiting free-roaming cats. Nor are there any that dictate what to do with them. So, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter had to come up with its own approaches to moving cats quickly out of the shelter. Staff members work hard to ensure that any eartipped cats brought to the shelter are returned to their original outdoor home. In cases of last resort, when cats cannot be safely returned to their original outdoor home because it is dangerous, cats are spayed or neutered and transferred into the shelter’s barn cat adoption program to find new homes.
  • The Fairfax County Animal 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 by relying on revenue from citizen donations and fundraisers hosted by a well-organized group of shelter supporters.

Future Goals

  • Provide more services to the community and its cats. The shelter wants its TNR program to help not only feral community cats who are unadoptable, but also stray community cats who are more socialized to people.
  • Expand Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) further throughout the Washington, D.C., area.

Advice to Other Shelters

  • 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.