TZI Recommends Shelter Should Not Let You Have Your Lost Cat Back

Cleo, a feral cat who has been vaccinated and neutered, and whose caregiver loves her.  (Photo by Casey Post)
Cleo, a feral cat who has been vaccinated and neutered, and whose caregiver loves her. (Photo by Casey Post)

In August 2013, the Maddie’s Fund Shelter Medicine Program issued a summary of recommendations to the Hillsborough Co pound in FL following a consultation.  The recommendation regarding stray cats was particularly troubling to me since it threatened the bond between people and their lost pets.  From the report:

Eliminate the required hold period for stray cats. Stray cats lacking identification are extremely unlikely to be reclaimed by owners and are at high risk for shelter – acquired disease and euthanasia. Eliminating even a few days in the shelter may be the difference between life and death for them. The shelter can simultaneously have an option for immediate live release paired with a required hold period of 3 days prior to euthanasia.

Not only is Maddie’s Fund failing to attribute a low return to owner rate to its proper source – the pound, it fails to acknowledge one of the primary purposes of municipal shelters:  to reunite lost pets with their owners.

The No Kill Advocacy Center weighed in on the elimination of stray holding periods when HSUS suggested it in its 2013 white paper on California shelters:

[I]f a dog or cat comes in as a stray, and he does not have identification, he can be adopted to someone else immediately without giving his family any time to reclaim him. This is unfair to families who deeply love their animal companions. […] Accidents happen; animals get lost and end up at shelters. Since the choice presented — immediate adoption or sickness/death — is a false one, breaking up families by having them lose all rights in their animal with no reclaim period of any kind appears draconian.

I am deeply opposed to the elimination of holding periods for any pet whose owner might be looking for him. It’s the shelter’s job to treat the bond between pets and their people as sacrosanct. Which is why I was shocked to read that the Target Zero Institute, in its recommendations to the troubled Amarillo pound in TX, has taken the travesty even further. TZI not only recommends eliminating the holding period for stray cats lacking identification but for all cats found outside – including friendly, possibly microchipped pets who may be wearing collars and/or tags and whose owners are searching for them:

The TZI recommends returning outside cats back to their original neighborhoods following sterilization, rabies vaccination and ear tipping. […]TZI recommends returning cats to their ‘outside home’ where they have a food source as evidenced by a healthy body weight. These may be feral cats that cannot be handled or friendly cats found outside.

If Amarillo, or any other municipal shelter, adopts TZI’s barbaric recommendation regarding cats found outdoors, your pet could be turned into the shelter by a cat hating neighbor or anyone at all, or he could simply be trapped by an ACO and, so long as he appears to be “visually healthy”, he would be immediately vaccinated, neutered, ear-tipped and put back on the street. This would happen as a matter of policy – even if you were actively searching for your pet, even if you had microchipped him and even if you had placed a collar and an ID tag on him. If he’s found outside, TZI wants him immediately anesthetized, put through surgery and turned loose in the area where he had gotten lost (or presumably where the cat hating neighbor says he was found).

TZI says in its report that this practice will save money by reducing the number of cats who “have to be cared for, fed and ultimately [killed] in large numbers” at the pound.

No cats “have to be” killed.  Full stop.  If you don’t get that, get out of the shelter consulting business.

All cats impounded by shelters should be immediately – in the field whenever possible – scanned for microchips and checked for ID tags.  No exceptions.  A chip or ID tag should equate with a free ride home from the ACO.  Those cats lacking identification should be photographed and posted online by the facility immediately.  Anyone visiting the shelter looking for a lost pet should be shown every pet in the place as a matter of course.  Reuniting families is part of the job.  It seems to me to be one of the best parts, by the way, and I can’t imagine why anyone who supposedly cares about shelter pets would want to eliminate it.

Now that Maddie’s Fund and HSUS have opened this awful door and TZI has barreled through it with a bulldozer, I can’t help but wonder what’s next.  Will some consultant recommend that shelters stop housing all dogs found outdoors too?  Gee but we can’t turn dogs back out onto the streets, can we?  So what will “have to be” done with them?

