Although Vox Felina was launched in April of this year, its origins can be traced back to 2007 and the town of Pahrump, Nevada. There, 748 cats were abandoned in the summer heat—left sick, starving, and dehydrated by the very people who claimed to be their rescuers. Were it not for the heroic efforts of Best Friends Animal Society and a tireless team of volunteers (local and from across the country), nearly all of those cats would have died.
Within the organization operating the Pahrump sanctuary—For the Love Of Cats and Kittens, or FLOCK—there was nothing but finger-pointing. Earlier this year, the case against FLOCK’s former board members was dismissed on a technicality—the result of the case having been badly botched from the outset by the Nye County District Attorney’s Office. Anybody familiar with the story knows of D.A. Robert Beckett’s incompetence and questionable judgment (e.g., in a six-hour period, Beckett once rolled two cars—one of which belonged to the county—resulting in a citation for DUI). Then, last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Beckett’s under investigation for dipping into County funds.
All of this got me thinking—not of Beckett or the D.A.’s Office, but of FLOCK. The organization is still around (although I’m told the leadership has changed). And a few months ago there were reports—which I have been unable to confirm—that FLOCK might be establishing a new sanctuary, this time in neighboring Clark County.
Another FLOCK sanctuary would be a recipe for disaster, and not just because of that organization’s abysmal record. Many cat sanctuaries are overcrowded, underfunded, and—lacking any kind of contingency plan, as is often the case—prone to collapse. And they can be used to cover up institutional hoarding.
Sanctuaries as Alternatives to TNR?
Cat sanctuaries were among the topics discussed at the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2004 Animal Welfare Forum, “Management of Abandoned and Feral Cats.” Among those suggesting that sanctuaries are a viable alternative to TNR were Linda Winter, former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! program:
“Cat sanctuaries, such as those run by Best Friends in Utah, Rikki’s Refuge in Virginia, the Humane Society of Ocean City in NJ, the CCC in California, the Delaware Humane Association in Delaware, and the Habitat for Cats Sanctuary in Massachusetts, keep cats sheltered, safe, and well fed; provide access to routine veterinary care; protect wildlife; and reduce health risks for cats and people. The ABC strongly supports sanctuaries for stray and feral cats as an alternative to TNR that is more humane to both cats and wildlife.” 
Former Chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, Paul Barrows, was another participant in favor of sanctuaries as an alternative to TNR:
“Whether adopted; placed in a confining sanctuary; judiciously used in research, training, or education; or euthanized, removal and not return seems to be the most responsible course of action.” 
David Jessup, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game, also weighed in with his own enthusiastic endorsement:
“Recently, another option has become available: enclosed sanctuaries where cats can live out their lives protected from weather and most injury. Large and well-known cat sanctuaries exist in Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Virginia, and several places in California. Others are being built and operated by individuals and organizations on small and moderate scales similar to other sanctuaries, as described by Winter. This is happening simply because people sense it is the right thing to do. Hopefully, we can all agree this is one thing that truly serves the welfare of both cats and wildlife.” 
However, this is the same article in which Jessup alleges—without so much as a single reference to support him—that there are “60–100 million feral and abandoned cats in the United States.”  Clearly, there isn’t nearly enough sanctuary space for the number of cats; in fact, sanctuaries are “another option” for only a tiny fraction of the stray, abandoned, and feral cats out there (even when more accurate estimates are considered).
Indeed, in their contribution to AVMA’s 2004 Animal Welfare Forum, Julie Levy and Cynda Crawford suggest as much: “most sanctuary programs that permanently house feral cats are filled to capacity almost immediately after opening.” 
And yet, years later, sanctuaries are still being marketed as alternatives to TNR. The ABC, for example, echoes Winter’s 2004 comments in its brochure “Managed” Cat Colonies: The Wrong Solution to a Tragic Problem, and in its short film Trap, Neuter, and Release: Bad for Cats, Disaster for Birds. In the film, produced last year, Steve Holmer, the ABC’s Director of Public Relations, suggests:
“A better solution is to trap, neuter, and remove feral cats, and then relocate them to enclosed cat sanctuaries or shelters, or to adopt them out to safe and comfortable homes.”
