Big Love for Small Cats

By Becky Robinson, Founder of Alley Cat Allies


Those of us who love the majesty of big cats often find ourselves mesmerized by footage of tigers, pumas, and lions going about their daily lives. We are fascinated by their agility, speed, instincts, and behaviors. It’s easy to see the similarities big cats share with their smaller, domestic cousins in our homes. Pound for pound, both have tremendous strength, wonder, and grace. Anyone who shares their life with a cat can agree that domestic cats carry the same independent streak that we see in big cats.

Despite these, and many more, similarities, big cats and the smaller cats who live among us are often seen very differently in the public eye. Yet when we apply the same scientific lens that we use for big cats to the domestic cat species, Felis catus, we can benefit from some dramatically changed perspectives.

Cats in the Landscape

Small cats have always had a place in the natural landscape. As cat behavior expert John Bradshaw wrote, “Cats still have three out of four paws firmly planted in the wild, and within only a few generations can easily revert to the independent way of life that was the exclusive preserve of their predecessors some 10,000 years ago.”

The ancestors of Felis catus first settled alongside humans in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. As ancient human civilization began amassing stores of grain, the grain attracted rodents, which in turn attracted cats. Since then, cats have traveled the world with humans, living side-by-side with us, most living self-sufficient lives outdoors. Today, we often refer to these outdoor cats, who don’t always rely on or seek close companionship with people, as feral or community cats.

Cats in our homes, by contrast, is a modern phenomenon. Only with the advent of spaying and neutering, and the arrival of kitty litter just 70 years ago, did it become practical for cats to live inside with us full time. However, the history of cats makes it very clear that it is just as natural for Felis catus to live outside as it is for lions and tigers, or closer to home, for squirrels, raccoons, and birds.

Food and Survival

All cats choose to live near food and shelter. Just as big cats such as lions move to follow their food, Felis catus gravitates toward the food sources that are available near human developments, as they did with ancient settlements thousands of years ago.[i]

So it is no surprise that studies have shown feral cats eat discarded food, bugs, and small rodents. When cats hunt, their successes are limited to animals who are convenient and easy to catch.[ii] The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds finds that birds who are caught are most often “weak or sickly” individuals. Predation is a normal process in nature that biologists explain plays a part in strengthening the prey species’ gene pool by ensuring the fittest survive to procreate.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about what impact outdoor cats might have on wildlife populations. It’s important to remember that Felis catus has been a part of the outdoors for thousands of years. In fact, a brief examination of history shows the removal of cats from ecosystems – something that is impossible to do in large terrains but has been done at great expense on a handful of small islands – can cause more harm than good to other species.

The main threats to all species on our planet are habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, and other human activities. The solutions to these problems rest in our hands. We humans need to adjust our behavior if we wish to see extinctions decrease. Condemning Felis catus ignores the real causes of species loss, reveals a disturbing ignorance of the long-standing symbiotic relationship between outdoor cats and human civilization, and betrays a startling lack of understanding of the feeding habits of outdoor cats. As noted conservationist Dr. William Lynn points out, “…even the most ardent supporter of rewilding should admit that it is human beings who bear direct moral responsibility for the ongoing loss of biodiversity in our world. A war on cats ignores their intrinsic value, wrongly blames them for mistakes of our own making, and fails to adequately use nonlethal measures to manage cats and wildlife.” 

Arbutus Maryland Colony_0001

Toward Enlightened Public Policy

Accepting that cats around the world live outside with limited human contact is key to understanding and helping these animals. Just as many kind people feed birds to help them through winter, so, too, do others offer food and shelter for outdoor cats.

People can further help cats through Trap-Neuter-Return. TNR is a process in which cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their outdoor homes. Many communities have found that TNR stabilizes cat populations in areas of concern, stops cats from breeding, decreases euthanasia rates at shelters, reduces the number of calls of concern about cats that local governments receive, and saves taxpayer money. Even for those who are not interested in feral cats, this last point – saving taxpayer dollars – is a compelling reason to support TNR. TNR also keeps cats from being killed simply because they are unsocialized to humans and therefore unadoptable. For these reasons, communities increasingly conclude TNR consistently produces the best results among all options available to coexist with community cats.

One approach that has repeatedly failed is catching and killing outdoor cats. After more than 100 years of catch-and-kill policies across America, an ever-growing number of cities and counties have moved on and have no interest in going backward. In Washington, D.C., for example, the City Paper (September 15, 2015) reported on a controversial, regressive wildlife plan proposed by a city agency: “…Washington Humane Society’s vice president of external affairs, Scott Giacoppo, wrote that the Wildlife Action Plan as proposed ‘would result in the rounding up and killing of feral cats – essentially a reversal back to the animal policies of the 1800s that were ultimately proven to have no impact on the population at all.’” In December 2016, in response to extensive public pressure and strenuous objections by the city’s animal control agency, the D.C. City Council voted unanimously to remove language from the wildlife plan implementation bill that would have allowed the Department of Energy and Environment to eradicate feral cats.

