I had just graduated from college in 1987 when the legendary Cleveland Amory published "The Cat Who Came for Christmas," his now-classic tale of Polar Bear, the stray cat he got himself dirty rescuing from an alley one snowy night in New York City. About 18 months later, I found myself with the incredible opportunity to work for Cleveland and also Marian Probst at The Fund for Animals as their executive director. As our professional relationship and personal friendship developed, I also had the opportunity to get to know Polar Bear, who in short order would become one of the most famous and best-chronicled cats of the 20th century.
Even before writing the book, Cleveland had a special reputation as a lover and champion of cats. But the book’s fabulous commercial success—a number one bestseller translated into more than 21 languages, and then the second and third installments in his trilogy, "The Cat and the Curmudgeon" and "The Best Cat Ever"—thrust Cleveland into the slot as the world’s greatest advocate and defender of cats.
Cleveland and Polar Bear are never far from my thoughts when it comes to HSUS work on cat issues, and I am mindful of the many lessons both taught me through the years. A survey of our membership several years ago revealed that 57 percent of our members have cats, and a recent estimate suggests that there are 88.3 million cats in American households. They are, numerically speaking, America’s number one companion animal, and the people who love them and care for them are the heart and soul of this organization.
Today, nearly 10 years after Cleveland’s death, the most pressing issue in the feline welfare arena is the presence of countless millions of feral cats, the offspring of lost or abandoned household pets, or other feral cats who are not spayed or neutered. Fortunately, for the cats, there are a legion of self-sacrificing cat allies and advocates who help these creatures in need. These folks have been pioneers in the practice of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs, where feral cats in specific communities are humanely managed, rather than trapped and killed. TNR is an idea whose time has come, and The HSUS strongly supports this active, humane management strategy.
Our March 2006 policy statement on TNR makes this support plain, but we’ve also made our commitment real by publishing works like Margaret R. Slater’s "Community Approaches to Feral Cats" and Bryan Kortis’ "Implementing a Community Trap-Neuter-Return Program," designed to help cat advocates succeed with TNR programs in their own communities.
As part of our collaboration with Neighborhood Cats, Bryan Kortis and The HSUS’s Nancy Peterson provide daylong training sessions for TNR advocates through Humane Society University. We’ve also provided financial support to Neighborhood Cats and other groups to advance their work on TNR.
I’m pleased to report, too, that at our Animal Care Expo in May, we’ll debut a new CD/DVD on how to run a good community-wide TNR program.
We are also working hard on SafeCats, a program designed to keep household cats safe and indoors (Cleveland wrote in "The Cat Who Came for Christmas" about how outdoor cats live a fifth as long as indoor cats), and on our general spay and neuter work focusing on feline overpopulation. The HSUS has also done its best to bridge the gap with individuals and organizations in the birding and wildlife rehabilitation community, who view cats as an exotic species predating upon birds and other native wildlife. We’ve argued that a two-pronged program that focuses on 1) people keeping their household cats indoors and 2) cat allies and humane organizations managing outdoor colonies through TNR offers the best opportunity for maximizing public participation and helping cats and wildlife.
We’re not alone, of course, and I’m personally grateful to see Alley Cat Allies, Alley Cat Rescue, Neighborhood Cats, Best Friends, the ASPCA, and other groups working so hard on this front. A major challenge like this requires that kind of organizational unity, along with the contributions of literally thousands of volunteer cat advocates on the front lines in communities across the nation.
In many communities, feral cats are not welcome, and they’re sometimes demonized by public officials. This happened just the other day, in an Iowa town, where, unfortunately, The HSUS’s role and comments were misrepresented in a poorly edited story that was widely circulated. That situation has been resolved, with an offer of Trap-Neuter-Return assistance being accepted by the local government. But it reminds us that the issue is a challenge in communities throughout the nation. We need to do even more to defuse local controversies surrounding the presence of feral cats, and to address them humanely and responsibly. And we will. Cleveland Amory wouldn’t have it any other way.