More feral cats could die in San Francisco following policy change

For over 20 years, the San Francisco SPCA and the City’s municipal shelter, Animal Care and Control, pioneered groundbreaking programs to manage feral cats.

For over 20 years, the San Francisco SPCA and the City’s municipal shelter, Animal Care and Control, pioneered groundbreaking programs to manage feral cats. But a recent change has advocates worried that kittens will die in the wild instead of being saved and adopted into loving homes.

Since the 1990s, The City’s approach to managing feral cats (those that live outside with no owner) has revolved around a policy of Trap, Neuter, and Return. Feral cats are caught in humane traps, taken to the SPCA where they’re spayed or neutered — free of charge — and then returned to the wild. The policy is intended to stabilize — and ultimately reduce — the number of feral cats.

In the 1990s, for example, the number of cats living in Golden Gate Park was out of control until the SPCA began to target every cat in the park to be neutered then returned. Over time, the number of cats declined and now there are few feral cats remaining in the park.

The SPCA then added a “Mama from the Streets” initiative. Under this program, if someone reported seeing feral kittens, volunteers would go out and trap the mother and her kittens. The feline family was kept together in a feral cat nursery at the SPCA. Once the kittens were weaned, they were socialized and adopted, while the mama cat, too feral to be adopted, was spayed and returned to the wild. Even as recently as late 2017, SPCA staff touted the program’s success, noting, in particular, how it minimized stress on the mamas.

But, about a month ago, the SPCA abruptly closed the feral cat nursery. Soon thereafter, the organization announced that it would no longer refer calls about kittens to trappers. When asked why they closed the nursery, the SPCA would only say that “experts” now think it is better to leave the mom and kittens outdoors.

“Keeping a terrified feral mom in captivity for an extended period of time to protect her kittens is not humane,” Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, President of the San Francisco SPCA, said in an email. “The more humane option is to leave the cats in their outdoor home, until the kittens are old enough to be separated from their mom.” At that point, volunteers can trap all the cats for either adoption or for neuter and return.

Feral cat advocates don’t understand why the SPCA instituted the change. Rocky Rockwell has 16 years of experience trapping cats. He says the new policy ignores reality. Feral kittens are in constant danger from coyotes, raccoons, and disease. Indeed, experts estimate kittens in the wild have a 50 percent mortality rate. The average feral cat lives less than seven years.

Rockwell notes that leaving a feral family in the wild might make sense in a community that does not have the ability to keep the family together in a quiet nursery or a network of foster homes. He agrees with the experts that putting cat families into a noisy, crowded shelter, as other communities do, could stress the mamas. But that’s not what San Francisco has been doing.

The SPCA’s feral cat nursery was located away from the shelter’s hustle and bustle, with limited access, to reduce stress levels for the mamas. Rockwell thinks being in a quiet, dark, safe place, with a guaranteed food supply, is less stressful for a mom than having to protect her kittens from predators and bad weather, while needing to hunt to feed herself.

He adds that the longer kittens are loose, the more feral – and less adoptable – they become. Plus, there’s a risk that by waiting, the mamas will not be caught and spayed before they have more litters.

Feral cat advocates, like Rockwell, want the SPCA and Animal Care and Control to go back to the old policy.

“Where feral kittens are concerned,” Rockwell notes, “any delay, even one day or a few hours, can be the difference between life and death.”

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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