Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Humane Society Releasing More Cats To Streets

A cat peeks through the trees in Paradise Hills, Nov. 5, 2019.
Nicholas McVicker
A cat peeks through the trees in Paradise Hills, Nov. 5, 2019.
In the city of San Diego between July 2019 and December 2020, the Humane Society released more than 1,300 cats to the streets.

The San Diego Humane Society has ramped up its controversial policy of releasing cats back to the streets, despite a lawsuit from animal rights activists challenging the practice.

In the city of San Diego between July 2019 and December 2020, the San Diego Humane Society released more than 1,300 cats. In the first 16 months of the program, from July 2018 to October 2019, the nonprofit also released more than 700 cats.

RELATED: Humane Society Draws Controversy By Sending Cats Back To The Streets

KPBS first reported that the San Diego Humane Society was releasing cats under what's called a “Shelter Neuter Return,” or SNR, program. Under the program, feral cats found outdoors that are brought to a San Diego Humane Society shelter are spayed or neutered and vaccinated, then released.

In March, the San Diego Humane Society launched an expansion of that practice, which it's calling the “Community Cat program.” It means that not just feral cats that can't live with humans will be released, but also some friendly cats.

“That's the hard part for people to accept, that those cats may be doing very well in their neighborhood outdoors, they may have multiple caretakers, and they may be thriving,” said Gary Weitzman, CEO of the San Diego Humane Society.

But he said it's more humane to release cats rather than keeping them in a shelter, both because a cat kept in a shelter may end up euthanized, and because it's harmful to cats to keep them in cages.

“Those cats are held here for medical exams, in holding cages, they are stressed to the max,” he said. “So we have to consider, those cats that did really well outdoors, that were enjoying the environment, why don’t we just spay and neuter them and release them.”

But some volunteers and animal activists say some of those cats that are released are friendly and could be adopted.

San Diego Humane Society Releasing More Cats To Streets

“There has been a lot of frustration on the part of small nonprofits and individual animal rescuers who are seeing a trend toward abandoning friendly domestic cats on the street,” said Bryan Pease, an animal rights activist and attorney.

He has filed a legal complaint against the San Diego Humane Society challenging the practice.

When the nonprofit took over animal control services for San Diego and several other local cities in 2018, it began releasing feral cats. Pease and his clients have no problem with that aspect of the program, which manages populations of feral cats by trapping them, bringing them to a clinic or to the San Diego Humane Society to be spayed or neutered, and then returning them to their habitat. Their objection is that they say even before the Community Cat program officially launched, the San Diego Humane Society was releasing friendly cats either lost or abandoned by their owners.

“What they’re saying they’re doing doesn’t sound that bad, but when you look at what they’re actually doing, releasing cats that were previously owned, releasing cats in dangerous areas, those cats shouldn’t be put back on the streets,” Pease said.

In his complaint, Pease claims Weitzman “did not tell the truth” during a 2019 interview with KPBS. Weitzman told KPBS the San Diego Humane Society does not return friendly cats to the streets.

“Plaintiffs obtained 75 individual records of cats whose outcome was ‘Return to Habitat’ between July and December 2019,” the complaint reads. “Approximately 30% of those cats had been brought to the shelter in an ordinary pet carrier and/or had behavior notes indicating that they were friendly and able to be handled and petted.”

For example, a cat named “Kiko” was brought to the San Diego Humane Society in July 2019. Animal records show Kiko was “friendly upon intake but does hiss when picked up. Allowed restraint for treatments but did growl...was very friendly otherwise.”

Still, Kiko was released a week later.

Cats sleep off their anesthesia after being spayed or neutered at the Feral Cat Coalition's clinic, Nov. 6, 2019.
Claire Trageser
Cats sleep off their anesthesia after being spayed or neutered at the Feral Cat Coalition's clinic, Nov. 6, 2019.

Weitzman said he would never be dishonest, and when KPBS asked whether the San Diego Humane Society was releasing friendly cats, he said it wasn't, because the nonprofit's Community Cats program had not yet been officially launched. But he conceded there may have been cats whose records show they were friendly and were still released for specific reasons unrelated to Community Cats' official launch.

“With 50,000 animals that we treat each year, there could be a friendly cat that could be released before we had this program,” he said. “I'm not refuting that. We are imperfect, we try to learn and not make the same mistakes twice.”

Still, Weitzman said they're proud of the new Community Cats program. He said it's supported by several organizations, including Alley Cat Allies, American Pets Alive, the ASPCA, Best Friends and the Humane Society of the United States.

Releasing cats instead of keeping them in the shelter isn't about lowering the San Diego Humane Society's euthanasia rate, he said, but instead is better for the cats because it doesn't stress them and gives them a chance of finding their owners if they're lost. He added that any cats with a sign of ownership, including a collar or microchip, would not be released.

But Pam Harris, co-counsel on the legal complaint, said it’s not always easy to tell whether a cat has been previously owned or not.

“They say any cat with signs of ownership will not be put back into the community, any cat that’s microchipped or wearing a harness will not be put back,” she said. “But many people with indoor cats don’t put a collar on them, don’t microchip them.”

She said she has no problem with spaying or neutering feral cats and releasing them.

“We and our clients support genuine community cat programs, where you take cats that have lived outside their whole lives and spay or neuter them and return them, we totally support that,” she said. “What they’ve been doing is when an individual brings in a single cat, they’ll say, this is a community cat and we’re putting it back, and no one is taking care of those cats.”

She points to a story from Terence Higgins, one of the plaintiffs in the complaint, who found a friendly large ginger-colored male cat in a church parking lot. Higgins brought the cat home and put up fliers, but couldn’t find the owner, so he brought it to the San Diego Humane Society.

Even though Higgins said the cat was friendly, San Diego Humane Society staff still released it when they saw that it didn’t have a microchip.

“Higgins was very upset by this because he thought the cat would be placed up for adoption since he was a friendly cat, and Higgins had told them that there are coyotes in the area and it looked like he had already been attacked by some wild animal,” the complaint reads.

The safety of the cats is one concern. The other is the impact they have on the overall ecosystem, specifically birds, reptiles, and small mammal populations. Jim Peugh, conservation committee chair of the San Diego Audubon Society, describes the cats as an invasive species.

“There are huge environmental impacts, we know each of those cats takes several birds a month,” Peugh said. “(Weitzman) said that the spay and release plan was best for cats, but did not say a word about whether the program was humane for any other of the many species which it impacts. Releasing cats is an easy way to reduce the number of cats they have to euthanize. The fact that it causes more birds to be brought into their Project Wildlife to die does not count.”

A 2013 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found outdoor cats are the biggest human-caused threat to wildlife in the U.S., killing between 1.3 and 3.7 billion birds each year.

Peugh said his ideal solution to the stray cat issue would be to create giant warehouses where cats could live.

“We see daycare facilities for pets, where they can live and play and get exercise,” he said. “We have decided to keep dogs from roaming free for public safety. These released cats do more damage than the dogs. There is no way to justify the Humane Society dumping them off to kill our wildlife.”

San Diego Humane Society Releasing More Cats To Streets
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.