“The Road to TNR: Examining Trap-Neuter-Return Through the Lens of Our Evolving Ethics,” published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 2019. Abstract available online here.
The authors of this commentary argue that the increased popularity of trap-neuter-return (TNR) in communities across the U.S. can be explained in part by two ethical theories; these theories give greater value to both non-human animals and the “emotional” considerations that are part of any debate regarding their proper management. The authors also present the results of public opinion surveys demonstrating a preference for TNR over other cat population management methods.
Theories: the zoocentric ethic and the virtue ethic
In this commentary, the authors discuss two ethical theories that seem to underpin the increased popularity of TNR (and methods for humanely managing wildlife). The first of these theories, known as the zoocentric ethic, “recognizes the intrinsic value of non-human animals beyond any instrumental value to humans.” The second, known as the virtue ethic, “recognizes the legitimacy of ‘emotional’ considerations (e.g., compassion) that rightly accompany decisions about how best to manage community cats” .
Non-human animals have far greater cognitive and emotional capacity than previously thought.
These ethical theories have gained traction in recent years in part because of a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that non-human animals have far greater cognitive and emotional capacity than previously thought.
Surveys: public support for TNR vs. lethal cat control
As a reflection of this “profound shift” , the authors present the results of public opinion surveys demonstrating a preference for TNR and briefly discuss some of the shortcomings of surveys that seem to indicate a preference for lethal methods.
In 2014, for example, one of the few national surveys on the subject found that 68% of respondents preferred TNR, compared to 24% who preferred impoundment/lethal injection (the remaining 8% indicated that they would prefer nothing be done about the cats). Three years later, a nearly identical survey found similar levels of support, echoing the results of earlier surveys of Ohio  and Guelph, Ontario  residents.
Results of other public opinion surveys, conducted at both the state and local levels, have produced different findings. Some, for example, show lower levels of support for TNR specifically but strong support for non-lethal methods generally. Still others seem to show that the public prefers lethal methods for managing unowned free-roaming cats [4–7]. As the authors of this commentary note, however, the sampling used in these surveys tends to be non-representative (e.g., favoring rural communities over urban communities in a particular state, in contrast to the state’s true demographics). As such, the results tell policy makers little about how their constituents would prefer to manage free-roaming cats.
Wolf, P.J.; Schaffner, J.E. The Road to TNR: Examining Trap-Neuter-Return Through the Lens of Our Evolving Ethics. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 2019, 5, 341.
Lord, L.K. Attitudes toward and perceptions of free-roaming cats among individuals living in Ohio. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2008, 232, 1159–1167.
Van Patter, L.; Flockhart, T.; Coe, J.; Berke, O.; Goller, R.; Hovorka, A.; Bateman, S. Perceptions of community cats and preferences for their management in Guelph, Ontario I: A quantitative analysis. Canadian Veterinary Journal 2019, 60, 41–47.
Loyd, K.A.T.; Miller, C.A. Influence of Demographics, Experience and Value Orientations on Preferences for Lethal Management of Feral Cats. Human Dimensions of Wildlife: An International Journal 2010, 15, 262–273.
Miller, C.A.; Anderson, W.L.; Campbell, L.K.; Leiter, P.D. Results of the Wildlife and Conservation in Illinois Survey (2004); Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 2007; p. 38.
Lohr, C.A.; Lepczyk, C.A. Desires and Management Preferences of Stakeholders Regarding Feral Cats in the Hawaiian Islands. Conservation Biology 2014, 28, 392–403.
Lohr, C.A. Human dimensions of introduced terrestrial vertebrates in the Hawaiian Islands, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2012.