Bergen County Animal Shelter’s TNR Program Saves Lives, But Does Not Protect All Animals

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) and Return to Field programs save lives. TNR programs sterilize and return cats to a colony with a human caretaker while Return to Field initiatives also return healthy cats to where the cats were found if no caretaker exists. A recent study of an intensive Return to Field program in Florida found:

  1. Cat intake at shelter decreased by 66% over a two year period
  2. Cat intake and killing at shelter were 3.5 times and 17.5 times higher in places outside of the zip codes where the intensive Return to Field program took place
  3. Dog intake at shelter decreased by a third due to the program increasing community engagement and freeing up shelter resources to help people keep dogs they were considering surrendering to the shelter

Unsurprisingly, many animal advocates believe TNR is “the solution” to ending the killing of healthy and treatable cats in shelters.

In 2014, Kearny animal advocates successfully convinced elected officials to implement TNR. Initially, Mayor Santos opposed TNR and residents worked to change his mind. At the time, I fully supported their courageous effort and was delighted to see them succeed with help from Bergen County Animal Shelter several months later.

Kearny implemented its TNR program around the beginning of 2015 and volunteers have run it for the last two or so years. Under the program, Bergen County Animal Shelter trains caretakers who trap and feed cats and monitor the cat colonies. Bergen County Animal Shelter sterilizes the cats and those costs are included in the municipality’s animal and control sheltering contract fees. Additionally, the program requires caretakers to register colonies with the town’s TNR Committee, keep detailed records, and resolve complaints with residents.

Has Kearny’s TNR program reduced cat intake and killing at the Bergen County Animal Shelter? Did Bergen County Animal Shelter’s TNR program eliminate the killing of Kearny’s healthy and treatable cats and dogs?

Kearny TNR Program Significantly Decreases Cat Intake and Killing

Bergen County Animal Shelter impounded and killed far fewer cats from Kearny after the town enacted TNR. Prior to implementing TNR, Bergen County Animal Shelter impounded 300 stray cats from Kearny during the first 8 months of 2014. Based on Bergen County Animal Shelter’s stray cat data from all of its municipalities in 2015, I estimate the shelter impounded 425 stray cats from Kearny in 2014. Using the shelter’s 40% cat kill rate in 2014, I estimate Bergen County Animal Shelter killed 170 stray cats from Kearny in the year prior to enacting TNR. As a comparison, Bergen County Animal Shelter impounded around 150 stray cats from Kearny and killed 19 of those cats in 2016. Therefore, Bergen County Animal Shelter reduced the number of stray cats it impounded from Kearny by around 275 cats or 65% in 2016 verses 2014. Similarly, Bergen County Animal Shelter killed/euthanized around 151 or 89% fewer cats in 2016 verses 2014. Thus, the Kearny TNR program sharply reduced cat intake at the shelter and saved large numbers of the town’s cats.

Kearny volunteers and Bergen County Animal Shelter worked together to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release large numbers of cats. Specifically, volunteers trapped 205 cats in 2016 and Bergen County Animal Shelter sterilized, vaccinated and released almost all of these animals. Therefore, both TNR volunteers and Bergen County Animal Shelter actively worked together to make the TNR program succeed.

Kearny’s mayor recently wrote a letter to Lyndhurst elected officials touting the program’s success. Specifically, Mayor Santos cited fewer feral cats, reduced nuisance complains, improved public health and improved animal welfare. Kearny’s mayor sent this letter to encourage Lyndhurst lawmakers to enact a similar program in their borough.

TNR Program Fails to Save all of Kearny’s Healthy and Treatable Cats

While Bergen County Animal Shelter’s TNR program significantly reduced cat killing in Kearny, the shelter still kills too many cats from the town. 16% of cats impounded from Kearny in 2016 lost their lives at the Bergen County Animal Shelter. This death rate exceeds the general no kill benchmark of 10% and is twice as high as the 8% goal I use. If I focus just on Kearny cats Bergen County Animal Shelter has to find new homes for (i.e. excluding cats reclaimed by owners and placed into TNR colonies), the shelter killed 20% or 1 in every 5 of these animals. Thus, Bergen County Animal Shelter has not achieved no kill status for Kearny’s cats despite having a successful TNR program.

The table below summarizes the reasons Bergen County Animal Shelter used to kill and euthanize Kearny’s cats. Bergen County Animal shelter cited testing positive for FELV or FIV as a reason for taking the lives of 41% of the Kearny cats it killed. Furthermore, Bergen County Animal Shelter cited behavior/feral for killing another 27% of the cats. The shelter euthanized 18% of the cats due to injuries sustained after being hit by cars. Bergen County Animal Shelter killed/euthanized another 19% of the cats for having upper respiratory and other undefined illnesses.