I’m not a shelter consultant, just someone who loves pets and believes dogs and cats have a right to live, regardless of their status in the community.  I don’t get paid for my ideas nor do I have any big money backing me behind the scenes.  Here’s my unsolicited recommendation to shelters and their staff, for what it’s worth:  Do your jobs.  Stop looking for ways to avoid the hard work of sheltering by bringing in big money consultants.  You are accountable to the local taxpayers who pay your salaries and who love their pets.  Start acting like it.

(Thanks Clarice for the link.)

32 thoughts on “TZI Recommends Shelter Should Not Let You Have Your Lost Cat Back

  1. I wonder — If I have my vet ear-tip all my indoor-only cats, will that at least save them a trip to a non-sheltering shelter?

    1. TZI oddly makes no mention of ear-tipped cats, just as they fail to mention chipped cats and ID tagged cats. According to TZI, if the cat is found outdoors, it goes.

    2. My shelter regularly killed ear-tipped cats. I’m not even certain that they knew what the ear tip meant…they certainly made no distinction between tipped and non-tipped cats.

    3. BTW, my ferals are not tipped, but they are microchipped. Fat lot of good that would do them if no one is checking for a chip, though…

      We just had a cat at a shelter whose owner was found via diligent networking. The cat had been missing for five weeks. And while the shelter does take photos of every cat that comes in, they do not post those photos publicly – a local advocate gets those photos and posts them (I’m not sure how this happens). The whole “cats have a notoriously low RTO rate” BS has a number of factors, but one of the biggest is that the shelters make NO EFFORT to RTO cats. The implication is that cat owners love their animals less than dog owners, I guess?

      Pulling animals off the streets and S/N is generally a good thing. But just dumping them back on the streets with no effort to find the owners? Sorry, no. You may have just doomed that cat to starvation and death when he had a home waiting for him and an owner worrying about him. Unacceptable.

      The argument that “well, it’s better than killing them” is a bit like, “well, it’s better than a stick in the eye” – um, yeah. Can we all pretend we’re compassionate, responsible grownups, now, please?

  2. And another thought – how does this play out in areas like mine where the weather is just fine and dandy in the summer, but winter brings ice and bitter winds? A cat who seems healthy in the summer may not survive the winter…

  3. Shirley, you know how I feel about this group. They are in talks with the city where I work and when I heard they had offered the city status as a Fellow City, I had a short breakdown of sorts. We are working to get someone with experience here to help rebalance the scales of sanity but I don’t know how that will ultimately play out.

    I have my own, and pretty strong, personal opinions about this group in terms of who is “behind the curtain,” what the motives are and how much damage will be done in the name of “just trying to help.” Because I am genuinely focused on saving the lives of shelter pets in my community, I will keep those opinions at bay for now, at least in this public forum, so as not to potentially jeopardize the work which may be done here by some of the smart kids in the no kill class.

    I can say one thing. I don’t care if you have more money than Bill Gates. If you have not made your own community a no kill community, if you have not made those communities in which you are active (and have been for years) no kill communities, and if you continue to use phrases like “have to be killed,” I really do wish you would do us all a favor and just throw your millions into grant funding. Or better yet, just put that big money toward the No Kill Advocacy Center in the form of a multi-million dollar grant so that satellite offices can be set up across the country and the real life saving using proven programs can continue.

    Yes. My tongue is bleeding from biting it. Yes. I have a terrible headache. Yes. I know some criminal defense attorneys in case I do finally lose it.

  4. I can not express how much I *hate* this kind of thinking. You *can’t* say that owners should be responsible for their animals, and then in the same breath say it’s okay to rip apart families.

  5. I had to go back and read that several times, thinking I had missed the logic of the “solution”. Now I see that there was none. How in the world does the problem of low return of cats to owners bring a “solution” of making it even harder for a cat to get home?
    Oddly enough, at my job if something is failing we try to figure out why and how to make it work. I never thought of the time saving idea of simply claiming it is too hard, lets just skip it entirely.

  6. Cats do currently have a higher rate of return to home on their own than via the shelter. Of course, the fact that too many shelters are making NO active effort to reunite cats and owners just might possibly have something to do with that.

    And I just cannot wrap my mind around the idea of actively ignoring evidence of ownership to dump an owned cat outside instead of calling the owner.

