Can feral cats show HSUS how to save pit bulls?

Can feral cats show HSUS how to save pit bulls?

The HSUS has just - within days - changed their policy regarding animals they identify as “fighting” dogs. While they previously had a policy of recommending death in all cases, they have, under pressure, revised that policy to recommend individual evaluations rather than mass extermination. But this policy change only came about painfully and after much public outcry. Even HSUS seems unconvinced as staff recite the letter of the policy but can’t seem to fathom the spirit, the reason for changing the policy to begin with. 

Many have wondered, can the HSUS really change? Can the HSUS get out of the way of animal advocates who are working to give these dogs the respect they deserve as individuals? Or is HSUS becoming irrelevant in regards to companion animal issues?


In the May, 1992 issue of Shelter Sense Magazine, Marc Paulhus, the (former) “Vice-President, Companion Animals” of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) published a scathing rebuke of the movement to “neuter and release” feral cats.  

The article that starts with lofty promise;

It is essential for each of us to keep an open mind: life is for learning and old problems often demand new solutions. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.”

But despite the promise of keeping an open mind and the promise of progress and change, Marc quickly deteriorates into a diatribe of HSUS’ standard policy and philosophy (at the time) regarding feral cats. A policy that is shocking when viewed in hindsight. A policy that stayed in force for many, many years and, through HSUS’ position of influence regarding animal issues, resulted in the deaths of countless numbers of feral cats. 

As Marc continues:

Could the traditional approach of capturing and subsequently euthanizing these animals be neccesarily wrong? Should we let them live in alleys, fields, or garbage sites, sterilized but homeless for as long as their wits preserve them? Is it better that they live short and desperate lives at the fringe of society rather than die by our hands? My answers to these questions are still, and will always be, the same: no, no and absolutely not!

Neuter and release programs are misguided. They don’t prevent the suffering of feral cats, but instead extend and perpetuate it. …

… Feral cats should be … humanely euthanized if they cannot be [adopted]. For feral cats, this traditional approach remains the only practical and humane solution. Shelter Sense, Volume 15, Number 5, May 1992

In 1992 the internet as we know it was barely born and the HSUS was commonly known as the national leader in regards to animal welfare issues. The media image of the organization was far more powerful than the details of its policy. The image began with HSUS’ early work and then over time was crafted through press releases, direct mail appeals and other for-public-consumption publications such as (**). That image was clearly: the image of an organization that is a friend to animals.

It is not surprising then that cat lovers, when hindered in their efforts to provide care for feral cats, would turn to HSUS for assistance. Very few people would have had the access to read Marc’s words, published in a printed trade magazine with the limited audience of animal sheltering staff, certainly not every-day cat lovers concerned about the welfare of ferals:

On February 17, 1994, the cat lovers who made up the Outer Banks Spay/Neuter Fund met with officials of the Dare County Animal Control Advisory Board to ask for assistance. They were there to introduce themselves and demonstrate how the county could save money by investing in spay/neuter rather than continuing the local practice of impounding and killing the feral cats of the Outer Banks. The Board suggested they present their plan to the Outer Banks SPCA. The SPCA director, however, told them not to bother. The SPCA had already declared “it’s total opposition to the spay/neuter of feral [cats],” preferring instead to kill them.

Members of the Outer Banks Spay/Neuter Fund turned to the Humane Society of the United States for help. Since HSUS was the nation’s largest companion animal and humane advocacy group - and one with significant influence over local shelters - leadership of the Outer Banks Spay/Neuter Fund expected their assistance in the struggle to legitimize TNR to the local shelter. The co-chair of the Fund explained: 

“We thought HSUS would write a letter on our behalf. We thought that HSUS would encourage the Outer Banks SPCA to stop killing these cats since there was a non-lethal alternative. We felt that feeding and caring for these cats was in keeping with the humane mission of the Humane Society of the United States.”

Instead, HSUS wrote to the Outer Banks SPCA calling TNR “inhumane” and “abhorrent,” applauding the SPCA’s opposition to the practice and encouraging the director to contact HSUS for assistance. The SPCA did not have to take the initiative, however, because HSUS was not content to sit this one out; the nation’s largest self-proclaimed proponent of animal protection went even further. HSUS wrote to the local prosecutor and put plainly its “mission” when it came to feral cats and the people who care for them: feral cats should be taken to shelters and killed and local feral cat caretakers were subject to arrest and prosecution. The kind-hearted citizens who took it upon themselves to feed, neuter, and care for the feral cats of the Outer Banks were stunned. Redemption

For those of you who are holding your breath in horror you will be relieved to know that the prosecutor didn’t listen to HSUS, pointing out that the laws against abandonment were clearly directed at the people who dumped the cats to begin with, not the people who were working so hard on their behalf.