Here to Stay

When cats are removed from an ecosystem in a catch-and-kill program, neighboring cats move in to take advantage of the food and shelter. These new cats reproduce and the population rebounds. This is called the vacuum effect. Catching and killing cats is an endless cycle that is a waste of money. Millions of cats are killed year after year, yet feline populations persist. The resounding failure of this approach throughout time has been a major driver across America to find more effective and humane approaches. Thus far, TNR is the best we have found.

More importantly, this is a compassionate country whose people don’t want cats rounded up and killed. Some wildlife advocates, and even a few misguided animal right activists, call for the extermination of outdoor cats, but these calls are grossly out of steps with American public opinion. In a 2007 Harris Interactive poll, more than 80 percent of Americans indicated they believe leaving a stray cat outside to live out her life is more humane than having the cat caught and killed. When calls are made to round up and kill massive numbers of cats, time and again society balks. Peter Marra and Chris Santella, in their book, Cat Wars, admit as much in their assessment of the lack of political support for rounding up and killing cats, concluding, “American authorities remain resistant (if not heartily opposed) to the idea of managing free-ranging populations by lethal means.”[iii]

Our discomfort with government catch-and-kill policies for cats is compounded as we become aware that this lethal method is grossly ineffective. More and more cities and counties across the nation have come to see that cats are part of the fabric of the modern American landscape. Increasingly, TNR programs are recognized as a mainstream approach to managing the cohabitation of cats and humans in shared ecosystems.

Every cat, big and small, should be valued and protected. We strive for a world where all domestic cats have a safe community in which to live, including those whose homes are outdoors.


[i] Fitzgerald, B. Mike and Dennis Turner. “Hunting behavior of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations.” In The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behavior, 2nd Ed., Turner, Dennis C. and Patrick Bateson eds. (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2000) 164.

[ii] Fitzgerald, B. Mike and Dennis Turner, pp. 151-175.

[iii] Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella. 2016. Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 106.

Cat name: Burt
Cat name: Burt

Alley Cat Allies is the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the humane treatment of cats. Learn more at

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  1. Phyllis Prather
    March 31, 2:33 am

    Thank you so much Becky,I had all 28 feral cats I was taking care of tnr in my neighborhood,they are all well fed in my back yard now and animal allies and look homeward kitty helped this happen.I love all cats and thank God for all you do for them.

  2. Phyllis Prather
    United States
    March 31, 2:29 am

    Thank you so much Becky,I had all 28 feral cats I was taking care of tnr in my neighborhood,they are all well fed in my back yard now and animal allies and look homeward kitty helped this happen.I love all cats and thank God for all you do for them.these people that want to kill these precious creatures have no soul.

  3. Carol
    March 28, 8:55 pm

    TNR works, but I’m a failure at it. I did the TN, but could not do the R. The no-kill shelter was going to put up for adoption when socialized, but at the shelter she curled up in corner of cage and hid her face, barely ate. After two weeks of same, they called me to come get her. I now have an addition to my family and she’s doing great. Guess she was already in her forever home after all.

  4. Sandra Hoover
    March 28, 7:38 pm

    IF TNR worked, it wouldn’t take 20-25 years for the colonies to disappear. I wonder why no one in this thread has talked about the diseases feral cats carry – TOXOPLASMOSIS first and foremost. This parasite infects the majority of loose cats and is transmittable to humans where it is now implicated in health issues ranging from schizophrenia to blindness and other neurological diseases. A very ‘smart’ parasite, studies have shown that rats with the parasite lose their fear of cats and are attracted to the smell of cat urine, making them easy prey, and completing the parasite’s life cycle. Makes one suspicious, perhaps those most vocal about saving the poor feral cats are already infected with Toxo… just curious that in spite of GOOD studies showing ineffectiveness of TNR, that people persist in saying it works.

  5. Kristin Stanley
    West Texas
    March 28, 10:09 am

    Thank you Becky for this wonderful article. I learned everything I know about feral cats/community cats from Alley Cat Allies. I reached out to them in 2002 when I first began to manage my first colony. Through TNR, attrition and adoption, I have reduced my first colony of 29 cats to zero – even with an additional 28 cats being dumped at the colony. At a local university, a 37 year trend was to trap and kill which was expensive, time consuming and heartbreaking for students and employees who loved the cats and fed them. In addition, we would have a rodent infestation shortly after the removal before the new unaltered, unvaccinated cats moved in. One rodent infestation caused over $40,000 to the administration building. Five years ago, I proposed a TNR program to the administration, and we implemented a TNRM program supported by and funded by faculty and staff. We have reduced the population by 65%, achieved 100% sterilization, prevented 64 litters and 4,000 kittens and subsequent litters, and adopted 77 of the kittens/cats that could be socialized or resocialized into homes. Campus facilities is grateful to our work because they no longer have to spend an inordinate amount of time trapping and removing cats. Cats are no longer a nuisance and no longer try to get into buildings. And they help control the squirrel population that destroyed the wiring in our fleet of vehicles – saving the university thousands of dollars a year. It is a daily and long term effort to maintain the colony, but the cats are healthy, vaccinated, and no longer produce. TNR is the only humane and effective solution – saving thousands of taxpayer dollars each year. Cats are amazing creatures that deserve to live.

  6. Bernard Brown
    United States
    March 27, 8:49 pm

    It’s hard to know where to start with all the weak arguments and evidence in this article, but why not with the cited vacuum effect? The article cited a study of bandicoots, not cats. If cats exhibited the kind of territoriality the vacuum effect depends on, you wouldn’t be able to concentrate them in colonies. As for the failure of catch and kill, I’d love to see a rigorous study comparing catch and kill to TNR. Can anyone cite one? Last point for now – the point re cats catching weak or sickly birds (implying they’re not a threat to healthy animals) links to a UK blog post, not to a study showing that the (billions of) animals killed are in some way less healthy than average. Please cite a study dealing with North America that demonstrates that point, since it is pivotal to the post’s argument.

  7. Margaret W.
    March 27, 7:31 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Becky. I am a member of Alley Cat Allies and strongly support TNR .

  8. Karl Gerds
    United States
    March 27, 12:42 pm

    Thanks for a great piece, Becky and Alley Cat Allies. The straightforward truth alongside compassion must win out!

  9. Alice Sands
    March 27, 12:29 pm

    This whole blog is so full of misinformation that it makes me question the review process at Cat Watch and the integrity of National Geographic.

    1. Cats are a natural part of the landscape.
    False. The domestic cat (Felis catus) is a domesticated species and is a non-native species. This distinct species, separate from its wild ancestors, has subsequently been introduced into new environments across the globe by people and is now one of the most harmful invasive species globally.

    2. Cat predation on wildlife is natural.
    False. Again, cats are a domesticated species introduced into new environments by people. These introductions have contributed to the extinction of 63 species. No matter how badly you want it, cats and their predation on native wildlife is NOT natural.

    3. Cat impacts to wildlife are trivial compared to humans.
    False. Actually, cat impacts to wildlife are a part of the human impact on the planet, and it makes no sense to ignore cats just because there are other issues as well. Cats kill 2.4 billion birds in the United States and are the number one direct source of human-caused mortality to birds in the U.S. and Canada. This cannot be ignored.

    4. TNR is the answer.
    False. TNR is a sham that sacrifices wildlie and public health just so some people can feel good about feeding stray cats. It isn’t effective and just contributes to the harm caused by these invasive predators. If someone wants to host a colony of feral animals in their backyard, go for it, but don’t impose them upon the rest of us.

    Finally, I want to state that cats are great pets but do not belong roaming outdoors. Put your cat on a leash or keep it in your yard. Remove the stray and feral animals for the safety of all.

  10. Lindsey Fry
    Wichita, KS
    March 27, 10:25 am

    TNR is THE answer!!! Trap and kill is not and the archaic thinking behind this needs to move on to a method that works and does not involve KILLING. In a perfect world, all cats would be safe inside but this is reality and we need to handle it as such. The goal of TNR and any animal rescue is to work yourself out of a job and TNR is the way to do it. For those that argue against it, it is pathetic and sad that you are pro-killing when there is an alternative way. Until everyone is RESPONSIBLE and spays and neuters their cats and communities TNR their community cats, cats will exist outdoors but wouldn’t you rather TNR them than kill them when it is humans’ fault in the first place?????

  11. Phoenix Von Hendy
    Poway, CA
    March 26, 5:01 pm

    Thank you, Becky, for your wonderful article, and thanks to National Geographic Society for this blog site. As a cat lover who is also an ardent conservationist, I see multiple sides to this issue, but as Becky so eloquently points out, we need to stop blaming feral cats, and other critters, for problems that have really been caused by human beings. My pet cats – who have all been adopted strays or shelter cats – are always indoors, and I do wish people who have pet cats would keep them inside where they are safe and will not be killing birds and reptiles. Feral cats have no such option, and outdoor cats in general should not be persecuted for their take of wildlife as it is a minuscule fraction of the take caused by people. TNR works, and I strongly support the work of Alley Cat Allies and others who care for feral cats.

