Under a new policy implemented by the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS), shelters in their jurisdiction are spaying friendly, social cats and returning them to the streets without ever giving them a chance to be adopted.
Since taking over the animal control contracts for the City of San Diego, Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Oceanside, Solana Beach, Vista, Escondido, Poway, San Marcos, Imperial Beach or Santee in July 2018, SDHS has basically become a government agency, funded in part by the taxpayers of these cities.
The agency defends the new program, called SNR (Shelter/Neuter/Return) or RTF (Return to Field) by claiming that the release of most cats that are brought in as strays is the only way to curb cat overpopulation.
This should not be confused with “Trap, Neuter, Return”, where a dedicated caregiver commits to the wellbeing of a group of altered feral cats, feeding and monitoring them. This new policy, which applies to single friendly cats brought in by individuals hoping to find them a better home, does not require anyone to provide food or water. After surgery, these cats are simply released where they were found.
SDHS claims that they look at each cat as an individual and that they must establish that the cat has a history of living outdoors before becoming a candidate for the SNR program. However, records estimate that among the friendly, handleable cats that were brought in by individuals hoping to find the cat a new home, about 15% of them had only been seen in the neighborhood for less than two weeks, and many for less than 1 week. There were also records where individuals brought in cats who they told SDHS staff had been abandoned by a neighbor, but the cat was still released back to where it was found after being spayed/neutered.
Moreover, during the first quarter of fiscal year 2019-2020, SDHS released 515 cats back to where they were found in the City of San Diego alone. Records indicate that about 25- 30% of them were friendly and likely didn’t have to go back on the street to fend for themselves among cars, coyotes, and other dangers.
SDHS claims that this practice is now recommended by all the major national animal welfare organizations. This statement is, at the very least, highly misleading. The position statements given by the three leading national organizations all say that unless the only other alternative is euthanasia, it is best to put single, friendly cats up for adoption.
Position statement from Best Friends:
“Whenever possible, friendly cats and kittens are placed into an adoption program; if, however, there is no opportunity for adoption, then these cats (assuming they are healthy) should be included in a shelter’s RTF program.
Position statement from Maddie’s Fund:
“In some shelters, RTF is expanded to include any unidentified, healthy stray cat in good body condition and old enough to fend for itself, when the chances for a positive outcome in the shelter are dim.”
Position statement from the ASPCA:
“To be considered for an RTF program, the cat must be unowned, ineligible or unlikely to be successful in an adoption program (with very rare exceptions, social cats admitted to animal shelters should be routed into adoption programs that demonstrate a high placement rate rather than RTF programs), be able to be returned to the location where found, and appear to have been thriving in their previous environment without known threats.
SDHS is trying to position itself as agreeing with these standards while simultaneously disregarding aspects of them that it finds inconvenient. This decision will inevitably result in hundreds of cats being tossed back into the street instead of being given a chance to find a new home.
An inside source said that in lieu of a possible lawsuit for animal abandonment like the one in Orange County, legal advisors told SDHS to cut back on having their staff release the friendly cats but instead ask the finder of the cat, or a feral cat rescue to release the cat for them, even if that cat is adoptable.
SDHS advises that when someone brings in a cat, they need to inform them if the cat was abandoned, that they live near a busy intersection, that there is a history of cats being snatched by coyotes in their neighborhood, etc., and that these factors will be taken into consideration when deciding the cat’s fate. Unfortunately, most people assume that a humane society is a safe place and that the cat they bring in to rescue from the dangers of the street will be kept safe and then found a new home if not claimed. They have no idea about this new policy, in which they have to make a case for the cat as to why they shouldn’t release the cat back to the streets, as that is now the default outcome.
The role of a shelter is not to just sterilize every cat that comes in as a stray and then put it back to fend for itself. The primary goal of an animal shelter is to rescue animals from the dangers of the street, at least those who are friendly and would do well in an indoor home or show signs that they aren’t thriving outdoors. Taxpayers are paying money so that we have a shelter that provides a safe place where lost and homeless adoptable animals can get off the streets away from harm and then be given another chance to find a forever home.
This new program deflects that responsibility, and if you think it should be modified so that the single, stray, friendly cats who could have a second chance at finding a home don’t get tossed back to the street with no one to care for them, then you need to let San Diego Humane Society and your city councilmembers know that.
San Diego resident and animal rights advocate