  7. I just do not understand this at all . . . and it bothers me more than I care to admit that so many people involved in animal welfare can even come up with these ideas. Cats are already treated more poorly than dogs in many places and to now just toss them out on the streets . . . Maybe we need to have a special place for just lost and found pets so someone will make an honest effort to reunite them. Oh yeah, we do have . . . we pay for them with our tax dollars and I think they are called “shelters”. Silly me!!!

    1. You just can’t count on shelters to be sufficiently proactive in reuniting lost pets with owners, ESPECIALLY cats, and especially scared (perhaps feral) cat. We had an “alliance” of the major local shelters and rescue groups, and when I proposed a centralized lost/found kiosk, the executive director of the big gorilla county SPCA balked big time. She said “There’s no way in hell we can post photos and info on all the animals that come into our shelter. That’s just too much work.” Of course, they can photo them and enter them into their PetPoint system on intake.

      And when someone loses a pet, there are a hundred or more groups that the animal may have been turned in to. The ONLY solution is a mandatory, centralized, lost/found repository. And the only way that’s gonna happen is if it is state law throughout the land.

  8. I seriously wonder what TZI recommends shelter staff do when someone shows up saying “My neighbor told me she saw your ACO picking up my cat an hour ago. I want him back.”

  9. I am a strong No Kill advocate, and I work hard in my community to promote No Kill sheltering and practices. I am founder and past president of a large No Kill animal rescue group that also operates a small shelter facility, and I recently left to found a new group called Community Cats Alive to address free-roaming cats in our communities, because that is the greatest need that I see in our area (even though I’m one of those proverbial “dog persons”).

    Much of this sentiment (re cats living outdoors) I once subscribed to. UNTIL I started working regularly with free-roaming cat populations. UNTIL I saw research studies that cats in shelters (among just those held there as stray and/or put up for adoption) are more likely to die in the shelter of stress-related disease than if returned to the streets, never mind the risk of euthanasia in shelters. And even with a strong program to re-unite cats with their owners, the cats are still FAR more likely to make their way back home if left where they are (or returned to where they were found).

    Perhaps the ONLY recommendation I object to is that there should NEVER be a stray hold. My belief is that any cat living on the street that is otherwise healthy and has no form of identification and has been checked against lost pet reports, CAN BE FIXED AND RETURNED WITHOUT REQUIRING A STRAY HOLD. On the other hand, if (1) ill/sick and needing veterinary attention, (2) relinquished by a purported “owner”, (3) otherwise being put up for adoption (or subject to “euthanasia” that isn’t urgent), then STRAY HOLDS SHOULD STILL APPLY.

    To force stray holds always would render TNVR operations illegal, because cats must be held for the requisite 3- or whatever-day hold time, JUST IN CASE they are a lost cat and someone MIGHT be looking for them.

    So my position is that everyone (including shelters) who do TNVR should be exempt from mandated stray holds. So long as the cats are on the street, unneutered, no identification, and otherwise healthy, then they are fair game to get fixed and RETURNED.

    This argument against shelter TNVR with no stray hold is starting to sound a lot like PeTA’s arguments about the horrible lives that cats live on the streets. If fixed and otherwise healthy (meaning they have a food source), nothing could be further from the truth and these cats live just fine where they are. Plus, they are more likely to find their way home on their own.

    And the “cat might be lost” or “malicious neighbor turn-in” argument sounds a lot like the justification for extreme adoption criteria because of the (extremely) low likelihood that the adopter might be a closet animal abuser.

    The behavior of “lost” cats is such that by the time they come out of hiding, their owners have largely given up on looking for them. Also, unlike dogs, cats do not range far and wide, but typically stay close to home. And in our TNVR practice, even when we find a cat with ID, in all but one case, when we could locate the owner, they did not want the cat back and put it outside themselves or left the cat behind. Extrapolate to “lost” cats without ID, in which there is probably even less desire to have the cats returned. Owners who care will have ID in most cases, will put up flyers in the area, etc. In our TNVR work, we are always alert to these things and we also try a bit harder to make sure the friendly cats aren’t someone’s lost pet. When we post in the neighborhood that we’ll be trapping cats, we encourage people to let us know if they have lost a cat because we might just trap it.