  12. christine mcclure
    March 25, 10:54 pm

    i have one question though is there a reason only the left ear is clipped? I am just curious if right or left may mean male or female. from time to time we get visited by some ot the cats and i was curious if we can tell if cat is male or female by the clipped ear. Both cats i have seen have the left ear clipped.

  13. christine mcclure
    March 25, 10:51 pm

    Huge thanks to you all for TNR!!!!

  14. Kakaako
    Honolulu, HI
    March 25, 6:49 pm

    What a wonderful, informative article! Anyone who’s had experience with TNR knows that it works and is the only logical and humane alternative to feral cat overpopulation. Trying to persuade some people of this reality is a continuing struggle. For example, right now, Hilton’s Hawaii vacation resorts are starving and killing their community cats. Local rescues and volunteers practiced TNR (and M!) on those properties for over a decade. But now, Hilton has banned helpers (including timeshare owners and guests!) from feeding and has even threatened them with fines and/or arrest. Please see (and sign!) this petition:

  15. betty herndon
    nashville, tn.
    March 25, 4:58 pm

    I support Trap Neuter Return and Alley Cat Allies great work. I am an active cat rescuer!

  16. V. Calkins
    San Jose, CA
    March 25, 4:19 am

    This is an example of figuring out ways to accomplish a goal without causing harm to individuals or the environment. One of our greatest failings is our tendency to choose killing others as the solution to problems. Killing whomever is inconvenient to us – humans and animals – is NOT an intelligent option; we can do better!

  17. julie Stanczak
    United States
    March 24, 10:26 pm


  18. Mary Chione
    United States
    March 24, 8:38 pm

    To the lady who mandates that cats be indoors, TNR gives outdoor cats an “indoors.” Each of my spoiled rotten colony cats has his/her own clean, straw-stuffed shelter of 2-inch-thick Styrofoam, wrapped in weatherproof material & lined with a shiny heat reflecting material. In the recent nor’easter that dumped upwards of 20″ of snow & ice on NY, they were safe AND warm with 18-hour body warmers to snuggie up to inside their shelters. When they came out to greet me for feeding after the storm, their fur was warm. That means they WERE indoors.

    This level of care changes these animals. Without the violence & depletion of reproductuve pressures, with vaccinations & flea & tick control, regular excellent feedings, and necessary vet care, they become much more like indoor cats. They don’t fight or scavenge; they stay home or close to home. They form bonds with each other. Even the most frighteningly aggressive males tone down over time. And as for predation, well, my cats live in a wilderness area and they do hunt, mostly rodents and also snakes & birds. But we are in New York City, and here, the single greatest killer of wild birds is not cats. It is the New York skyscraper, each one of which kills thousands of birds each year. And without prejudice, I should note that a pre-eminent owner of NYC skyscrapers is our current president,whose buildings are characteristically mirror glass.

    When I review my years doing TNR, I am blown away by the effectiveness of my efforts, not only in curtailing colony populatuon growth, but in releasing each of my little characters from the prison of mere reproduction & survival to be the delightful personalities they have become.

  19. B A S
    March 24, 5:53 pm


  20. B A S
    March 24, 5:51 pm

    I have been doing TNR for a couple of years and it is the best program ever. It cuts down on unwanted kittens and male cat fighting. The part that people fail to realize is that the overpopulation of cats is due to either uneducated people that don’t spay/neuter their cats or simply laziness on the human’s part. Cats didn’t ask for this kind of life, humans gave it to them.

  21. Stacey Carver
    March 24, 5:31 pm

    For those of you against TNR, you need to be angry with the humans that keep treating cats like they’re disposable and throw them out on the streets. That’s where it all starts. Don’t be angry with those of us trying to clean up and rectify the problem with TNR, the best, proven way possible at this point. Until you can stop the horrible humans that dump cats, this problem is going to continue. TNR is the best possible option for truly feral cats.

  22. Carol Morissette
    United States
    March 24, 5:14 pm

    I do TNR in my area and find that TNR is a fantastic program. It has drastically reduced the cat population in my area. Cats are wonderful creatures, thank you for this article and for giving a voice to the cats.

