Adoption Level Advocacy: A Cost-Effective Program to Reduce Wild Animal Suffering
While we know that wild animal suffering is critical to address because it is so massive, we also have to consider the costs to reduce it. It would only be worthwhile to implement a project to reduce wild animal suffering if we believed there to be a way that was cost-competitive with other efforts to reduce animal suffering. While reducing wild animal suffering is immensely complicated, Utility Farm believes it has identified one promising opportunity that meets this cost-effectiveness criterion, and significantly reduces the harms caused by outdoor domestic cats.
Outdoors cats are brutal predators whose hunting habits have been found to affect billions of animals each year. Their hunting habits are notably cruel, and they kill not only for food, but for mental stimulation that can be achieved through other means, such as indoor play. Multiple groups concerned with wild animal suffering have come out in favor of reducing the number of cats allowed outdoors as a method for reducing wild animal suffering.
Utility Farm, as part of our ongoing work to reduce the suffering of wild animals, is launching a new program focused exclusively on reducing cat predation. In particular, we are studying the impact of advocating for consumers at the time of adoption to keep their cats indoors. We believe that through a combination of this adoption-level indoor cat advocacy, the implementation of feral cat collaring, and in some communities, trap-neuter-release programs, we can significantly reduce the suffering of small mammals and songbirds by reducing the ability of cats to hunt and by lowering the outdoor cat population.
Historical Efforts to Reduce Feral and Outdoor Cat Population
There are broadly two categories of outdoor cats—companion cats, who have permanent associations with human homes or caretakers, and feral cats, who do not. While some cats fall into grey areas between these groups, generally speaking, programs to reduce the numbers of outdoor cats (and incidentally, the amount of cat predation) have focused on one or the other.
Historically, letting companion cats outdoors was the norm in both the United States and Europe. But in the US, that has changed dramatically—now around 65 percent of cat owners now keep their cat indoors. This shift happened after the invention of cat litter in the 1950s and was encouraged by veterinarians as a matter of cat safety. This veterinary advocacy focused on reducing the number of cats hit by cars, reducing diseases transmitted outdoors, primarily from feral cats to companion cats, and reducing the rate of rabies in cats (feral cats have much higher rabies rates than feral dogs). In England, by comparison, upwards of 90 percent of companion cats are let outdoors, and similar rates are found elsewhere in Europe.
Feral cats in the US and Europe primarily live in urban areas. Frequently, they are the offspring of intact (not spayed or neutered) companion cats who are allowed outdoors, or descendants of older feral cats, where populations have remained high due to the relative safety of living in an urban area. They suffer high rates of diseases such as feline leukemia, a contagious virus that kills 85 percent of the cats it infects. Frequently, they rely on both hunting and food left out by community members. They vary in friendliness to humans, often depending on how they were socialized as kittens.
Domestic animal shelters in the US have historically received far more animals than they can adopt out. This leads to a direct need to reduce animal populations, through the killing of large numbers of animals for whom there is no space. No-kill shelters may have made this problem worse by appearing to be better donation options for well-meaning animal lovers and by rejecting the least-adoptable animals. This causes other shelters, frequently publicly funded or otherwise strapped for resources, to take on the majority of difficult-to-adopt animals. Correspondingly, these are the shelters with the lowest live-release rates.
One proactive approach to addressing these issues, besides spay-and-neuter services offered at a low cost, is to reduce the population of feral cats in order to reduce the number of kittens surrendered to shelters. Shelters have tried two methods to address this issue, and both are undesirable. The first, known as “trap and euthanize” (TE), simply involves the trapping and killing of feral cats. TE is unsurprisingly controversial, because of the broad negative perception of killing cats. As a note, most of these cases of so-called euthanasia are likely just killing, given that many of these cats live lives worth living. To maintain consistency with the language of the animal sheltering world, we will use TE in this essay.
Another method, commonly known as “trap-neuter-release” (TNR), involves catching feral cats, spaying or neutering them, sometimes vaccinating them for various diseases, and releasing them near where they were found. These programs are incredibly controversial, and their effectiveness for reducing feral cat populations in many communities is questionable. However, a TNR program improves a shelter’s live-outcome rate, coveted for marketing and fundraising, as these animals are not killed. They are also potentially cheaper than TE programs, as while the cost of catching a feral cat is roughly the same, the cost of killing a cat can sometimes be higher for a shelter than spaying or neutering.
TNR programs are controversial among pet advocates, wildlife advocates, and municipalities. For pet advocates, their effectiveness is questionable, particularly in communities that have larger feral cat populations. Wildlife advocates have focused on cat predation—14 percent of modern songbird, mammal, and reptile species extinctions are believed to have been caused by outdoors cats. The Audubon Society and other songbird protection groups have sued cities that have implemented these programs, as they involve re-releasing cats who will continue to hunt until they die. For municipalities that consider feral cats a nuisance, these programs, if effective, do not resolve in the short-term the population issue.