2016 BCAS Kearny Cats Killed Reasons

Bergen County Animal Shelter used positive FELV and FIV snap tests as an excuse to kill cats. Based on the records I reviewed, none of these cats were hopelessly suffering. As I discussed in a prior blog, many shelters successfully adopt out both FIV and FELV positive cats. Furthermore, both Alley Cat Allies and Neighborhood Cats support neutering and releasing otherwise healthy FIV and FELV positive cats. In addition, these organizations oppose testing and killing for FIV and FELV based on the following reasons:

  1. Tests are unreliable and often positive results relate to a prior vaccination
  2. Spaying/neutering reduces risk of disease transmission
  3. Most cats are asymptomatic
  4. Tests are expensive and divert resources from lifesaving programs
  5. American Association of Feline Practitioners oppose routine killing of FIV and FELV positive cats

Furthermore, Bergen County Animal Shelter killed several cats from Kearny for “behavior” and/or being “feral” despite the shelter having a TNR program in the town.

Cat ID# 20765 was a stray cat impounded from Kearny. After just a single day, Bergen County Animal Shelter tested the cat for FELV and determined he was FELV positive. Despite no documented FELV symptoms or any other medical condition, Bergen County Animal Shelter illegally killed him on the very same day. In addition, the shelter miraculously concluded he was feral after just a single day at the shelter. As a result, Bergen County Animal Shelter violated the state’s 7 day stray hold period and needlessly killed this cat despite having a TNR program in place.

Cat ID# 22471 was a stray “feral” cat with a “possible ear tip” impounded by the Bergen County Animal Shelter. Despite Bergen County Animal Shelter having a TNR program, the shelter killed him 7 days later on the very same day he tested positive for FIV.

22471 Intake Form.jpg

22471 Intake Form 2

22471 Medical Record and Euthanasia Record

Cat ID# 21796 was a cat impounded from the “Isabelle house colony” in Kearny on June 16, 2016. After about two months, Bergen County Animal Shelter killed her for testing positive for FIV. The shelter documented no other medical issues in her records.

Tom was a 1 year old cat from Kearny and was surrendered to the shelter due to his owner moving to a place that did not allow cats. According to the owner, Tom was litter box trained, did not bite even if startled, and was an indoor cat. While Tom did not like to be held or petted, many people adopt cats with “cattitude.” Despite successfully living in a home, Bergen County Animal Shelter evaluated Tom, who was likely stressed adjusting to a shelter environment, just 4 days after arriving at the facility and deemed him aggressive. On the very same day, Bergen County Animal Shelter illegally killed Tom during the 7 day owner surrender protection period. Bergen County Animal Shelter made no effort to socialize Tom despite strong evidence showing a structured program can make many “feral” or “aggressive” cats adoptable. Even if Tom was “aggressive”, Bergen County Animal Shelter could have placed him in a colony. Instead, Bergen County Animal Shelter illegally killed this perfectly healthy cat.

Bergen County Animal Shelter could have attained a no kill level live release rate for Kearny’s cats. If the shelter saved its FIV and FELV positive cats who appeared healthy and treatable and those it deemed “aggressive”, Bergen County Animal Shelter’s death rate would decrease from 16% to 9%. Furthermore, if the shelter saved several other cats that clearly were treatable, Bergen County Animal Shelter could have reduced the Kearny cat death rate to 8% or lower. Thus, Bergen County Animal Shelter’s TNR program did not protect all of Kearny’s healthy and treatable cats.

Bergen County Animal Shelter’s Death Camp for Kearny Dogs

Bergen County Animal Shelter killed Kearny’s homeless dogs at an astronomical rate. 39% of all dogs, 79% of pit bulls and 17% of the other breeds impounded from Kearny during 2016 lost their lives. If we just count the dogs not reclaimed by owners (i.e. dogs the shelter had to find new homes for), 65% of all dogs, 92% of pit bulls and 36% of other breeds lost their lives. Simply put, Bergen County Animal Shelter was more likely to kill dogs from Kearny than find them new homes. Thus, Bergen County Animal Shelter acted more like an exterminator than an animal shelter when it came to Kearny’s homeless dogs.

2016 BCAS Kearny Dog Statistics

Bergen County killed virtually all of these Kearny dogs for so-called “behavior” reasons. The shelter cited “behavior” as the reason for killing 11 or 79% of the 14 dogs killed. Several medical reasons, some of which did not show the dog was hopelessly suffering, were used to justify killing/euthanizing the other 3 dogs.

Kearny Dogs Killed

Dog ID# 19450 was a stray dog brought to the Bergen County Animal Shelter by the Kearny Police Department. The dog’s intake record stated “Nice Dog”, “Friendly” and listed 3 heart signs indicating this was a wonderful animal.

Despite this glowing review of the dog outside of his kennel, Bergen County Animal Shelter decided to kill him 16 days later for “agitated barking” and failing to “display soft friendly behavior” in his kennel. The shelter justified this absurd decision since the dog continued his “agitated barking” after a staff person knelt down and offered a treat. Speaking as someone who dealt with the very same type of dogs at other shelters, barrier reactivity does not mean a dog is aggressive (especially one that is “Nice” and “Friendly”). In fact, the Executive Director of the open admission Humane Society of Fremont County proved even highly aggressive dogs can come around. Furthermore, the dog was sent to an isolation area and given an antibiotic three days after his evaluation suggesting he may have been sick during the evaluation (i.e. which could have caused him to “display agitated barking). Thus, Bergen County Animal Shelter needlessly killed a “nice” and “friendly” dog from Kearny.