    But guess what? Even with significant effort on our part, we are almost NEVER reunite lost cats with their owners (who want them).

    Healthy cats who are functioning fine in their environment DON’T NEED US, except to make sure they are fixed and vaccinated and returned to where they are currently living.

    Years ago, feral cat programs realized that it is a poor use of resources to do FIV/FeLV testing of cats to be TNVR’d & returned. Instead, they now use those funds to do more TNVR, which saves more lives than the small risks associated with FIV/FeLV.

    Similarly, shelters’ resources are better deployed to do TNVR than to process, log, and hold EVERY cat for the minimum stray hold. As the Executive Director of our huge (kill) county SPCA said: I can neuter, vaccinate, and return TEN thy cats for the cost of intake and stray hold of just ONE shelter cat.

    Why does this big mega-SPCA director not do TNVR? She believes that the mandatory stray hold laws and the “anti-dumping” laws make it illegal for her to do so. So the issue of mandatory stray holds and “returning” cats to where they were (where they have every right to roam freely) is an important one. And if we are to make an impact on free-roaming cat populations, we need to redirect resources where they will be most effective.

    And if you want to save lives, remember this: 3 out of 4 kittens born on the streets to free-roaming cats will disappear or die by the age of 6 months.

      1. Cats with evidence of ownership should be immediately returned.

        Cats that don’t have evidence of ownership but are healthy and not underweight currently have a significantly higher chance of returning themselves home if left or returned to where they were found. This may be fixable by improved shelter procedures, but right now, “shelters” are killing cats for being scared on intake. Also, the typical shelter setting is even more stressful for cats than for dogs, for whom it is already bad enough.

        So no, people are not crazy like PETA to want their cats back. It’s just far from clear that, even with the best intentions, the shelter is the cat’s best route home. If not injured, sick, or underweight, they might really be better off and more likely to get home to their family if left where they are found, or returned to that area after being neutered and vaccinated.

        What’s bizarre and outrageous about TZI’s proposal is the idea of actively ignoring ID and putting cats back out on the street instead of calling an easily identified owner.

        Or, perhaps, checking their “lost cat” posters, if they don’t automatically trash them on receipt.

      2. The kicker in all this, of course, is non-ferak cats who are genuinely homeless. They have neither the survival skills to fend for themselves, nor a home to return to. They need a shelter or rescue group to take them in and find them a home. And how do you distinguish the truly homeless from “will return home on their own”?

      3. “It’s just far from clear that, even with the best intentions, the shelter is the cat’s best route home.”

        Again: Bug, not feature. TZI et al is trying to use this low RTO rate as evidence that shelters shouldn’t be required to do their jobs, since they already aren’t.

        The public animal shelter is funded by taxpayers and has policies available for review by taxpayers. The public can contact elected officials regarding concerns about the shelter, such as addressing the county council at a public meeting. These protections do not apply to private rescues, which are poorly regulated or unregulated in many areas.

        If we eliminate shelters as the main clearinghouse for lost pets, that saddles owners with the terrible burden of trying to find who might have their cat. Do you know every rescue group in your county and how to contact them? I don’t. Do you know every colony caretaker in your county and how to contact them? I don’t. Do they all accept lost pet reports? I doubt it.

        Let’s say an owner gets lucky and finds a private rescuer who has his lost pet. He asks for the pet back but is told he must pay $800 – because that’s the fee set by that rescuer. Where does he go to seek recourse? What if he asks for the pet back and is told no, it’s against the rescuer’s policy. He asks what policy and the rescuer refuses to provide. Where does he go to seek recourse?

        What about the volunteer colony caretakers, already working hard to identify and rehome any stray friendlies who show up at their feeding stations – should we expect them to shoulder the financial and emotional burden of all these additional friendlies being turned out by the shelter?

        What about the lost cat who is eartipped, neutered and returned to the street only to be run over by a car as he’s never been outside a day in his life before the day he slipped out the door of his lifelong home? How does the owner seek recourse?

        We expect shelters to do their jobs and reunite lost dogs with their owners and we should expect no less for cats. Cats are too often treated as second class citizens by shelters and this is an injustice that needs to be reversed, not expanded.

