The underlying theme of this blog is that ethical questions are all around us, and they come up frequently in our everyday lives. I was reminded of this fact over the weekend. Let me explain.
For the last week or two, there is a cat that has been hanging around near our back porch. She won’t let us pet her, but she does spend a lot of time up there lounging, napping, and interacting with our cats through the window. Given her disposition, we decided that she might either be someone’s lost pet, or be an animal that someone might be able to adopt. We made the decision to catch her and bring her to the Humane Society for evaluation.
I rented a trap from the Humane Society and set it up on my back porch. Initially, the cat was hesitant to go inside, but eventually, hunger won out. She entered the trap, began eating the food attached to the trigger mechanism, and the door quickly closed behind her.
The next morning, I took her to the Humane Society for evaluation. It was decided that although she was not a typical feral cat, she had lived outside too long to be adopted by anyone. Instead, she was placed in a program that the Humane Society uses for feral cat management, known as Trap, Neuter, and Return.
Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) programs operate roughly like this. Feral cats are trapped, either by individual citizens or the Humane Society, sterilized, given some basic vaccinations, and re-released where they were taken from.
Ideally, someone in the cat’s community will take responsibility for providing the cat with certain kinds of support. This includes food, water, and outdoor shelter in places with severe weather. These community caretakers are also expected to monitor the health of the animals in the community, and take action as needed when they see a problem.
There are a number of things about my experience with this program that were not ideal, and other things that were quite good. But this program also raises a number of interesting philosophical issues, and by identifying them, we put ourselves in a better position to evaluate whether TNR programs are really the best way to manage feral cat populations.
TNR programs appear to be grounded in three core principles. These are:
1. We should reduce populations of feral cats in communities where humans live.
2. We ought not euthanize healthy animals.
3. Feral cat’s live better lives when they receive peripheral support from humans.
These principles are interesting, in my view, for several reasons. The first principle seems obvious if we think of feral cat populations as something to be managed for our benefit, but it’s less obvious that this principle is ethically sound. From an ethical perspective, feral cats have as much right to live as any other animal population.
The second seems ethically legitimate, but not obviously the best management strategy if our goal is to dramatically reduce populations of these animals. If what we want is to eliminate these populations, surely euthanizing healthy animals will accomplish this more quickly.
And the third seems internally confused, as the very concept of a feral cat implies that these are wild animals. Wild animals, in my view, ought to be left to their own devices, rather than supported by human beings. It’s not clear how we can reject these animals for adoption on the grounds that they are too wild, yet advocate that they be cared for by humans because they are not wild enough.
The point is this–while TNR programs are currently viewed as the best strategy for managing feral cat populations, it’s not clear that the philosophical foundations of these programs are internally consistent. Some of the core principles of these programs are clearly ethical in nature, while others only make sense only from a wildlife management strategy.
While it’s perfectly fine to construct a program in a way that seeks to accommodate multiple perspectives on an issue, this is a case where the perspectives under consideration directly conflict with one another. We seem to be in a position of advocating for the eradication of feral cats, while also promoting their acceptance and long-term support within human communities.
What do others think about this? Are TNR programs on shaky philosophical footing, as I’ve suggested? Is this really the best way to deal with feral cat populations? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.