Rabies: How Good Intention Kills
A dramatic shift in animal control and management polices over the past 20 years is leading to a public health crisis. I began feeding and fixing cats 25 years ago and have watched the catastrophic harm this shift in public health policy has created.
Twenty-five years ago, most towns operated with a "dog catcher" model of animal control. Municipal employees responded to any call about a stray dog or cat, picked up the animal, and if not reclaimed, the animal was euthanized. While this was not a humane model, the pendulum has now swing wildly in the other direction to our current situation:
National "TNR" organizations do NOT want TNR to be required of feeders. They openly oppose spay/neuter mandates.
Animal control in many cases will NOT respond to any calls regarding cats.
In other towns, residents are offered no help or they are put on multi-year waiting lists for "TNR help."
There is currently no clear NJ law that simply states if you feed them you must fix them. While this can be worked around with state animal cruelty laws, in most cases it is not.
It is apparent that one of animal control's main duties is now to maintain positive public image of towns. Because any euthanasia numbers makes the current administration unpopular, municipalities have elected to simply ignore outdoor cats and even officially stopped responding to any calls regarding cats' health or safety or even nuisance calls from neighbors.
The changes in animal control procedures and objectives also make data difficult to track. The state's annual shelter survey itself is not even mandatory, so shelters do not have to report intake, TNR or euthanasia numbers if they do not wish to. The state publishes it with the following disclaimer:
With voluntary surveys and no other involvement from animal control, we certainly cannot expect to count the number of cats on our streets.
What we can do is obtain is statistics on the number of rabid cats picked up in NJ and reported by the New Jersey State Department of Health.
These numbers are skewed by towns who refuse to answer calls regarding cats so we should reasonably assume that the number is far higher than reported. Rabies can be transmitted to humans and is both agonizing and lethal. This is a serious virus with multiple strains ranging across our country. Testing requires examination of the brain after the animal or person is dead.
I started trapping around 2001. At that time, NJ reported 198 cases of rabid cats picked up by animal control. The number has steadily increased over the past 20 years:
Cases of Rabid Cats Picked up By Animal Control 2001-2022
In 2022, 579 rabid cats were confirmed and removed. Again, this does not count cats who were not caught or died out of sight and went unreported. Even with these omissions, the number has nearly tripled while the following also occurred:
TNR became a political tool in towns, where ordinances "support" TNR but do not include enforcement or protocol to be followed.
Outdoor populations of cats increased - the number of calls we receive at Whiskers alone every year support this.
Involvement and responsiveness by animal control dwindled to nearly zero with regards to cats, causing fewer people to report suspected medical issues in cats on their properties. Some municipalities such as Paterson indicate in writing on their official website that they do not respond to calls regarding cats:
It is accurate that most TNR'd cats are only vaccinated one time during their lives. However, if the majority of cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned on a regular basis you will establish a "herd immunity". Rabies spreads most readily with in a population. For instance a cat is more likely to get it from another cat, a racoon from another racoon etc. In addition, because life outside is so difficult for feral cats, most do not live long lives. A three year vaccine often outlives the cat.
Right now NJ has a best practices list for municipalities which is nearly always ignored.
Animal control is clearly required to respond to calls regarding cats. This too has been bastardized as the definition of "respond" has evolved to a "drive by" welfare check in many cases.
We have experienced this firsthand when informed by Edison Animal Shelter employees and HLEOs of Piscataway when we reported a hoarding situation. This is akin to calling the fire department and having them drive past your house and agree that it is on fire.
How do we fix this???
We have spent almost a year attempting to schedule meetings with local and state officials and have not been given the opportunity to voice our concerns. Instead, any organization or politician with clout elects to limit communications to those demanded by small but vocal no-kill advocates for cat feeders. Our view of this looming health crisis is based on decades of experience as animal advocates and two strong backgrounds in science, research, and public policymaking. We are seeking changes to avoid the rapidly approaching scenario of no choice but round-ups and mass killings of potentially rabid cats.
The first step in stopping this trend before we see human fatalities is to enforce the state's best practices. Municipal employees should never be permitted to ignore calls regarding cats. Shelters must return to being open admission, instead of the current selective admission that is neither inclusive nor predictable. The cat refused admission to the shelter may be the one who ends up dumped on the streets and contracting rabies. While the state can not force towns to pay for TNR, they can require them to address the outdoor cat population and hold animal control and humane law enforcement accountable.
NJ needs a mandate to fix any cats you feed. Our 50 Feral Fix program has sadly proven that most people who feed feel no responsibility to TNR or to provide any medical care for sick or injured cats. Despite providing over $50,000 in free spay/neuter to residents of NJ, our rescue is flooded with calls from individuals feeding who do not feel they should be responsible for trapping or fixing. Increasing the food supply without fixing guarantees a population increase.
We need strong enforcement of both current and proposed law changes. Having been informed by a police officer that "people don't want these laws enforced" when faced with a belligerent person who refused to allow TNR in her yard, the excuses by law enforcement must become a thing of our past. Law enforcement should not be given the option to choose popularity over animal welfare. Municipalities should never be allowed to skip developing a budget for animal control, but most do and treat it as petty cash from a public health pot.
While no one wants to go back to the days of mass round ups, avoiding that at this stage will require responsibility on the part of those who opt to feed cats and encourage breeding through increased food supply. We are facing a public health crisis that is being ignored by the state, local municipalities and national cat organizations. The consequences will become severe if this is not addressed quickly.
We are not advocating for the killing of all cats but for the TNVR of all cats and requirement to do so. Please reach out to public officials and encourage them to take advantage of our experience in the formation of laws that will benefit cats and humans alike.