A Q&A with Jenny Remfry
Insights of the early days of TNR and ear-tipping

SNIP International spoke to TNR Pioneer Jenny Remfry PhD VetNM MRCVS about her career and work with feral cat management.

SNIPi: How did you become interested in the management of feral cat populations?

Jenny: It was in the 1970s, through the remarkable Ruth Plant. She had become aware of the large populations of feral cats in London, descendants of the cats abandoned by people fleeing London during World War II. Ruth was horrified by stories of people who had asked the RSPCA or their local council to help them control cats they were feeding locally, and then saw them being trapped and taken away to be killed. She met Roger Tabor, a biologist studying the colony of black-and-white cats in Fitzroy Square – descendants of the ones immortalised by T.S.Eliot as the Jellicle cats – and realised scientists were at last taking an interest in cat behaviour. The RSPCA were also having second thoughts about their kill policy. Then Ruth met Celia Hammond – the 1960s top model – who was rescuing street cats and finding them too wild to be homed. Celia had them neutered and let them live in her country garden, but there were soon too many of them, so she started taking them back to where she had found them and realised there were already people who would feed them. Next, Ruth heard about the Danish Cat Protection Society, who were controlling the population of cats in the fishing port of Esbjerg by giving them contraceptive pills wrapped up in raw fish. It looked promising, so I organised trials at a disused hospital in South Mimms and at the Maudsley Hospital. They were partially successful, but it was difficult to keep track of which cats had swallowed the bait. It would be easier and cheaper to trap the cats and get them neutered. In 1977 Ruth Plant founded the Cat Action Trust (CAT). We talked to hospital managers, environmental health officers, park keepers and the feeders of the cat colonies, and soon there were Cat Action Groups all over London and beyond.

SNIPi: It is said that when you spoke at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) 1980 Conference – ‘Ecology and Control of Feral Cats’ – this was a “watershed moment” for feral cat management.

Jenny: Yes, because not only did people come to talk about cat behaviour, and the nuisance caused by cats, by then we were able to put forward practical proposals. The RSPCA’s advice that feral cats should be neutered had stalled because vets had found the cats too dangerous to handle. But we had now found better traps and introduced squeeze cages. A cat could now be trapped and injected with a sedative so that anaesthesia and surgery (using soluble sutures) could be carried out safely on the unconscious animal. The still unconscious cat could then be put back into a carrying cage and when fully recovered taken back to where it had come from, to be supervised by its feeder (this is important, because it is a legal offence to abandon a domestic animal). This is the system that became known at Trap-Neuter-Return.

Jenny in Rome

SNIPi: How did the situation change after this Conference?

Jenny: In 1982, UFAW published its booklet “Feral Cats – Suggestions for Control”, which sold in great numbers and included instructions on ear-tipping. The Danish Society identified their cats in two ways: by a tattoo in the ear and by removing the tip of the left ear.  A group of us including an RSPCA inspector thought

long and hard about this. Identifying a cat as neutered was obviously vital, to alert pest controllers and local inspectors to its status, but tattoos would not be visible from a distance and would be indistinct in black cats. Tipping the ear, on the other hand, would carry a very clear message, but the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) viewed the procedure as a mutilation and it was resisted by some vets. Eventually the RCVS gave its approval, because it would prevent the cat suffering the greater distress of being trapped and undergoing surgery a second time. Veterinary authorities in other countries have also shown reluctance, but usually agree in the end.

SNIPi: Was there resistance to TNR?  

Jenny: Surprisingly, some of the larger animal welfare charities did not approve initially. Their argument was that every cat should have a home, so they put a higher priority on neutering domesticated cats to prevent their unwanted kittens joining the ranks of the ferals. Others did approve of TNR in principle but found it too time-consuming and resorted to euthanasia. Then there was the problem of cats that did not have feeders and were a genuine nuisance. Ruth went to great lengths to find places such as farms or animal sanctuaries for them, but it often gave her a headache. Nowadays TNR is widely accepted and applied throughout the UK.

SNIPi: How did TNR spread worldwide?

Jenny: It happened very fast. The UFAW booklet sold overseas and we were soon being asked to advise and help. My assistant, the entertaining Peter Neville, helped set up programmes in Tunisia, Greece and Kenya.  In 1984 he spoke at a WSPA conference in Boston and this set off great interest in the USA, where we advised on the setting up of Alley Cat Allies.  Pat Dymock used the proceeds from her book “Kismet” to fund programmes in Europe’s holiday spots.

In 1983 Kate Horne set up the Society for Neutering Islington’s Pussies (SNIP), with funding from the Greater London Council towards vets fees. She went on to organise C4, a consortium of charities, to spread the load and the cost of TNR in London. After a visit to Paphos in Greece she founded SNIP International, and thanks to Clarissa Baldwin (former Dogs Trust CEO who initiated the International Companion Animal Welfare Conferences) and the generous contribution of trapping equipment by Melvyn Driver (MDC Exports ltd), TNR is becoming possible all over the world.

SNIPi: How important are educational programs that run with TNR projects?  

Jenny: Responsible pet ownership needs to be taught if the source of surplus kittens joining the feral population is to be stopped. People closely involved in TNR programmes may not have the time or skills to educate others, but several organisations such as the RSPCA are doing it in schools.

SNIPi: What about feral dogs?  

Jenny: In the UK there is not a great problem with un-owned feral dogs.  Thanks to Ruth Plant, the number of free-roaming owned dogs has been greatly reduced by the employment of animal wardens and the use of microchip implants. I was surprised when the idea of TNR was taken up by countries where un-owned dogs are a problem, but it seems to work. Anything that will reduce the risk of rabies is worth a try.

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