      4. I think, to some degree, we are talking about the tension between “What should we expect our shelters to do?” and “Okay, but what do I do for this cat, whom I think is someone’s lost pet?”

        My honest advice is take pictures and make posters. Post on Facebook and Craigslist. Check lost pet listings, including at the shelter. But don’t take the cat TO the shelter unless she clearly wants inside NOW and it’s not practical for whatever reason to shelter her yourself.

        Some shelters/pounds do an excellent job of promoting found cats. I’d take a found cat to Manchester in a heartbeat. Many other places, I’d consider it an absolute last resort.

    1. “If fixed and otherwise healthy (meaning they have a food source), nothing could be further from the truth and these cats live just fine where they are. ”

      Until they’re not.

      As you can see, Munchkin lost both ears (and part of her tail, not pictured) and suffered eye damage from the brutal winter cold. Spaying her did nothing to protect her from the elements. Fortunately, she was found and brought to a shelter. Medically treated, allowed to heal, then adopted out to people who love her (and they found out that while she doesn’t like cat treats, she LOVES to play fetch with a little ball).

      This is Virgil –

      As you can see, he’s ear tipped. Dumped on a dead end street with a cornfield at the end – LOTS of mice and chipmunks and bugs for him to eat. Good weather, low traffic, low predators, water sources. Except…he had one canine tooth left and that one was on its way out of his head. While physically in decent shape outwardly, this cat NEVER would have survived long on his own.

      Just because cats have innate hunting/survival instincts doesn’t mean that they are actually capable of hunting (or ever developed the skills to do it effectively) and finding shelter.

  10. I believe any ‘friendly’ (and this assessment needs time and work) cat deserves safe shelter, and a chance to be returned to her owner, or adopted into a new safe home. Not doing sheltering at all, is an odd way to address the many shortcomings of our shelter system. But it’s easier. And probably cheaper for “shelters”.

    Those of us caring for feral colonies, have enough work and heartache (the daily routine, the politics, the ordinances, the haters) without adding lost, stray, friendly cats to the mix. You say, “Healthy cats who are functioning fine in their environment DON’T NEED US”. But we who care for feral cats see to their care, feed them, provide shelters from bitter winters (usually at our own expense). We work hard to get friendly and young ones into rescues. This idea just moves responsibility for these cats to the “uncaring public.”

    1. Also, this is complete BS – “Extrapolate to “lost” cats without ID, in which there is probably even less desire to have the cats returned.” In my county, we have an active FB page for lost & found pets (in part because our county shelter is hopeless at photographing or describing). Lots of folks are worried and anxious to get their pet cats back, whether or not they are micro-chipped, & whether or not a collar with id might have stayed on the cat.

  11. the latest and greatest from HSUS driven crap.. shelters are there to SHELTER// stop the high minded BS please and do your job

  12. I learned yesterday that a pet cat was taken to the shelter and now cannot be found. The owner was told her cat had been picked up. She went to the shelter and identified her cat. Rather than being told the fee to get her cat out of the shelter, she was told her cat was scheduled to be spayed and ear-tipped and she should pick her up in three days. She just wanted her cat back. When she returned to get her cat, the cat could not be found and there was no record of her cat.

    And before anyone says she should not have allowed her cat to roam, we believe the cat being outside was accidental.

    I’m all about TNR for community cats but this city has a legal property hold period which is codified so you simply cannot treat every cat as an unowned cat which has no home to return to.

    1. I think we all know what happened to the cat – and why the records were purged. I don’t know what I’d do if this happened to one of “my” cats or ferals I care for. How do we stop the insanity? I’m so very sorry for the woman and her beloved cat. This should not be happening. I so hope that she will pursue charges . . .

