Thanks a Million (Cat Challenge)!

Maybe I’m being naïve, but yesterday’s launch of the Million Cat Challenge felt like something historic—as if we’ve entered into a new era of animal sheltering where cats are concerned. This ambitious campaign promises to be a game-changer not just for the million cats it aims to save (over the next five years), but for sheltering itself.

As I say, maybe I’m being naïve,* but there’s good reason to think the Million Cat Challenge will fulfill its promise. To begin with, just consider the people behind it: Dr. Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, and Dr. Kate Hurley, program director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis.

These two women are, simply put, rock stars in their field. Which helps explain the funding and other support** the campaign attracted even before yesterday’s big announcement.

Then there’s the mission—wildly ambitious, sure, but hardly impossible. Indeed, one of the Challenge’s greatest strengths is its grounding in “five key initiatives,” each of which has, as the website explains, “the potential to create major impact and offer choices for shelters of any size, budget, or intake type.”

It’s also remarkably easy for shelters to get involved. Using feline intake, euthanasia, and live release data for 2012 as a baseline, each shelter provides an estimate of how many cats can be saved through 2018. Yearly reporting will be used to update the Million Cat Count.

Still, saving one million cats over five years may not, in itself, dramatically change sheltering. (After all, shelter deaths in the U.S. have decreased by more than 400,000 each year, on average, over the past 30 years or so.) Beyond the lives saved, though, the Million Cat Challenge is offering a broader challenge—to the animal welfare community, policymakers, and the general public—as each of its five key initiatives questions our “conventional wisdom” about sheltering cats.

Return-to-field, in particular, promises to make some advocates uncomfortable. It’s one thing to sterilize, vaccinate, and return “feral” cats, the argument goes, but returning friendly cats is another matter. I won’t get into the merits of such programs here, but simply suggest that this is a conversation whose time has come.

And thanks to the Million Cat Challenge, we’ll now be having this conversation—and many others—on an unprecedented scale (and, I hope, with an unprecedented urgency). All of which will likely mean even more lives saved.

* After all, I still think scientists writing in peer-reviewed journals are obligated to read the papers they cite—this despite a rather astonishing number of examples demonstrating that the failure to do so is common (and, it seems, unlikely to negatively affect one’s prospects for future publishing and funding opportunities).

** Full disclosure: among the supporting organizations listed on the campaign’s website is Best Friends Animal Society, for whom I’ve worked since May 2013.

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