19450 Surrender Form.jpg

19450 Surrender Form 2

19450 Evaluation.jpg

19450 Medical Treatment.jpg

19450 Killing Record.jpg

Yaya was a 9 month old dog from Kearny surrendered by her owner due to landlord issues to the Bergen County Animal Shelter. According to Yaya’s owner, Yaya lived with two adults and a child and had no behavioral issues. In fact, Yaya slept in a room next to the owner’s son.

Despite the owner’s positive experience living with Yaya in a real world setting, Bergen County Animal Shelter killed her for behavior reasons. According to Yaya’s initial evaluation on May 10, 2016, Yaya was so scared in the shelter that she “hunched up in a ball.” Furthermore, this evaluation noted Yaya was lactating and possibly being away from her puppies “may be adding to her anxiety.” The evaluation went on to recommend putting a vari kennel (i.e. a dog crate/carrier) in her enclosure to “give her a quieter place to relax.” Yaya’s second evaluation noted the “vari kennel had been removed from her kennel despite recommendations to keep in the kennel.” This second evaluation then condemned Yaya to death and justified it by stating she “growled at a female staff member”, “silently charged the gate” and “stood in front of kennel holding a hard stare.”

Bergen County Animal Shelter provided little to no help to ease Yaya’s obvious stress. First, Bergen County Animal Shelter failed to comply with their own recommendation to keep a dog crate/kennel in Yaya’s enclosure to reduce her anxiety. Furthermore, Bergen County Animal Shelter violated state law, N.J.A.C. 8.23A 1.9(d) requiring shelters provide relief to “animals displaying signs of stress.” N.J.A.C. 8.23A 1.9(d) goes on to state “environmental stress can be mediated through reducing the negative impact of excess noise, smells, visual stimuli, and perceived threats; socialization; exercise; increased privacy; and providing comfort, such as soft bedding.” Therefore, Bergen County Animal Shelter violated state law by failing to help ease the “environmental stress” Yaya endured.

Bergen County Animal Shelter’s killing dogs for kennel stress (i.e. barrier reactivity, cage aggression, etc.) is absurd. As Dogs Playing for Life states, barrier reactivity is “not an accurate indicator of a dog’s social skills.” Volunteers at most animal shelters will tell you how different dog behavior is inside a cage at a stressful shelter and outside in real world situations. In the case of Yaya, we can clearly see she was stressed out in a shelter environment, perhaps exacerbated by being separated from puppies she may have had and her human family. Furthermore, Yaya’s family indicated the dog had no issues living in their home. Instead, Bergen County Animal Shelter should have let Yaya engage in real world situations, such as through socialization outside her kennel and structured play groups as a recent scientific study recommended. Thus, Bergen County Animal Shelter’s killing of Yaya goes against smart sheltering practices and basic common sense.

Yaya Owner Surrender Questionairre 1

Yaya Owner Surrender Questionairre 2

Yaya Evaluation

Yaya Killing Record

After reviewing Bergen County Animal Shelter’s records for the Kearny dogs it took in during 2016, it was quite clear the shelter could have saved at least 95% of these dogs. Instead, Bergen County Animal Shelter took the easy way out and frequently killed Kearny dogs for convenience and cost savings.

TNR Alone Does Not Create No Kill Communities 

Bergen County Animal Shelter’s TNR program in Kearny proves organizations must implement the key No Kill Equation programs to create no kill communities. Certainly, TNR significantly decreased cat killing in Kearny, but many healthy and treatable cats and dogs from Kearny still lost their lives at the Bergen County Animal Shelter. Why? The shelter’s leader lacks a passionate commitment to lifesaving. When the shelter director looks for excuses to kill, such as a “positive” FIV or FELV test on an otherwise healthy cat or a dog stressed out in its kennel, healthy and treatable animals die no matter how good the organization’s TNR program is. Thus, Kearny or any community will never achieve no kill status until its shelter’s leaders become passionate about saving lives and enthusiastically implement the No Kill Equation.

So what should Kearny animal advocates do? First, they should thank Bergen County Animal Shelter and Kearny’s elected officials for embracing TNR. Second, they should encourage the town to consider altering the ordinance to eliminate the mandate to register colonies, as recommended by Alley Cat Allies, since this law punishes TNR practitioners who are doing lifesaving work, but are not able to comply with the ordinance’s burdensome record keeping requirements. Finally, residents should tell their elected officials to pressure Bergen County Animal Shelter to replace the facility’s incompetent shelter director and enthusiastically adopt the No Kill Equation. That is the only way we’ll make Kearny a no kill community.

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