White Paper| Anti-Cruelty, Trap-Neuter-Return

Quick Facts:

  • Alley Cat Allies supports the enforcement of laws that punish true abandonment, but these laws do not apply whatsoever to Trap-Neuter-Return.
  • Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is not cat abandonment. When community cats are returned, they are going back to the outdoor homes where they have been living and thriving. TNR improves community cats’ lives and is in their best interest.
  • However, in too many jurisdictions, community cat caregivers and TNR advocates face legal consequences for their TNR efforts because of punitive and outdated abandonment laws that do not account for community cats who live in the outdoors.
  • A specific law is not necessary to practice TNR. Most communities with active and successful TNR programs do not have one on the books. However, existing, outdated ordinances should be updated to remove barriers to TNR.
  • The American Bar Association (ABA), the largest association of legal professionals in the United States, adopted a resolution urging …”legislative bodies and governmental agencies to interpret existing laws and policies, and adopt laws and policies, to allow the implementation and administration of trap-neuter-vaccinate-return programs for community cats…”
  • To protect TNR programs and those who carry them out, animal laws must be reviewed and the term “abandonment” redefined to exempt TNR and the work of community cat caregivers.

When community cats are returned during TNR, they are going back to the outdoor homes where they have been living and thriving.

All around the world, communities are increasingly embracing Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs—sometimes known as Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (TNVR), Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR), and Return To Field (RTF) programs—as the humane and effective approach to community cats, also called feral cats. They do so in recognition that top animal experts and peer-reviewed studies confirm that TNR stabilizes community cat populations through a process of spay and neuter, vaccination, and return to the outdoor homes in which they were found.

The most successful TNR programs evolve naturally from grassroots advocacy. Grassroots activists take action to fill a void in much-needed spay and neuter services for cats who live outdoors. Their local shelter and animal control agency then acknowledge the positive impact and waive typical requirements—such as a shelter hold period—accordingly for community cats. And finally, the local government, often prompted by advocates, ensures these TNR programs do not face legal roadblocks by updating the animal code to exempt community cats from policies created for indoor cats who are reliant on humans.

That final change is one of the most critical. Community cats are not pet cats. They have no owners, they thrive outdoors as part of our neighborhoods, and require a different kind of care . And though most model animal ordinances do not include a specific TNR law, they do clarify the distinction between community cats and owned cats. They specify that community cat caregivers are not owners, and as such are not in violation of leash laws, pet limits, at-large provisions…or abandonment laws.

Successful ordinances acknowledge that the completion of TNR is not abandonment, but a homecoming.

In this resource, we walk you through the definition of abandonment, why TNR does not fit that definition, the recommendations of top legal experts in drafting animal laws, and how following those recommendations is vital to prevent TNR programs and those who carry them out from being wrongfully penalized.

What is Cat Abandonment?

While the legal definition of “abandonment” varies, it generally refers to when an owner (or person responsible for an animal) intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence leaving an animal behind, or permitting an animal to be left behind, without providing for the animal’s proper care or making reasonable arrangements for custody with another person.

Abandoning a cat is considered animal cruelty in 49 states and the District of Columbia and is mentioned in almost all states’ animal cruelty laws. Some of these laws include abandonment in their definition of “cruelty,” some include it in a list of cruel acts, and some deem abandonment as its own offense.

Alley Cat Allies supports the enforcement of laws that punish true abandonment, but these laws do not apply whatsoever to TNR.

Why TNR is NOT Abandonment

If abandonment is defined by an owner intentionally and recklessly putting a cat in harm’s way by placing her in an unfamiliar environment without the resources she is accustomed to, then TNR is the exact opposite.

First, consider that the people caring for community cats are NOT their owners. Community cats were there before a caregiver began to feed them and would continue to be there should the caregiver decide to stop. They have no owner, and their caregivers are simply good Samaritans.

Next, note the fundamental difference between community cats and pet cats. Unlike cats who live indoors and rely on people for their care, community cats have the skills to care for themselves in the outdoors. They bond to their specific territories and feline families. They know where to find food, where to hide, and how to stay safe.

Understand what the “Return” in TNR really means. Cats are brought back to the exact outdoor homes in which they are trapped—the territories they know well and in which they have the resources to thrive. TNR is NOT relocation, which introduces cats to unfamiliar surroundings. TNR also does not put cats accustomed to indoor homes into the outdoors.

On the matter of intent, those who carry out TNR do so because it improves, rather than threatens, the health and wellbeing of community cats. Vaccinations, which are usually given during TNR (AKA TNVR), protect cats against disease. Spay and neuter reduces the stresses of mating and pregnancy in cats, and is scientifically proven to prevent certain feline infections and cancers.

To top it all off, community cats who are spayed or neutered through a TNR program often gain caregivers they may not have had before. As such, they are provided with regular food and water and cozy shelters.

No part of the process represents anything approaching abandonment.

“These animals have been thriving and surviving in the same area, so we are not abandoning them by returning them [through TNR] and we have not had any complaints regarding abandonment. This program is our biggest and most lifesaving that we’ve ever put in place,” says Rene Vasquez, director of Fort Bend Animal Services in Fort Bend, Texas. In 2018, Fort Bend amended its animal ordinance to support and protect TNR, including exempting community cats from laws like leash requirements.

Top Legal Experts Agree that Abandonment Laws Should Exempt TNR

Today, despite the incredible track record of TNR, too may animal control agencies still wrongfully interpret the return of community cats through a TNR program as abandonment. In most of these communities, officers have legal grounds to impound those cats and penalize their caregivers. Local laws have not yet been amended to prevent it.

Keep in mind that in these same communities, grassroots TNR efforts are underway right now. Should an activist be in the wrong place at the wrong time one day, they could face a heavy fine just for bringing a cat back to her outdoor home. That is not conducive to the growth of nonlethal programs, or the wellbeing of a community’s citizens.

The American Bar Association (ABA), the largest association of legal professionals in the United States, recognizes the lifesaving benefits of TNR—and the dangers animal laws pose to TNR community cat programs and advocates if they remain stuck in the past. In 2017, the ABA adopted Resolution 102B urging…

“state, local, territorial, and tribal legislative bodies and governmental agencies to interpret existing laws and policies, and adopt laws and policies, to allow the implementation and administration of trap-neuter-vaccinate-return programs for community cats within their jurisdictions so as to promote their effective, efficient, and humane management.”

This resolution implicitly calls upon governments to redefine “abandonment” in their animal code in order to explicitly exempt community cats as part of a TNR program.

What You Can Do

As you’ve read so far, TNR protects and improves the lives of cats and reflects the humane values of communities. As sound public policy, it benefits the cats, the people who care for them, and the neighborhoods in which they live. It allows community cats to stay in their outdoor homes where they belong.

However, too many jurisdictions have animal laws that lack express language exempting TNR and the work of community cat caregivers from the definition of abandonment. As a result, many caregivers have faced, or are facing, legal consequences for their compassion. Efforts to improve cats’ lives and benefit the community are hindered by enforcement of these punitive laws. Or, alternatively, abandonment laws are simply not enforced at all because their scope is too wide.

To further advance lifesaving change, we cannot let animal laws that are decades out of date stay on the books. We must urge our local government leaders to open up a discussion on the animal ordinances as they stand and update them so they no longer create barriers to nonlethal approaches. Look into your community’s law governing animal abandonment. If abandonment is not explicitly defined to exclude community cats in a TNR program, speak up and ask for change. We’ll help you get started at alleycat.org/AdvocacyToolkit.

Contact your legislators and ask that they follow the ABA’s advice. Resolution 102B is a powerful endorsement of TNR and its place in our communities.
For examples of ideal ordinance language, ask them to look to three states that have explicitly exempted cats who have been part of a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program from abandonment definitions: Maine, Nevada, and Utah.

To ensure TNR is not considered abandonment, Alley Cat Allies recommends that all animal ordinances include the following language:

A person who returns a community cat to its original location while conducting Trap-Neuter-Return is not deemed to have abandoned the cat.

TNR is NOT abandonment. The voice of the people—YOUR voice—is key to ensuring TNR and those who carry it out are not at risk from laws that are meant to punish animal cruelty offenders.

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