Return-to-field: Sterilize, vaccinate, ear-tip (TNR) and return healthy stray shelter cats to their original location as an alternative to euthanasia.
Decreasing Shelter Intake
TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) programs decrease colony size through attrition and even eliminate entire colonies in some cases. When targeted and at a large enough scale, TNR also decreases shelter intake in areas of high cat density.
Over decades, acceptance has grown for community-based TNR programs. In recent years, neuter-return programs have been implemented for cats already in shelters. These Return-To-Field (RTF) programs resemble traditional TNR programs except the cats are admitted to a shelter at some point during the process.
Either the shelter performs the neuter or transfers the cats to an offsite clinic. In either case, the cats return to their trapping locations by shelter staff, volunteers or partner organizations. Growing in popularity, neuter-return is appropriate for most healthy, unowned cats that are thriving in the community, whether or not they have entered a shelter.
Combining TNR with RTF
Combining community-based traditional TNR with shelter-based RTF maximizes cat welfare, reduces nuisance concerns and minimizes reproduction. Community-based programs bypass the shelter entirely, reducing the cost and complexity of the process, whereas shelter-based programs provide an immediate alternative to euthanasia and potentially extend a greater reach, recruiting the participation of individuals both concerned with and annoyed by cats.
An example of the synergism combining traditional TNR with RTF is Operation Catnip in Gainesville, Florida performing about 3,000 TNR surgeries each year. Since 2001, this program was instrumental in reducing cat intake by 70% and euthanasia from 82% to less than 15%.
Reducing Euthanasia Overnight
In 2012, the program expanded to include a shelter-based RTF program targeting the shelter cats most at risk of immediate euthanasia: impounded adult strays. By neutering and returning these shelter cats to their neighborhoods, cat euthanasia plummeted to 15% by the end of 2013, making Alachua County one of the safest places in Florida to be a cat.
RTF programs often begin as a method to avoid euthanasia of unadoptable feral cats. There is perhaps no greater tool for reducing euthanasia of cats virtually overnight. In some shelters where live release is unlikely for any cat, shelters extend RTF to any unidentified, healthy stray cat in good body condition and old enough to fend for itself.
Being healthy at presentation to the shelter is direct evidence that the cats have sufficient food and shelter to maintain their condition when returned promptly to where they were found. Poor health is the exception, not the rule. In a study of more than 100,000 stray and feral cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states, less than 1% of cats were euthanized due to debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases.
The Feral Freedom Guide
The Feral Freedom Guide describes a large municipal animal shelter’s journey from euthanizing most of the cats that entered its doors to saving most of them. The single biggest lifesaver was a program to neuter feral shelter cats and return them to their original sites. Embraced by the shelter staff, the program quickly expanded to include any healthy outdoor cats whose condition demonstrated they were thriving in their neighborhoods.
Later dubbed the Feral Freedom program, RTF was a major driver for reducing cat euthanasia from greater than 90% to less than 10% in just a few years. It has since been copied by many other shelters seeking positive outcomes for cats whenever possible. This guide provides complete step-by-step instructions regarding the planning and execution of a return-to-field program, including building productive collaborations, creating cat protocols, projecting budgets, and a collection of sample forms, ordinances, and educational materials.
Saving Community Cats
RTF saves the cats that are returned, as well as reduces shelter crowding, shelter-acquired disease, and the stress of overworked staff caring for cats likely to be euthanized. RTF opens space for showcasing adoptable cats, makes room for improved cat housing, and redirects resources previously spent on holding and euthanizing community cats to supporting the care of remaining shelter cats.
Shelters implementing RTF often see their cat live release rate increase by 50% or more in a single season.