Of course, the subtext of these critiques is a preference for TE programs. However, that is rarely mentioned in public debates on these issues, due to the poor social reception that advocating for lethal methods might receive.
New Approaches to Reducing Cat Predation
While we believe that reducing the feral cat population could have a significant impact on the lives of wild birds and mammals, the issues with TNR make it an unlikely candidate for reducing their population in all communities. TE is very effective at reducing populations, but endorsing it would undermine the animal protection movement, which would otherwise be an ally to our cause, and among methods for reducing cat predation that we studied, likely the most expensive. By looking at the issue of cat predation as being caused not only by feral cats, but all outdoor cats, we see novel methods for effectively reducing wild animal predation.
We endorse two methods for reducing cat predation.
For both feral and outdoor companion cats, we endorse the use of warning devices that make cats less effective hunters. In particular, we endorse Birdbesafe and similar collars.
While bells, bibs, and other similar warning devices have all been tried, brightly colored collars appear to be by far the most effective at reducing cat predation success. A study found they reduced cat predation success of songbirds by up to 87 percent, and predation success of mammals by 50 percent. These rates are consistent with or better than those found in studies for similar devices. Additionally, the study found that many owners anecdotally reported their cats to be less interested in hunting when they had lower success. While we didn’t include this anecdotal evidence in our cost-effectiveness model, it would only improve the already promising results that implementing warning device advocacy could have for wild animals. While our research found Birdbesafe collars to have a similar impact on wild animals to TNR, we believe that TNR is only effective in very particular communities, while Birdbesafe collars are generally effective. So, TNR might be a better approach in smaller communities and rural areas with lower populations of feral cats, while Birdbesafe is preferable for feral cats in cities and other higher density areas. The impact of Birdbesafe collars on wild animals is also immediate, while TNR is delayed.
Additionally, we endorse a new approach to indoor cat advocacy. We are calling it adoption-level advocacy (ALA). ALA was an unintentionally major factor in reducing outdoor cat ownership in the United States over the last half-century. Veterinarians encouraged adopters to keep cats indoors for their safety. This advocacy could also be done at the adoption desk, in the form of a verbal message from a staff member, or a pamphlet in an adoption packet.
Our initial tests into granting to shelters to implement ALA programs, discussed below, indicate that it is a highly promising method for reducing wild animal suffering in the United States, with very high cost-effectiveness. While we have not begun specific research into ALA in Europe, we believe that there is even more potential in several countries there, particularly if we can learn from the historical transition from outdoor to indoor cat ownership in the US.
ALA is particularly appealing because it has so many natural allies. Because our current method for ALA, described below, involves granting directly to shelters, we have support from the domestic animal advocacy community. Because it reduces the number of outdoor cats significantly, we also can build relationships with wild animal advocacy groups—groups that might be important allies for future efforts to reduce wild animal suffering. It is highly socially acceptable to advocate for indoor cats. And above all, our initial efforts indicate that it is incredibly cost-effective.
Cost-Effectiveness of Four Methods of Cat Predation Reduction
We chose to endorse these approaches to reducing cat predation after attempting to estimate the cost-effectiveness of four methods for reducing cat predation. Fortunately, for TE and TNR, there is significant evidence for both their effectiveness and their costs. Our model assumes that TNR works as well as its supporters claim—if it is not as effective, as some evidence suggests, our case to not endorse it is only bolstered. For warning devices, there are a handful of studies on effectiveness, and the costs are fairly transparent (the cost of trapping a cat and the cost of a collar, in the case of feral cats, and simply the cost of collars in the case of companion cats). For these three methods, additional costs come from advocacy for them, for which we have virtually no information. In the case of ALA we do have a small amount of information about the advocacy costs through initial research conducted by Utility Farm. Part of our ongoing work on this issue in the near future will be more fact-finding, through conversations with shelters and testing, to improve these models. Our full model can be found here.
All of our cost-effectiveness estimates were built to answer this question, “if I were to spend $1000 on reducing cat predation, where would it be best spent?” In the case of TE and TNR, this answer is likely just donating directly to shelters, earmarking the funds for these programs. Since TE is poorly received socially, and TNR already has broad shelter support, it seems unlikely that advocacy on these issues would be maximally cost-effective.
For TNR and TE, there is readily available information on the direct costs. We can guess at the cost-effectiveness of these programs using the data available on the number of feral cats in the US and on the impact that cats have on wild animals. Fortunately, there is some evidence on what percentage of wild animals are killed by feral cats versus companion cats, so we are cautiously confident in our ranges.
For Birdbesafe collars, we used the single study on these particular collars, as well as a handful of studies on other warning devices. Since these collars don’t reduce the population of feral or outdoor companion cats, but instead make these animals less effective hunters, the effectiveness is lowered despite their low cost.
For ALA, we used the data that Utility Farm collected through initial granting, as well as through conversations we’ve had with shelters about potential donations to estimate the costs of implementing a program. Then, we used the most conservative values of effectiveness from our initial granting to estimate the program’s cost effectiveness.
