Bad Medicine

Between 1979 and 2015, more than 13,000 U.S. veterinarians died. At least 398 of them took their own lives. Which, according to recently published research, is 2.1 (for males) to 3.5 (for females) times higher than the suicide rate nationally. Those working with companion animals (as opposed to, say, “food animals”) were among veterinarians most likely to die by suicide [1].

Unfortunately, the study provides no breakdown for shelter medicine vets, who generally see more killing than any of their colleagues other than perhaps those working with the aforementioned “food animals.” It’s not difficult to imagine higher rates of suicides among these veterinarians, certainly—but let’s set that aside for the moment and assume it’s no different from the overall rate for companion animal vets.*

What would happen if TNR opponents had their way—and the killing of healthy cats increased by a factor of 10, 20, or more? 

It’s estimated that about 1.5 million animals are killed annually in U.S. shelters, and generally assumed that more than half of them are cats.

That’s nowhere near enough for TNR opponents. If, like the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, you truly believe that there are up to 80 million unowned, free-roaming cats in the U.S. [2], or, like retired California Department of Fish & Wildlife veterinarian David Jessup, 100 million [3], then the current level of killing simply won’t do.

Indeed, as Travis Longcore, vice-president of Los Angeles Audubon, told KCET in 2013, “managing and controlling unowned, free-roaming cats will require euthanasia.”

“There are not enough shelter spaces, there is not enough sanctuary space. And we have to stand up and be honest. But the thing is something is going to die in this equation.”

As it turns out, though, it’s not just the cats who are going to die—by the tens of millions, if Longcore and his fellow TNR opponents have their way (let’s be honest). How many more veterinarians would take their own lives if the conveyor belt of killing were accelerated to the unprecedented rate necessary to meet this abhorrent demand?

All of which would, it seems, be of great concern to TNR opponents—who, don’t forget, often justify the killing of cats in the name of public health.

Marra, for example, describes outdoor cats as “one of the least understood but most critical public-health challenges of our time,” serious enough to warrant removal “once and for all from the landscape” [4]. George Fenwick, founding president of the American Bird Conservancy, also played the public health card (and, as is typical of this crowd, hid behind their preferred, cowardly euphemism) in a 2013 Baltimore Sun op-ed advocating for an unprecedented level of killing:

“Local governments need to act swiftly and decisively to gather the 30 million to 80 million unowned cats, aggressively seek adoptions, and establish sanctuaries for or euthanize those cats that are not adoptable” [5].

Fire up those conveyor belts, in other words. In which case: what about sanctuaries for the veterinarians we’re asking to do the dirty (endless) work?

* The fact that “Suicide among veterinarians” was published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, whose wishy-washy policy on “free-roaming abandoned and feral cats” only adds fuel to the fire, is both ironic and deeply troubling—but a topic for another time.

Literature Cited

  1. Tomasi, S. E.; Fechter-Leggett, E. D.; Edwards, N. T.; Reddish, A. D.; Crosby, A. E.; Nett, R. J. Suicide among Veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2018, 254 (1), 104–112.
  2. Loss, S. R.; Will, T.; Marra, P. P. The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 2013, 4.
  3. Jessup, D. A. The Welfare of Feral Cats and Wildlife. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2004, 225 (9), 1377–1383.
  4. Marra, P. P.; Santella, C. Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer; Princeton University Press, 2016.
  5. Fenwick, G. H. House Cats: The Destructive Invasive Species Purring on Your Lap. The Baltimore Sun 2013.



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1 Comment

Beautiful work, intelligently written. I own three shelter rescues. I’d like to add some more when I have more housing space. I’m brought to tears when I think of a video I watched online of cats being euthanized. That’s when I started adopting. Thank you for writing about this, and with such passion.

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