But back to HSUS …

Talk about surprised. Cat lovers and advocates felt not only betrayed but attacked. Even up until 2005, the HSUS published written policy regarding feral cats that refused to endorse TNR. But by 2005, with the power of the internet, their policies were easily shared with the masses rather than simply within the animal sheltering community.

Let’s just say … the masses were unimpressed.

That is probably an understatement. But HSUS resisted change. Even in 2005, while feral cat advocacy groups had stepped onto the national stage and garnered significant support, HSUS advocated for a multitude of mandatory requirements and fees to punish the pet owning public all the while providing nothing for the feral cats who were assured death if they ever had the misfortune to wind up in a shelter.

HSUS’ prescription reads like an Orwellian nightmare that attempts to punish pet owners and enforce common sense, responsible feral cat caretaking with a bludgeoning club:

  • Mandatory registration or licensing of cats. If a fee is charged, it should be higher for unsterilized cats than sterilized cats (a concept termed “differential licensing”).
  • Mandatory identification of cats. In addition to requiring that cats wear collars and tags, communities should consider implementing a back-up permanent identification system such as microchips.
  • Mandatory rabies vaccinations for all cats more than three months of age.
  • Mandatory sterilization of all cats adopted from public and private animal shelters and rescue groups.
  • Mandatory sterilization of all free-roaming cats.
  • A mandatory minimum shelter holding period for stray cats consistent with that established for stray dogs. This policy should allow for euthanasia of suffering animals prior to completion of the holding period.
  • Adequate and appropriate shelter holding space, staffing, and other resources necessary to hold stray felines for the mandatory minimum holding period.
  • An ongoing public education program that promotes responsible cat care.
  • Subsidized sterilization services to encourage cat owners to sterilize their animals.

Wow, they really liked that word MANDATORY

And in an effort to exert supreme control over feral cat caretakers (who apparently couldn’t be trusted to make good decisions regarding their wards)HSUS - in what might be considered the ultimate acronym battle of all time - created the catchy TTVARM program to replace TNR. Of course it wasn’t just the acronym that got longer, it came with its own lengthy (much longer than the list above) set of rules to follow even going so far as disallowing feral cat colonies near “heavy traffic” or in “extreme weather”. 

In recent years, traditional trap, sterilize, and release programs have been supplanted by more responsibly managed programs that trap, test, vaccinate, alter, release, and monitor (TTVARM) free-roaming cats. HSUS 2005 Statement on Free Roaming Cats (1)

And it could only be considered in certain circumstances … You’ve heard of TTVARM, right?

No? Well you’re not alone. Even HSUS finally realized, under pressure of cat advocates, common sense and all evidence to the contrary: trap and kill was neither humane, nor effective … and TNR was both. Even the testing that the TTVARM advocated has been roundly and overwhelmingly disproven and is considered by leading organizations to be an exceptionally ineffective and irresponsible allocation of resources.

When did they realize it? 2006 was a half-way attempt that was ultimately reworded to a final version last revised in 2007.

Think about that: 2006 / 2007 (2). This is not ancient history. The organizational implications of this policy shift can hardly be imagined by those of us not privy to the internal machinations of the HSUS. The years of anti-TNR and pro-trap and kill - to the point of completely reversing the very idea of what is humane: killing is “humane” and TNR is “suffering” - has made a mark that cannot be changed organization-wide, overnight. It is highly likely that the policy shift still has a ripple effect felt by staff to this day. Imagine if you had worked dilligently and believed for years in the stated policy of your organization … you believed it to the core of your being … and then it changed. And not just changed - but reversed! What was once wrong is right and what was once right is wrong.


Change might be difficult and painful but in the case of inhumane policies held by a “humane society”, they must change. So the question on the table is: can the lessons taught by HSUS’ feral cat policy provide the blueprint for HSUS to adopt a more proactive, respectful policy on dogs seized as evidence in dog fighting cases? 

Advocates were never seeking for HSUS to become the banner waving standard bearer for feral cats. What they wanted was for them to get the hell out of the way and stop testifying to municipalities and writing official letters of condemnation regarding feral cat projects. That objective was accomplished and more.

Much in the same way, I doubt any pit bull advocacy group expects or insists that HSUS take the lead and wave the pit bull banner. But for dog’s sake they want them to get the hell out of the business of condemning the very animals they claimed to have saved. Testifying in a courtroom that the dogs should be killed is a mirror reflection of HSUS’ previous feral cat extermination policy. Sue Cosby,

HSUS must change significantly on this and other humane policies and those within the organization who do not truly believe in the change, must be rooted out in order to maintain any credibility going forward within the animal loving community.