In general, we tried to be as conservative as possible with our estimates—we’d rather underestimate than risk overestimating the cost-effectiveness of a program at this point in our work.
Adoption Level Advocacy
Our ALA cost-effectiveness estimates came through donors giving directly to a handful of shelters, and asking them to put a flier inside adoption packets suggesting that newly adopted cats should be kept indoors. We found that we could achieve upwards of a 5 percent behavior change at a shelter that adopts out 5000 cats a year for as little as $1000. We also only tested a single method for adoption level advocacy, using a single flier that was not designed using any behavior change data. We believe that we could achieve better results by implementing this flier program more effectively, and possibly by using other methods of ALA. We believe that the authority that shelters have on animal welfare lends credibility to information included in adoption packets, so this method is very promising.
Of course, ALA doesn’t impact feral cat population significantly. Shelter cats are generally already fixed, so even if cats are let outdoors, they won’t add to the feral cat population in the long run. Birdbesafe collars provide a temporary fix for these issues, but we believe that a low-cost sterility injection will be the best way to reduce feral cat populations. We believe the Michelson Prize of $25,000,000 to the first person to discover such an injection is better than any advocacy we could do to convince researchers to work on this issue, so Utility Farm won’t be pursuing it further.
One of our first reactions to finding a highly cost-effective way to reduce wild animal suffering was that it seems strange that such a good opportunity has been missed. We believe this is primarily because shelters have not been interested in cats’ impact on wild animals, and songbird advocacy groups have become involved in this issue only due to TNR. There was a significant amount of ALA done in the US in the name of improving cat welfare over the last half-century, but it stopped short of reaching consumers at the adoption level. Because Europe continues to have high rates of outdoor cats, we believe there is significant opportunity for ALA there.
What’s next for Utility Farm on ALA?
This year, we plan to conduct better-designed tests to improve our ALA cost-effectiveness estimates, and to improve our flier design. We also plan on continuing our initial work to build relationships with wildlife advocacy groups in order to gain support for this work. Of course, there is always a small risk that ALA increases the number of adopted cats who are let outside by causing backlash against concern for wild animal suffering, but our initial data collection found no evidence for that.
We also believe that there is significant potential for ALA in Europe, where the percentage of outdoor cats is much higher. Right now we are in the evidence gathering stage of our European research, but hope to soon be conducting similar tests in several countries. We also plan on doing more research into the historical transition in the US from outdoor to indoor cat adoption in the hopes that it provides insight into what effective ALA in Europe might look like. Nonetheless, we believe that we can impact tens of thousands or millions of wild animals through a program in the US implemented right now.
But what’s most exciting about this testing is that it actually impacts wild animals. If our work changes the behavior of pet-owners at rates we saw in our initial tests, we will be conducting a highly-effective project to reduce wild animal suffering.
A Note on the Nature of the Suffering Prevented
When we say that our programs might impact thousands of animals, we don’t encourage direct comparison to the estimates made by Animal Charity Evaluators or other organizations on the impact of particular interventions on the suffering of farmed animals. We are highly certain that our programs decrease the number of violent deaths by cats, and are optimistic but less certain that they reduce the stress caused by predators being present in ecosystems (especially since wild animals have few predators besides cats in urban areas). However, we make no claims about how that decrease in suffering might compare to a welfare reform that improves the life of a chicken, or the suffering prevented through eating a vegan diet. These estimates are useful for comparing different methods of preventing cat predation, but we do not think they are useful for comparing against the cost-effectiveness of completely different types of programs that impact farmed animals. Of course, we hope that this impact is significant, since if it wasn’t, our resources might be better spent advocating for farmed animal welfare. We also believe in focusing on low-hanging fruit that are low-competition. This is a neglected area where we have the potential of impacting thousands or millions of wild animals.
With all wild animal issues, there are counterfactuals that need to be considered, especially if pursuing one particular strategy risks causing more suffering through unknown mechanisms than it prevents through known ones. One way that this particular method of advocacy might do this is by preventing the deaths of animals who do not have lives worth living—in this case the songbirds and mammals that are killed. However, even if these animals do live lives dominated by suffering, cat predation may still increase net suffering compared with other forms of mortality. Additionally, lowering outdoor cat populations will likely decrease fear and stress among potential prey animals living in these areas.
An additional consideration is the degree to which reducing the outdoor cat population will change the population of prey species. It is possible that these changing population dynamics will lead to different disease rates and higher competition for resources. Unfortunately, we were unable to find further research into this issue. A final consideration is the number of insects killed by songbirds. Nevertheless, if we are concerned about songbird impact on insects, than there are likely better ways to reduce that particular kind of suffering than allowing a violent predator to continue to do the job for us.
In sum, it seems highly likely to us that reducing cat predation through adoption level advocacy is one of the most cost-effective approaches to the issue, and feasibly reduces wild animal suffering in the short term.
Thanks to Ari, Mauricio Bosshard, Emilia Cameron, Josh Jacobson, and Marianne van der Werf, and others for reviewing and providing feedback on this research.