The Complicated Politics of L.A.’s Feral Cats

They’re either harmless or hazardous, depending what side you’re on
A FixNation van

Photo by Bradley Meinz

It’s 6:45 A.M., and Joe Federico is in the Monrovia PetSmart parking lot to meet feral cat trappers, something he does several times a week. On this particular Thursday a crew of three women—Karla, Kimberly, and Lifa—is waiting. He pulls his vehicle, a white van with an image of four wide-eyed kittens on its side, into a space and hops out. The women begin unloading large rectangular cat traps from their cars. “I’m telling you, it was an interesting night, Joe,” says Kimberly Reed, who traps every Wednesday and Thursday night with her “battle buddy” Debi Leal.

Their captives have come from some of the numerous feral colonies that dot the region, each of which can have between a few and several dozen animals. While the total number of feral cats in L.A. County isn’t known (cats aren’t the easiest things to count), as many as several million could be roaming around the county. To a lot of conservationists, they are public enemy No. 1. After all, cats are predators, killing birds and small mammals alike. They can also spread diseases that may affect wildlife and humans.

Their quality of life can be pretty poor as well. Free-roaming cats face threats that the kitty on your couch does not—like being hit by a car, accidentally poisoned, or killed by a coyote. “I feel bad for every one of them,” says Federico, a small and smiley 59-year-old with reddish hair and a mustache, after getting back in his van. He’s driving to FixNation, a nonprofit Sun Valley clinic that spays and neuters felines; Federico has volunteered there for several years. “If we could help by keeping the population down, keeping more from being born, keeping them from having to go through all this—that is why we do this,” he says.

Grown ferals that haven’t been socialized are often considered unadoptable, and newborn kittens require a high level of care, including around-the-clock feeding. Historically these two factors have resulted in a high rate of cat euthanasia at shelters. Five years ago a mere 37.9 percent of cats that entered city shelters were not euthanized. Last year the numbers were practically inverted, with almost 68 percent of cats making it out alive. The reversal stemmed from L.A.’s efforts to establish its shelters as “no-kill” facilities, meaning that 90 percent or more of the animals must survive.

The City of L.A.’s Animal Services aims to reach that milestone this year. In the mid-2000s, it implemented an unofficial policy to encourage trap-neuter-return (TNR) as a way to reduce the number of cats killed. But the department is no longer allowed to conduct TNR or provide any information about the practice. In 2008, the Urban Wildlands Group and five other conservation organizations sued the city. They argued that the city was surreptitiously implementing elements of the TNR policy without doing an environmental review that officials had previously promised of the adverse impact on wildlife and humans. L.A.’s Superior Court issued an injunction preventing the city from doing anything related to TNR until that review is conducted.

Travis Longcore, science director at the Urban Wildlands Group, has dedicated countless hours to fighting TNR because he believes it’s an ineffective method for controlling an invasive species. “Unfortunately TNR does not eliminate feral cat colonies under prevailing conditions,” he says in a Conservation Biology essay cowritten with Catherine Rich from the Urban Wildlands Group and Lauren Sullivan of UCLA’s department of geography. “Mathematical models of feral cat populations indicate that 71-94% of a population must be neutered for the population to decline, assuming there is no immigration.” At L.A.’s current rate of sterilization, this percentage isn’t even close to being met, he says, noting that San Diego County’s TNR program failed to reduce the feral population after ten years.

Cat carriers inside a FixNation van

Photo by Bradley Meinz

As with politics and certain sports rivalries, debates concerning animals tend to be as intense as they are insoluble. In this case a fundamental disagreement about how dangerous free-roaming felines are is at the root of the fight. “Cats are animals with fascinating and alluring personalities, but they can be destructive to native wildlife,” reads one passage in the not-so-subtly named book Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center director Peter Marra and Chris Santella. “Wild birds and mammals, however, also have rights that do not seem to receive as much attention as the claimed rights of cats to wander freely outdoors.”

Longcore argues that L.A.’s efforts to become a “no-kill” city make matters worse. “No-kill simply moves the killing to other places,” he says. “Maybe you aren’t euthanizing that feral cat, but you are guaranteeing the death of lizards and birds and contamination of waterways with Toxoplasma gondii and adverse impacts to sea lions and seals.” (He’s referring to the single-celled organism that reproduces in the guts of felines and causes the disease toxoplasmosis, which can also harm newborn infants and is suspected of being linked to mental illness.)

Conservationists like Longcore advocate cracking down on colony “caregivers”—people who feed feral cats—since more food often means more babies if everyone in the colony isn’t sterilized. Another contention is that owners are more willing to abandon their cats if they think someone else will still feed them. Those in the conservation camp generally push for cats to be treated the same way dogs are: They want to require them to be licensed, kept inside (or at least on their owners’ properties), and spayed or neutered. Moreover, they want to maintain a mechanism to enable residents and land managers to permanently remove free-roaming cats from their properties.

