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TNR Ordinances

Legalizing Trap-Neuter-Return

In order for TNR to flourish and reach the most cats, it must be legal. Otherwise, there is a cap on how much can be done and how quickly. Caretakers will continue to feed their cats no matter what the law says, but many will shy away from taking the next step and getting the cats fixed if TNR is somehow illegal. Feral cat related services, like training, low cost spay/neuter and trap rentals, may be difficult to access. Removing any legal cloud is a pre-condition for mobilizing the most caretakers and developing a robust community-wide program.

If TNR is already legal

In jurisdictions where there are no current legal obstacles to the practice of TNR, Neighborhood Cats believes enactment of ordinances authorizing Trap-Neuter-Return is unnecessary and could potentially limit progress through over-regulation. Attempting to pass legislation could also give rise to potentially harmful controversy and opposition. If a show of government support is needed or would be helpful, a simple resolution or declaration backing TNR from the governing body or lead executive will usually be sufficient.

If legal obstacles exist

There are very few jurisdictions where TNR is explicitly banned. But there are many where laws governing cats in general have the same effect. Examples include laws that prohibit cats from being at-large (so-called leash laws), require licenses for all cats, ban the feeding of any animal outdoors or limit the number of pets a person can own (with "own" defined as feeding, harboring or similar language that would apply to a colony caretaker). In these jurisdictions, passage of an ordinance may be required to make TNR legal.

What kind of ordinance?

TNR-enabling ordinances became widespread in the mid-2000's as the popularity of Trap-Neuter-Return grew. At that early stage, there was a tendency to enact laws with complex structures. Provisions often included selection of "sponsor" organizations to oversee TNR activity and collect and report data, formal registration of caretakers and colonies, and detailed standards of care for caretakers. To help prevent these provisions from becoming burdensome to the point they actually discouraged TNR, Neighborhood Cats drafted our own model ordinance that included many of the same basic guidelines.

Today, TNR programs have evolved which operate on an unprecedented scale. In Albuquerque, NM, a Community Cats Project administered by Best Friends Animal Society included the TNR of thousands of free-roaming cats a year for three years. Cat intake at the local municipal shelter dropped by 83% while intake fell 39%. New forms of TNR have also been developed like Return to Field and targeted TNR. In a Return to Field program, healthy,free-roaming cats admitted to shelters are fixed and returned to their original locations rather than euthanized. Targeted TNR projects concentrate trappers and other resources in areas of high cat overpopulation, routinely involving 1,000 or more cats.

Legislative schemes which over-regulate TNR have the potential of stifling or impeding this kind of growth and innovation. Experience has also shown regulation-heavy TNR ordinances can be administratively burdensome and unenforceable from a practical standpoint. Colony registration requirements raise the potential of Freedom of Information Act requests and public disclosure of what TNR participants largely consider confidential information (see our article, Impact of Freedom of Information Acts on Trap-Neuter-Return Ordinances). There are typically already other laws on the books which cover matters that may be of concern to officials, such as public health, trespass and nuisance laws. Perhaps most importantly, in the great majority of cases,TNR is being practiced responsibly by the animal welfare sector and there is simply no need for intensive government oversight.

In light of these recent developments, Neighborhood Cats has withdrawn our model ordinance.  If legislation is necessary, we now favor a more "hands-off" approach that includes the following:

  • Authorization of the practice of Trap-Neuter-Return and colony management (provision of food, water and shelter)
  • Exemption of colony caretakers from other ordinances intended to regulate pet cats.
  • Procedures for returning impounded eartipped cats to their caretakers or original locations.

If a Return to Field program is envisioned, the ordinance should also include:

  • Authorization to spay/neuter, rabies vaccinate, eartip and return to his/her original location any healthy, free-roaming cat who has been impounded.

Sample ordinances

The following ordinances are examples of a minimum-regulation approach to legalizing Trap-Neuter-Return: