The SF SPCA’s new policies around caring for feral cats seems to run counter to their mission. (Courtesy photo)

Has the SF SPCA lost its way?

When I started volunteering for the SF SPCA in 2003 the private nonprofit ran a robust feral cat program that included a small army of enthusiastic volunteers. The primary job of the volunteers was feeding and caring for the homeless, outdoor cats.

The SPCA gratefully supported us volunteers by providing discounted cat food and by championing the national humane standard for homeless cat colony management, “TNR”: Humanely trap the unfixed cats, spay or neuter them, and return them to their original habitat (because they are too unsocialized to be adoptable).

Crucially, return has never then meant abandon them. The TNR policy always assumed, indeed, morally demanded, lifelong feeding and care. This included giving the cats food and water at least once a day, bringing ill or injured cats back to the SPCA for treatment or, if untreatable, euthanasia, and when their habitat sometimes became unsafe, relocating the cats to a new one. That has been the national norm for at least 20 years. Of course, we brought any friendly cats to Animal Care and Control for redemption by their guardians or, if the guardians couldn’t be found, for adoption.

Jump to the present day and, boy, how the SPCA has changed! They long ago stopped selling discounted cat food to volunteers, and they have in fact let most of their feral cat volunteers go.

At the same time the SPCA has hired and fired a series of Community Cat Program managers and staff who are well-meaning but have little or no experience with feral cats and who sometimes give both volunteers and the public incorrect or even harmful information.

An SPCA manager has designated feral cats (also called Community Cats) as “wildlife,” which contradicts the California Food & Agricultural Code 31752.5.

Incredibly, the SPCA now advocates NOT feeding feral cats at all, saying “the cats can fend for themselves.” Failure to feed feral cats or indeed any domestic animal daily and on an ongoing basis violates California Penal Code 597(b), which outlines various forms of animal cruelty and punishments for violators.

Also, as reported earlier this month by SF Examiner opinion columnist Sally Stephens (More feral cats could die in San Francisco following policy change), the SPCA now advises the public to “wait a month” before bringing in newborn kittens, the period in outdoor cats’ lives when they are most at risk for animal attacks, disease, abandonment by their mothers, injury, starvation, and especially after a month, difficulty in trapping. This wrong-headed policy is apparently based on information from someone at the veterinary school at UC Davis, rather than on any peer-reviewed study or on the vast experience of the SPCA’s own volunteers. (Note that the UCD veterinary school’s website has no information on feral cats and does not mention such cats in their curriculum.)

On the other hand, the SPCA has continued to offer their free spay/neuter and minor veterinary treatment services for feral cats. In addition, over the years they have added free vaccinations, flea treatments, microchipping and, if needed, antibiotics, all administered while the cats are anesthetized for spay/neuter surgery. Current and former volunteers are deeply grateful for these remaining crucial services.

The mission of the SF SPCA, as stated on their website, is “to save and protect animals, provide care and treatment, advocate for their welfare and enhance the human-animal bond.” How can their leadership rationalize the organization’s glaringly inhumane feral cat policies? The unstated goals of many of these changes may have to do with (1) placating members of the public who complain about feral cats on their property (the SPCA most likely hopes to convert complaints to contributions); and (2) removing the potential liability and resulting high insurance premiums required to cover feral cat volunteers. Ultimately, the Community Cats program doesn’t generate much revenue and is most likely a big drain on the SPCA budget. Gutting everything in the program except the spay/neuter services is surely more fiscally motivated than feral-friendly.

Bill Hamilton founded and led two nonprofits, the Friends of San Francisco Animal Care and Control and The Animal Union, and served as a commissioner on the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission. He volunteered at S.F. Animal Care and Control from 1997 to 2003 and at the SF SPCA from 2003 to 2016, and still feeds and cares for ten colonies of feral cats daily in San Francisco and Daly City.

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