Trap-neuter-return advocates counter that theirs is the only humane option and that what they need to succeed are additional resources. Peter Wolf is a board member at FixNation and the catinitiatives analyst at Best Friends Animal Society (tagline: “Together, we can save them all.”). He’s wary of much of the research on feral cats, saying that a lot of it “is very clearly being produced to shape public policy,” not to advance scientific understanding. On his blog, Vox Felina, Wolf picks apart various studies and “fear-mongering” articles. (Cat Wars is a frequent target of derision. In one post Wolf calls the book “an obviously desperate attempt to fuel the ongoing witch-hunt against outdoor cats.”)

A quick scroll through Vox Felina reveals extensive debate over every aspect of feral cats’ lives. For instance, bird advocates point to a Nature Communications study that estimates outdoor cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds a year; people like Wolf don’t buy it. “The authors of this paper say that cats are a grave threat to these native birds,” he says. “How do you explain that half of these species cited are stable or increasing in abundance? It’s not saying it’s not possible, but you have an obligation to reconcile those two claims, certainly.”

As for the claims that cats spread disease, Wolf describes the concern as “toxo-hysteria” on Vox Felina and suggests that a link between T. gondii infection and mental illness is exaggerated. When conservation groups argue that cats can transmit rabies, Wolf says their worry is disingenuous. “So the American Bird Conservancy, to take one example, are they really concerned about rabies?” he asks. “Does anyone really believe that’s true? Birds don’t get rabies.”

“We don’t actually conduct the science,” says Grant Sizemore, director of the Invasive Species Programs at the American Bird Conservancy. “The science is conducted by respected scientists, and it goes through peer review. I would say that if Peter Wolf has any legitimate concerns, that he is perfectly welcome to publish those concerns in reputable peer-reviewed journals.”

Even the terminology is cause for debate. People at nonprofits tend to favor the phrase “community cats” to describe unowned felines that live outside. When I mention the expression to Sizemore, I can feel him tense up on the other end of the phone. “I hate that term,” he admits.

Dr. Samantha Shone, at FixNation, working on a client. Spayed and neutered feral cats are subsequently returned to where they were caught.

Photo by Bradley Meinz

Compounding the problem is that all the key players are animal lovers in some respect—meaning it’s not as simple as bird versus cat. In fact, Sizemore himself has an indoor cat. And Federico tears up when telling me about a baby bird that he and his wife saved.

At FixNation, clients are greeted by teal walls and a cheerful mural of cartoon-like cats. A hallway displays memorials for Cecil the Lion and a Texas cat named Tiger, which was killed by an arrow in 2015. In the waiting room a young man with slicked-back hair has brought in a feline that’s been hanging around his house. “You’re doing a great thing for this cat,” Federico tells him. Executive director Karn Myers shines a flashlight into the traps he’s delivered to get a better look at the incoming patients. The clinic spays and neuters an average of 80 cats per day, administers antibiotics and vaccines, treats them for fleas, and clips one ear to indicate that they’ve been sterilized. Last year FixNation spayed 7,905 females. “We’re like a little alien ship,” says Myers. “We drop down, pick up kitties, fix them, and then we put them right back where they were.”

Myers says that after the TNR injunction was established, she received e-mails threatening her life because of the work FixNation does. There’s plenty of vitriol to go around. A blogger shared Longcore’s cell number publicly, angry that shelters had to stop providing information on TNR after the injunction. On Facebook a cat owner placed Longcore’s photo in a litter box and let her cats urinate on it. Another commenter described him as “sort of the Ted Bundy of feral cats.”

In April the city council voted to move forward with preparing an $800,000 environmental impact report on the effects of a TNR-based program. General manager of Animal Services Brenda Barnette hopes once the EIR has been completed, they can get the injunction lifted so the city will again be able to fix cats, or provide funding for other groups to fix them, as well as provide information to the public about TNR. “Our goal is to reduce the overall number of cats in the city over time, mainly through spay and neuter,” she says.

Of course, there are other ways to measure success. Whether or not you believe trap-neuter-return works might depend on what you are measuring, Longcore and his colleagues write in that Conservation Biology essay: “The definition of a successful TNR program for feral cat advocates is almost always different from what a conservation biologist or policy maker might view as a successful feral cat management program. For many TNR advocates, success is not defined by elimination of feral cats in an area, but rather by the welfare of the cats.”

Strangely Wolf says something that sounds almost like he’s in agreement: “We—whether you’re talking about the animal welfare folks or the conservation community—well, there’s a lot we disagree on in terms of our values. They tend to value, for example, populations. Animal welfare folks tend to value individual values more. But, boy oh boy, we have the same goal. If we took half the effort that we take fighting or trying to outflank one another, how much further would we be along toward that common goal?”

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