Sanctuaries: The Realities and Impacts
Alley Cat Allies opposes sanctuaries for feral cats, citing as concerns the inherent economic and medical challenges, as well as the overall lack of capacity—factors that too often prove insurmountable:
“A number of sanctuaries are forced to close their doors every year due to insufficient funds or an inability to properly care for the cats in the existing confined space.”
FLOCK was a case study, demonstrating in horrific detail that the sanctuary option—even when it’s available—is not always in the best interest of the cats. As one of my Best Friends contacts who was involved in the FLOCK clean-up effort told me, “I’ve got one of the Pahrump cats… I would rather see that cat back on the streets of Vegas, looking for food in Dumpsters, than be where they were at FLOCK.”
Indeed, the FLOCK story is all too familiar to people involved in such large-scale rescue efforts. Consider some of the more dramatic—and therefore “story-worthy”—incidents in recent years:
- Voice of the Animals Sanctuary (Blanchard, ID, 2006)
“Disaster responders from The HSUS, working alongside the Idaho Humane Society, found more than 400 cats, and a number of dogs, goats and chickens. Many were in extremely poor health and had to be euthanized.”
“The animals were housed in and around nine dilapidated mobile homes on the property, according to published reports. Inside the trailers, investigators found that the walls were soaked in urine and the floors caked with feces and filth. Veterinarian and IHS executive director Dr. Jeff Rosenthal described the cats as all being ‘infested with fleas and ear mites. The majority were also in an emaciated state and suffered with upper respiratory illnesses, chronic diarrhea and abscesses,’ among other ailments.” (source: www.Pet-Abuse.com)
- Tiger Ranch (Tarentum, PA, 2008)
“All told, 380 living cats and 106 dead ones were discovered during a police raid at Tiger Ranch in Frazer Township, which owner and operator Linda Bruno billed as a pet adoption center and Hospice. Since then, many of the cats have died.”
“‘It’s a death camp,’ said [Howard] Nelson [director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania SPCA, which orchestrated the raid], speaking by cell phone as he helped gather emaciated and diseased cats crammed into trailers and other outbuildings across the 30-acre property. ‘I see cats that can’t walk, and dead cats in litter boxes and lying by food bowls.’” (source: www.Pet-Abuse.com)
- Cats with No Name (Pine Grove Township, PA, 2009)
“SPCA volunteer Beth Hall said the condition the 148 cats and 10 other animals were found in was unspeakable. ‘Our opinion is that it was heinous. In my opinion, it was like a kitty concentration camp,’ she said. ‘We just don’t understand.’ Mary Ellen Smith, president of the Steinert SPCA board, said the animals were subjected to ‘obvious cruelty and neglect.’”
In addition, the couple responsible was “accused of stockpiling donated cat food and reselling some of it at auctions to finance drug binges while leaving dozens of animals to go hungry.” (source: www.Pet-Abuse.com)
- 10th Life Sanctuary (LaBelle, FL, 2009)
“The final statistics tell a story of success and sadness. The closure of the 10th Life Sanctuary represents one of the largest cat rescues in US history. A total of 110 cats were euthanized in the first days of medical triage due to critical medical illnesses, including 17 that were euthanized immediately following the unannounced inspection. Of the remaining 485 cats, 75 of the ferals were euthanized when new placements could not be found for them. This 15% euthanasia rate for the savable cats is in stark contrast to the vast majority of large-scale feline cruelty impoundments in which mass euthanasia is the most common outcome.” (source: Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida)
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To be clear, I’m not opposed to sanctuaries as such. Indeed, I’m a supporter of Best Friends and Shadow Cats Rescue. What I am opposed to is sanctuaries being oversold—generally to an audience that has no knowledge of such matters—as a viable alternative to TNR. To suggest anything of the sort is, at best, disingenuous. Sanctuaries are no more an alternative to TNR than zoos are to the protection of endangered species.
1. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369-1376.
2. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383.
3. Barrows, P.L., “Professional, ethical, and legal dilemmas of trap-neuter-release.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1365-1369.
4. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219
5. Levy, J.K. and Crawford, P.C., “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1354-1360.