Just four years after Beijing’s brutal roundup of the city’s cats—feral, stray, and pets alike—in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, the number of cats on the streets is once again raising concerns. “Somewhere between 500,000 and 5 million feral cats are skulking through its courtyard houses, construction sites, and gated apartment complexes, braving the city’s bitter cold winters and raging traffic,” writes Debra Bruno on The Atlantic’s Cities blog. “Their lives are nasty, brutish, and short.”
“And in a densely populated city like Beijing, the rise in the number of feral cat colonies is not especially welcome. The cats’ nighttime howls keep people awake. They smell. They prey on the Asian magpie and the Siberian weasel, sometimes known as the ‘hutong weasel,’ a ferret-like creature that looks a little like a cute red panda. The cats tend to prefer a perch on the BMWs of the city’s nouveau riche.”
Bruno’s population “estimate” strikes me as little more than a misinformed guess—about as credible as her observation that these cats prefer Beemers. (Commenter Jessica Rapp, who lives in Beijing, isn’t buying the numbers either.) In a February, 2008 story, The Times suggested there were “at least 200,000” unowned cats in the city, citing as its source the Capital Animal Welfare Association, a Beijing-based partner of Humane Society International.  Bruno’s credibility is further eroded when she refers to Mother Jones’ “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” as if it lived up to the magazine’s commitment to “smart, fearless journalism.”
On the other hand, Bruno’s exactly right when she writes: “groups like the Audubon Society claim that TNR has not proven to be effective in eliminating the population of feral cats anywhere.” (The claim itself, of course, is both factually incorrect and highly misleading.)
The timing here is interesting, though. In January, Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland—who attracted national attention when he began working with local TNR groups—told the Portland Tribune: “I don’t think rounding up feral cats and killing them is going to solve it better.”
But, back to Beijing’s cats…
Actual Nasty, Brutal, Short Lives
According to CNN.com, Beijing’s animal welfare activists had hoped the Olympic Games would be “a perfect catalyst in expanding animal rights.” Instead, “the authorities… stepped up their campaigns against animals—pets and strays alike—aimed at ‘cleaning up’ the city for the Games.”  Among the numerous horrific reports was an instance of 30 cats—90 percent of which were sterilized—being sealed in a “basement with cement because of health and safety concerns during the Games.” 
In its investigation of Beijing’s pre-Olympics “clean-up,” the UK’s Daily Mail reported:
“Thousands of pet cats in Beijing are being abandoned by their owners and sent to die in secretive government pounds as China mounts an aggressive drive to clean up the capital in preparation for the Olympic Games. Hundreds of cats a day are being rounded and crammed into cages so small they cannot even turn around. Then they are trucked to what animal welfare groups describe as death camps on the edges of the city. The cull comes in the wake of a government campaign warning of the diseases cats carry and ordering residents to help clear the streets of them.”
When the Daily Mail tried to visit two of the holding facilities, they were refused entry.
“‘No one can come in without official papers,’ staff shouted from behind padlocked steel gates. At another, larger compound in Da Niu Fang village, the sound of cats wailing could be clearly heard coming from a cluster of tin-roofed sheds, but workers denied they were holding any cats. ‘There are no cats here, go away. No one is allowed inside unless you have official permission,’ a security guard said.”
Apparently, the fear among the public bordered on—indeed, in some cases, turned into—hysteria. “The most striking illustration of the city-wide fear of cats,” reports the Daily Mail’s Simon Perry, took place at a kindergarten, where six strays, including two pregnant females, “were beaten to death with sticks by teachers.”
“We did it out of love for the children,” explained one teacher. “We were worried the cats might harm them. These six cats had been hanging around the kindergarten looking for food.” 
TNR Comes to Beijing
These days, however, some in Beijing are adopting TNR—and pushing for others to do the same. “Peng, a Chinese-American native New Yorker who has lived in Beijing for the last 20 years,” writes Bruno, “has taken on the mission of convincing Beijing’s residents that [TNR is] the best solution to the feral cat population.”
“‘What are my alternatives?’ asks Peng. As Beijing itself learned in the recent past, she argues, cities that try to exterminate cats often just find that a new cat colony eventually moves into an area where an old one had been taken away. Not to mention, the mass killing of adorable kittens is a tough sell in any society.”
While Bruno suggests that Peng’s efforts are “a drop in the bucket,” I see things rather differently. Indeed, given the recent population increase, Beijing may be the best argument yet for TNR. After all, the alternative has been shown to be remarkably ineffective. Costly, too, I’m sure.
One wonders how the lessons learned in Beijing will be “interpreted” here in the U.S.—where The Wildlife Society, American Bird Conservancy, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, continue to oppose TNR, in favor of the roundup of stray, abandoned, and feral cats.
Too much will, I fear, be lost in translation.
1. Macartney, J. (2008). Cats are out as Beijing starts to preen itself. The Times, p. 4.
2. Jiang, S. (2008, August 4). An animal lover’s Olympic nightmare. CNN.com, from http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/08/03/oly.beijjingcats/
3. Perry, S. (2008, March 12). Olympics clean-up Chinese style: Inside Beijings shocking death camp for cats. Daily Mail, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-528694/Olympics-clean-Chinese-style-Inside-Beijings-shocking-death-camp-cats.html