  23. Melissa R. Smith
    Sugar Hill, GA
    March 24, 5:04 pm

    I totally believe in the work of Alley Cat Allies. Their mission is to give feral cats the homes they deserve where they can live happily and thrive. I fully support all that they do!

  24. Beth
    March 24, 4:27 pm

    Fantastic article! TNR works!

  25. William Quiterio
    March 22, 4:45 am

    @ Michael Miller.

    However undesirable the T. Gondii parasite may be, there are a couple things to keep in mind:

    1. It has not been sufficient to reverse a generally positive trend regarding Hawaiian monk seal populations; their numbers are currently increasing.

    2. Wild cat populations seem just as capable of spreading the parasite as domestic cat populations.

  26. Christine Harris
    March 16, 10:57 pm

    Great post, Becky, and I’ve seen the evidence. Those of us who love wildlife should know this isn’t an either/or issue. Humane community cat control outlined really works. It’s an essential component of the No Kill Equation endorsed and being implemented by a growing number of groups, cities, shelters and humane societies, like the Nova Scotia SPCA. Kudos to everyone. Thank you for helping those in need and helping to put TNR and the other proven effective services and programs in place.

  27. Carolyn Bibb
    March 15, 5:39 pm

    Thank you Becky for a well written piece detailing the commensality of cats and humans. I have TNVRed many cats myself and have seen first hand the difference that this humane approach to dealing with feral cat overpopulation makes. A managed colony of neutered and vaccinated cats is healthier and can play a role in controlling the rat population which is known to eat bird eggs. Having said that, I can understand the concerns of some bird and wildlife advocates, especially when it comes to ecologically sensitive, more pristine areas. In those places, a humane relocation approach should be preferable. I love birds and am concerned about wildlife destruction as well. Here is an example of how bird lovers and cat lovers have managed to find common ground and work together. In the long run, we really want the same thing.

  28. Ali
    March 15, 2:45 pm

    After reading the thoughtful comments left by Louise B. & Michael Miller, my question would be: “If you don’t want ‘domestic’ cats outside, then what is the alternative or solution?”

    Keep in mind that as many as one out of every two cats in the United States may be considered feral or unowned.*

    We are all animal lovers here. There’s no need to be in opposition. Let’s talk about solutions!

    *According to Alley Cat Allies

  29. Louise B.
    United States
    March 15, 1:08 pm

    I love cats – indoors! Feral cats do not belong in our ecosystem here, or in most of the world. Cats belong indoors. TNR is a sadly misdirected, inaccurately promoted, harmful program.

  30. Gayle
    March 14, 4:05 pm

    TNR is a fantastic program. It has drastically reduced the cat population at the jersey shore (where people just drop off cats they don’t want). Cats are wonderful creatures, thank you for this article and for giving a voice to the precious cats.

    United States
    March 14, 10:18 am

    Ms. Robinson’s free-roaming cats are killing Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian geese (Nene), and Hawaiian crows (Alala) with their toxoplasma gondii parasite, which can only complete its life cycle in the gut of a cat.

  32. Kristi Baker
    Kingsport, TN
    March 13, 11:35 pm

    Thank you! This is a comprehensive, very well written article! If all communities and animal shelters would read this, learn from it, and take it to heart (especially the TNR of many unadoptable cats that have never been socialized to humans and the provision of low cost spay/neuter), it would save so many cat lives. It would dramatically decrease the amount of homeless cats. It would prevent the needless stress and suffering of millions of cats in shelters before they are ultimately euthanized. And it would save an untold amount of tax dollars.

  33. Catherine
    United States
    March 13, 10:31 pm

    Bravo – thanks so much for this educational introduction to the symbiotic relatoinships – one of mutual advantage, but often no direct contact – between unowned, outdoor cats and human society. Ten thousand years later, it’s neat to see the basic equation and dynamics intact. As more people grow to understand that cats can and do live successfully outside completely without human contact – just as squirels, chipmucks, and dozens of other creatures do, the more clear it will be that calls to kill them for their own good are based on a deep misunderstanding of the species and its capacities. given the massive public opposition to rounding up and killing cats, i’m surprised this old chestnut of an idea continues to get any play whatsoever. the smart money – the only viable path forward really – has to be on politically palitable solutions. in the cause of outdoor cats, this translates into solutions that are non-lethal.

  34. Bob Rude
    Harwood, MD
    March 13, 7:36 pm

    You nailed it Becky. Time for all the opposition to TNR to join forces with us to make a much larger impact on the community cat over population. It is a humane problem and needs a humane solution. Thanks for speaking for those that can’t.

  35. Lisa Walcott-Moreley
    March 11, 2:27 pm

    Thank you for a sane, well written article. I agree all cats should be valued and protected.