About a month ago, the San Francisco SPCA abruptly closed its feral cat nursery. (Courtesy photo)

Two good animal organizations are losing community support over feral cat policy changes

At a recent meeting of the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission, it was clear that a controversial change in how the San Francisco SPCA and the City’s municipal shelter, Animal Care and Control, handle feral cats is eroding support for both organizations.

I wrote last month about the organizations’ new policy to leave feral cat moms and their kittens in the wild until the young are weaned, rather than bring them to foster homes or the SPCA’s feral cat nursery, as had been done for years. Feral cat advocates worry that this change in policy will result in the deaths of many kittens who would otherwise have been saved and adopted into loving homes.

The advocates packed the Commission’s meeting room. Every seat was taken, with a few people even sitting on the floor along the walls. Neither the SPCA nor Animal Care and Control had consulted with these people, who work day in and day out with feral cats, before deciding to change the policy. The volunteers’ decades of experience had simply been ignored.

Three veterinarians — one each from the SPCA, Animal Care and Control, and UC Davis — were invited by the Commission to speak. They presented a picture of feral cat moms, called queens, who were so traumatized by being indoors – even in the quiet nursery at the SPCA – that they became aggressive, ill, or stopped taking care of their kittens.

Under tough questioning by the Commissioners, the veterinarians came off as defensive and, at times, condescending. Indeed, they seemed most upset that the policy change had been leaked to the volunteers before they were ready to announce it. The veterinarians did admit that neither organization has good, solid data about stress, illness, and outcomes for the feral queens and kittens that have been in each organizations’ care. And they weren’t clear exactly how they would measure the new policy’s success.

The feral cat advocates noted that living in the wild is also extremely stressful for mama cats, who have to find food for themselves while protecting their kittens from coyotes, raccoons, disease, bad weather, and humans who don’t want cats in their yard. Several volunteers described setting up webcams to observe the families in foster homes when people weren’t around. They saw mama cats who were relaxed, eating well, and taking care of their kittens. Their decades of anecdotal experience conflicted with what the shelter vets were saying.

To bolster their case, the veterinarians showed a photo, titled “A Queen’s Suffering,” with a mama cat, squeezed into a corner, her kittens on top of her, seemingly traumatized. It was a heartbreaking picture, until a woman stepped up during public comment and said she had taken the photo in question, had worked with the cat in the picture, and that the description just given by the vets was wrong. The mama was not highly stressed. She and her kittens actually did just fine.

Two people who spoke during public comment identified themselves as official volunteers with the SPCA’s cat program. Both said they had been told by SPCA staff that they should not speak at the Commission meeting. The threat that they would be terminated as volunteers if they testified was clear.

What kind of organization threatens its volunteers?

After the meeting, the Commission sent a letter to both the SPCA and Animal Care and Control encouraging them to sit down and work with the volunteers to develop good, solid data about how feral mamas and their kittens fare in shelters, in foster homes, and in the wild. Until that data exists, the Commission urged both organizations to return to the old policy and not just leave feral families on their own in the wild.

Both organizations rely on volunteers to help in the field and as fosters. Yet they don’t seem to place much value on the experience and perspective of those very same volunteers. I hope both the SPCA and Animal Care and Control will, in the future, work with their volunteers to develop policies, not just order them around.

The current rancor hurts everyone, but especially the mama cats and their kittens that need our help.

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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