OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – It’s usually a program that’s prevalent in rural areas: Trap-Neuter-Return. But here in the Oklahoma City metro, it’s saving thousands of cats’ lives every year. 

Trap-Neuter-Return is a humane alternative to trap-and-kill, which aims to manage community cat populations. With TNR, roaming cats are trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and given an ear tip before being returned to where they were found. Ear tipping helps people in the community know which cats have already received care through the TNR program.

The Oklahoma City Animal Welfare, in partnership with the Oklahoma Humane Society, ensures this safe option for OKC’s feral cats.

The program began back in 2008. Hundreds of feral cats roamed the areas of Lake Overholser and Lake Hefner. 

The City began searching for a remedy and found that other metropolitan areas across the country were addressing the same thing with TNR, so OKC gave it a go.

“We had our largest colony at Lake Hefner. It had approximately, probably 200 cats in it. That colony is now down to about 30,” said Jon Gary, superintendent for Oklahoma City Animal Welfare. “We have eliminated the colonies on the east side of Lake Overholser. They had several colonies, multiple colonies there that had 30 to 50 cats in them, and we eliminated those. There’s no longer cats on there, and we’ve done that by managing the colonies.”

Rather than eliminating the cats, the City utilized TNR, which actually better maintains the cat population.

“It sounds kind of counterintuitive that you would, in order to fix a cat problem in a neighborhood, that you would bring them in and then take them back where you found them, but it works,” said Gary. “Traditionally, what was historically, what was done was the cats would be rounded up, they’d be brought to the shelter and they’d be euthanized. Well, we’ve determined that that just doesn’t work. You can’t round them up fast enough. You can’t keep up with them reproducing fast enough for that to be an effective way of managing colonies.”

The success at the lakes eventually led to an expansion to the entire city in 2017. Now, anywhere from 1,500-3,000 cats a year come in for TNR.

“So now around 90% of the cats are saved because of this program,” said Gary. 

Although the cost of the euthanasia and the cost of surgery are comparable, the City is actually seeing cost savings in the long run due to the fact that the cats are not staying in the shelter. Instead of housing, feeding and watering a cat for 3-4 days, with TNR cats are at the shelter for one day, then are put back where they came from. Plus, the program allows for a greater chance of the cat being reunited with its owner, if it has one.

“It’s not just feral cats that go through this program, it’s any cat that enters, any stray cat that enters our shelter can be gone to this program. So a lot of people don’t understand that less than 2% of cats that enter the shelter are reclaimed by their owners, less than 1% of kittens,” said Gary. “So when a cat entered the shelter environment, the likelihood of it getting back to its owner was almost none. So by doing this program, spaying/neutering, when taking them back where they were, the odds of them getting back to the owner are have increased dramatically.” 

Every cat upon arrival to the shelter is evaluated by trained staff, who determine if the cat will go through TNR, stay for possible adoption, or be put in the barn cat category, which is for cats that are better suited for a more independent life taking care of mice.

The process of bringing in a community cat is simple. Cats are brought to the OKC Animal Welfare by a person in the community. The staff educates the person about the TNR program and gives them a questionnaire to fill out that asks questions like how long has the person been caring for the cat, how long they’ve seen the cats in the community and are there any other cats located where the cat that was brought in was found.

If the cat brought in has shown nuisance behaviors, such as damaging flower beds, cars, or other property, staff can also teach the individual how to deal with and prevent those behaviors from happening in the future.

Bringing a community cat in for the TNR program is at no cost to residents, thanks to grants and other senior funding given to OKC Animal Welfare.

“It’s a free program and really it’s the money that we’re spending on the program is really investing in helping to reduce costs at a later time,” said Gary.