Publications| Cats and the Law

Ordinances that claim to support Trap-Neuter-Return sound good—and are sometimes good—but they are actually sometimes harmful for community cats. Sometimes community cat advocates contact their local lawmakers under the mistaken impression that their community must pass a TNR ordinance. But if community 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 community 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.

These volunteers who open their hearts and wallets to care for cats are the core of an effective TNR program. Community cat caregivers care for outdoor cats but are not the cats’ owners. Caregivers neither create nor maintain the stray and feral cat population. Rather, they are Good Samaritans stepping forward to help the community.

Registration is not necessary for successful TNR programs. It is burdensome and time-consuming and will cause residents to cut back on neutering community cats. Mandatory registration deters community cat caregivers from their important volunteer work because they are apprehensive about revealing who they are and where the colonies are located. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Alley Cat Allies has documented numerous instances of caregivers being subjected to verbal harassment, physical coercion, job loss, and eviction, and instances of the colonies of cats being killed.

Despite these concerns, there are some cases where TNR ordinances are needed. Similarly, if your animal control ordinance is already being updated, or if your shelter is embarking on a large, positive policy change, TNR ordinances are an excellent tool to codify protections for cats and their caretakers. Often, brief ordinances that simply communicate the city’s support are best.

For example, the Washington, D.C. ordinance underscores the city’s commitment to TNR and does not regulate the actual practice of TNR. It states that the animal control agency “shall promote: (1) the reduction of euthanasia of animals for which medical treatment or adoption is possible; and (2) the utilization of trap, spay or neuter, and return practices as a means of controlling the feral cat population.” This brief statement of the city’s policy and goals is very helpful in encouraging TNR.

You should also consider your animal shelter’s position on TNR programs. It has become much more common for shelters to participate in TNR. This program model, known as Shelter-Neuter-Return, has become more widespread because TNR results in a decrease in shelter intake. Ideally, ordinances should explicitly encourage or require, rather than simply permit, Shelter-Neuter-Return for impounded cats.

Sample Trap-Neuter-Return Ordinance Provisions

If your community needs a TNR ordinance to protect caregivers from harassment and penalties, the ordinance should include key definitions and provisions to best support cats and caregivers. These components include important protections for impounded community cats, such as mandating the return of cats to their colony, as well as protections for caregivers.

Remember, the primary goal is to implement TNR in your community. An ordinance is only one tool among many to achieve this objective.