Cats and Humans: There's No Need For War

President and founder of Alley Cat Allies offers humane alternatives to killing

Posted Sep 07, 2016

Note: I've just published an update on the wars on cats and wolves called "The Wars on Wolves, Cats, and Other Animals: It’s Time to Forever Close Down the Killing Fields." It contains numerous references and links concerning these topics. 

"Cat Wars is a dangerous book that puts the lives of cats at risk"

A new book, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, is receiving a lot of attention from people on different sides of the fence about what needs to be done about free-ranging cats. Cat Wars has been extremely polarizing (for further discussion please see, for example, "'Cat Wars'" Calls For Killing Free-Ranging Cats," "A New Book Called ‘Cat Wars’ Calls For Killing Free-Ranging Cats," and especially the comments for the latter essay). A comment sent in by Bryan Kortis is right on the mark when he writes, "The book pits people with common goals against each other and only encourages the violence of extremism, not solutions."

Along these lines, as of this writing, there are 110 customer reviews on Amazon, 8% of which are five star (very positive) and 92% of which are one star (very negative). While reading them might be tedious, they truly reveal the polarizing and divisive messages of this new book, that concludes:

“From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary.”  pp. 152-153). 

It's also interesting to note that Princeton University Press, the publishers of Cat Wars, issued a disclaimer that stated, "The authors and the Princeton University Press do not support the inhumane treatment of animals."

An interview with Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies

In order to learn more about humane alternatives to killing all free-ranging cats, I was most fortunate to be able to interview Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, about this book and cats in general. 

Becky, can you please tell people a bit about yourself and your involvement with "cat issues."

I founded Alley Cat Allies in 1990 after learning the local animal control agency advocated killing a colony of healthy cats I discovered in an alley in Washington, D.C. I resolved to protect cats and vowed alley, aka, community cats, everywhere would no longer be victims of lethal animal control policies.

Alley Cat Allies is the innovator in the protection and humane treatment of cats. We have worked for 26 years to support caregivers, change laws, improve shelters, and most importantly, save cats. We have popularized Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) – the only humane and effective approach to community cats. By establishing and promoting standards of care, our organization has brought humane treatment of cats into the national spotlight. Before Alley Cat Allies, TNR was virtually unknown in America, and no local governments supported it. Today, a growing list of more than 500 municipalities officially embrace TNR. Increasing numbers of local agencies and groups also practice Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR) – neuter-return programs conducted by animal shelters for feral cats upon intake. Colonies of feral cats have disappeared from many areas because of TNR and SNR.

What is your opinion about Cat Wars? Can you please tell us about the pros and the cons of this book that is surely highly controversial?

Cat Wars is a dangerous book that puts the lives of cats at risk. In effect, the authors give license to the idea that it is acceptable for people to kill cats by, as they say, “any means necessary.” What does this mean? Shooting, poisoning, or trapping them?

The tragic irony is that for more than 100 years it has been the practice of animal control agencies and animal shelters to kill outdoor cats. This is increasingly recognized as a failed, regressive public policy. Throughout the U.S., ineffective catching-and-killing of outdoor cats is being replaced with TNR and SNR as the only effective, progressive way to stabilize the population of cats.

How do we get people to understand the nature of cats and help their communities with outdoor cats?

Cats have always lived outdoors. It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s important to remember that for more than 10,000 years, cats have lived outdoor lives, sharing the environment with birds, wildlife and people. Cats learned to live alongside people. Their stored grain attracted rodents, an abundant food source for cats.

Keeping cats indoors all the time was not possible until several important 20th century innovations: refrigeration, kitty litter, and the prevalence of spaying and neutering. Even though these changes to our modern lifestyle make keeping cats inside possible, biologically, cats are the same as they were thousands of years ago. Their role in our society has evolved and broadened, but their basic behaviors and needs haven’t changed.

Today, there are cats of all kinds living indoors and those who live solely outdoors who are not socialized so cannot live in homes. We promote TNR and SNR because we want to reduce the population of cats living outdoors and stabilize colonies. But we also recognize that for some cats their home is the outdoors as it has been for thousands of years.

What role do you think compassionate conservation plays in dealing with issues about cats?

I understand Compassionate Conservation is guided by the principle of to do no harm. It rejects the polarization between those interested in animal welfare with those whose concern is conservation. Compassion should be fundamental to all our actions. These are tenets that I also share. I see TNR and SNR as tools in the Compassionate Conservation toolbox. Indeed, I care as much about cats, regardless of which side of the front door they live, as I do about the environment. One reason why I’m a vegan is because my diet consumes far less in water and other resources to produce the food I eat. I believe everyone who cares about the environment should be vegan!

It’s interesting that the same argument used in support of hunting other animals is also used to justify killing cats. But, conversely, we also know from hunting deer and shooting Canadian geese, for example, and a century of killing cats that lethal methods of population control do not work. The reason why is the vacuum effect – when cats or mammals move in to replace those killed to take advantage of existing resources and breed to capacity.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Of course, we welcome thoughtful and serious debate about the protection and humane treatment of cats. Any such discussion must be informed and accurate so that it can satisfactorily and meaningfully address cats, their welfare and legal status and how they can be strengthened. But Cat Wars fails to meet this standard. The book, which is badly researched and written, is a sensationalized account that unashamedly displays its bias against cats. It misrepresents the work of veterinarians, who are published, respected authorities in their field, and non-profit organizations and community volunteers, who work hard to manage cat populations through TNR and other life-affirming programs.

Even the authors of Cat Wars do not know what to do. They do not offer a solution other than to remove cats by any means necessary. But anything that can be done to cats has been tried. You can let them be. That doesn't work. You can place hoards of them in 'sanctuaries'. That is impossible. You can catch and kill. That doesn't work either. Or you can get to the root – address reproduction with sterilization.

Our main objective is to stop cats from producing litters of kittens through TNR and SNR. This allows individual cats to live out their lives and the colonies to die off through natural attrition. Instead of attacking a grassroots movement of caring volunteers, who often spend their own money trapping, neutering, vaccinating, and caring for cats, the TNR movement should be recognized as a compassionate community-based, public health benefit – a positive initiative for all concerned and the environment.

I welcome everyone to learn more about our work for cats at

"Cats are going to bear the brunt of a problem that not only includes us, but also defines us. The problem is far more complicated than designing a better poison..." (Fiona Probyn-Rapsey on Australia’s war on feral cats)

Thank you, Becky, for a most thoughtful discussion. I totally agree that removing all free-ranging cats "by any means necessary," as suggested in Cat Wars, is neither necessary nor humane. Nor has it, or will it, work. And, even if it did, it is ethically repugnant and there are humane alternatives that must be pursued and used. Using them will be a win-win for all. Killing in the name of conservation needs to become a practice of the past.

Note: Anonymous and personal/ad hominem comments will not be accepted. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.