Half-hearted attempts at writing policy that balances HSUS’ outdated philosophies with the demands of dog lovers and the animal loving community will continue to be rejected. Eventually no one will listen and HSUS should just step away from companion animal issues  entirely.

This does not just refer to the policy on dogs with the “fighting” label but all companion animal policies such as HSUS’ continual wishy-washy and unconvincing stance on No Kill: for it in theory, but not in practice. The fact that HSUS is presenting a day-long workshop on “Adoption Guarantee” sheltering at Animal Expo 2009 still misses the mark. Rather than being integrated into the main content of their Animal Expo conference for the animal sheltering community, it is offered as a pre-conference course at an additional fee. Half-hearted? Unconvincing? Will it reach the people who need to see it or will it bring in only those who are already converted … or neither? Sadly, it’s certainly a message that all conference attendees need the opportunity to see and hear but most will not.

As the cat lovers watched in horror as HSUS actively sought the death of feral cats, now dog lovers watch in what might be an even more heartwrenching horror, as HSUS condemned dogs to death - who had just been celebrated as being saved. Never did animal advocates expect such a stumbling block to success to lie within their own ranks

“…we cannot condemn killing with one voice while doing and defending it with another without sinking into apparent incoherence. Animal advocates will be an effective voice for animals when our actions reflect a consistent and uncompromised respect for their lives.” Craig Brestup, The Killing Cure

Organizational policies are no longer hidden. The internet has allowed for the immediate dissemination of information, including public opinion. The game has officially changed.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.”

Thanks Marc.


(1) You can read the full HSUS Statement on Free Roaming Cats from January, 2005 here on the web archives 

(**) Or view the’s earliest recorded incarnation on the net here from 1996.

(2) You can compare it to the current HSUS position statement on TNR (yes, they gave up on trying to force a name change on the rest of the world) here. The policy was significantly changed in 2006 and at the time of this writing had last been revised in 2007.

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4 Responses to “Can feral cats show HSUS how to save pit bulls?”

  1. sue_cosby says:

    Nathan pointed out that internal resistance to a reversal in policy today here:

    “And despite a “pro-TNR position paper” they published in 2006, HSUS officials said they “didn’t have a problem with humanely killing a stray cat” in April of 2008 after Randolph, Iowa officials announced a bounty on them, offering residents $5.00 for every cat they rounded up and brought to the shelter to be killed. (HSUS supported the plan to round up and kill the cats, but not the process suggesting that people might get bit by cats if the cats were not professionally trapped. They then backpedaled there, too, after a massive public outcry, suggesting it wasn’t a good idea either way. Sound familiar?)”

  2. It’s a shame that HSUS doesn’t consider getting out of the companion-animal welfare business entirely and leaving it to those that do more of the hands-on work, such as Winograd’s No Kill Solutions, Best Friends, and other issue-specific national groups. It pains me that most in animal welfare regard the HSUS as the industry-standard setters. With their Animal Sheltering magazine, the Humane Society University, and their shelter on-site reviews, they do get alot of clout and revenue from this perch at the top. Those of us who “get it” when it comes to No Kill can take and leave what we utilize from HSUS and recognize the wishy-washiness and when their policies and positions don’t match their actions, but there are many local government leaders, shelter leaders, and animal people who who look continually to the HSUS as their guide. Imagine if they delegated these areas to No Kill experts instead … that would be a blessing.

  3. shel says:

    No matter what the topic, there’s one thing that is nearly always similar amongst groups advocating for change… they’re poor.

    A new idea is often unpopular simply because it’s new. No matter what science you have to back it up, when you present a new idea to the public they roll it around in their heads and feel perturbed - then reject it because it challenges what they know, they know.

    Groups advocating for genuine change usually find themselves slogging away, beating their drum on a shoestring, supported only by similar minded people. Then one day they grow big enough that they crack it, or they get some break like the media jumping on board.

    That’s when the idea suddenly becomes ‘Profitable Change’. Those groups who until this point have been waiting in the wings either actively or passively resisting, now ’see the light’ and suddenly jump into action.

    They champion this ‘new’ idea. Rewrite the history books and begin to advocate on its behalf. That’s when the $$$ start really rolling in.

    There’s no money in bringing an idea to market; but there’s plenty to be made if you’re the second in line.

    The HSUS gave No Kill a whirl earlier in the year because it was getting a lot of media and industry interest. Feral cat supporters became so numerous that they could no longer be ignored. Puppy mills = Oprah. Now, pit bulls are getting their turn in the spotlight simply because the backlash to their position has been so severe that they had no choice but to evolve.

    There is nothing accidental about the decisions of an advocacy group. They make their money off following popular opinion, not creating it.

  4. [...] 26, 2009 · No Comments The No Kill Nation blog has today an excellent piece on the history of HSUS and how its back flip from considering the best [...]

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