  13. I will weigh in here as there is some information that has been left out.
    First- I completely disagree with Maddies on the holding period- ESPECIALLY for cats for all the reasons stated in study after study and by the No-Kill Advocacy Center.
    However on the TZI-Which is the Feral Freedom Program out of JAX there are some facts that need disclosure on how the program works.
    First the cats are brought into Animal Care and Control where they are scanned for chips. At that point AC would endeavor to find and notify the owner. If no identification or no chip is found to help reunite the cat with the owner, then the cat is sent to FCNMHP for fixing, shots, and microchipping. The cat is then returned to the exact location where it was trapped. Now if the cat belongs to someone, as even Nathan stated, eventually the cat will go home. It was probably trapped not to far from its home environs anyway.
    If the cat is friendly upon intake with NO ID, Animal Care and Control can hoose to retain the cat and put it up for adoption. The owner can certainly reclaim the cat during this time. This is where I have the problem with Maddies lack of hold time even with the above scenario.

    That said- the rescue business is drastically changing and being forced into group speak by those who hold the purse strings for grants, adoption centers, etc. collaboration is the mantra and if you sing differently you should find a different passion.

      1. These recommendations come straight from Drs. Levy & Hurley — Levy in analyzing reasons for shelter deaths in conjunction with “flow-through” in shelters and increasing adoptions; and Hurley in analyzing infectious disease, stress, and crowding among shelter cats. The citations for the research supporting their recommendations can be found in those longer proposals/works. TZI has simply taken those recommendations out of that larger work (and Maddie’s is underwriting the Levy/Hurley “Shelter Intake Control” suggested guidelines BTW).

        I, too, don’t agree with NO hold periods for ALL cats. It is the one recommendation that I too would jettison for certain cats, and certainly any that remain at the shelter. But even with no stray holds, this policy change by kill shelters will save countless cats’ lives above and beyond what is happening now in most of these shelters.

        I understand that Winograd has also objected to NO stray holds, but I have seen him write supportively of Levy’s “epiphany” regarding shelter cats, feral cats, and their right to live. The Feral Freedom program (in Jacksonville, FL) uses the term SNR (Shelter-Neuter-Return), as does Levy, when TNR (or TNVR) is done by shelters as part of their sheltering operations. And that is essentially what this policy means — SNR.

        Read more:

        Feline Shelter Intake Reduction Program FAQs:

        Save Lives with Feral Freedom – A guide (pdf):

        Program Gives Cats a Shot at Freedom:

        Free to Roam:

        Shelter Crowd Control:

        Making the Case for a Paradigm Shift in Community Cat Management, Pt 1:

        Making the Case for a Paradigm Shift in Community Cat Management, Pt 2:

        Research references: (relating to lost/found cats, cat adoption, and shelter-based disease in cats)

        American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. (2005). APPMA National Pet Owners Survey. Greenwich, CT: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

        Dinnage, J.D., et al. (2009). Descriptive epidemiology of feline upper respiratory tract disease in an animal shelter. Journal of Feline Medical Surgery, 11(10), pp. 816-825.

        Edwards, D.S., et al. (2008). Risk factors for time to diagnosis of feline upper respiratory tract disease in UK animal adoption shelters. Preventative Veterinary Medicine, 87(3-4), pp. 327-339.

        Levy, J.K., & Crawford, P.C. (2004). Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations. JAVMA, 225(9), pp. 1354-1360.

        Lord, L.K. (2008). Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio. JAVMA, 232(8), pp. 1159-1167.

        Lord, L.K., et al. (2007). Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost cat. JAVMA, 230(2), pp. 217-220.

        Lord, L.K., et al. (2007). Search methods that people use to find owners of lost pets. JAVMA, 230(12), pp. 1835-1840.

        Lord, L.K., et al. (2009). Characterization of animals with microchips entering animal shelters. JAVMA, 235(2), pp. 160-167.

        Schmidt, P.M., et al. (2007). Survival, Fecundity, and Movements of Free-Roaming Cats. Journal of Wildlife Management, 71(3), pp. 915-919.

      2. It’s not what TZI recommended to Amarillo in the document linked in the post. That document leaves out any exceptions for ear tipped cats, chipped cats, tag wearing cats, etc. There is no recommendation to shelter/rehome ANY cat found outside who is in good weight and uninjured/not declawed. This is outrageous and unacceptable IMO.

        At this point Carol, you’ve had ample opportunity to make your position clear. I’ve made mine clear. I haven’t had a chance to read the half-dozen other comments you’ve got sitting in the queue because the first one is so lengthy, I couldn’t get through it to approve. Please stop commenting on this post now.

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