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Pilot Community Cat Program Leads to Lifesaving Legal Changes in Harris County

A pilot community cat program run collaboratively by Best Friends and the Harris County Animal Shelter (HCAS) in Texas not only saved thousands of lives since its launch in May 2018, it convinced the local government to make model changes to county ordinances.  

And that can be a good thing for all shelters, rescues and support organizations during COVID-19. How, you ask?  Because pilot programs are the gateway to innovating new, proven strategies. But first, let’s learn more about what happened in Harris County with those cats. 

In addition to being in Texas—the state with the largest opportunity for additional lifesaving—Harris County is the third most populous county in the US and HCAS takes in 20,000 animals every year. Such massive-intake shelters can be daunting places to start new programs, but we have been coordinating wildly successful community cat programs (CCPs) in shelters of all sizes across the country since 2012. We knew we could make a difference overnight for the cats of Harris County. 

If the shelter were willing to follow a new approach to community cats combining return-to-field (RTF) trap-neuter-return (TNR) efforts, thousands of lives would be saved. We were excited, then, to begin talks in the spring of 2017 with shelter director Michael White, Houston Pets Alive!, and Friends For Life to launch a six-month pilot in the three highest-intake zip codes.  

The CCP launched that summer—then skidded to a halt when Hurricane Harvey hit.  

Rebooting the CCP post-disaster 

While the hurricane succeeded in derailing initial plans, the positive relationship that blossomed between our organizations during the relief efforts paved the way to discuss an even more ambitious community cat project at HCAS. The new version was a three-year effort that was not limited to certain zip codes. The program would serve cats coming into the shelter from anywhere within the service area. 

But it was still considered a pilot and not a change to standard operating procedures. The understanding was that by the end of three years, we could prove a CCP was a resource the community wanted and one that HCAS should provide as a solution for community cats. Once we could demonstrate that, HCAS’ leadership was also willing to go to bat to remove the other unfortunately common hurdle to implementing a CCP: animal regulations making RTF and TNR illegal.  

At that time, Harris County’s ordinances prohibited free-roaming cats of any kind (owned and unowned) and subjected felines to the same leash and licensing laws applied to dogs. Starting a CCP on a trial basis, however, would allow us to circumvent these regulations and get down to the business of converting naysayers into supporters. 

Winning over the doubters 

We often need to overcome resistance when changing the kind of services provided by a shelter. But we did it in Harris County. Today, instead of only 24 percent of cats leaving alive, HCAS is at a 94 percent live release rate for cats. The shelter is also a happier place to work and the community, leadership and staff have become champions for handling community cats in this manner. So, it seems, has the local government.  

While our CCP teams were working inside the shelter to change hearts and minds, our advocacy team was diligently reviewing regulations, drafting new language and shepherding it through the approval process. That effort achieved success as well and in early April, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the bipartisan Commissioners Court voted unanimously to change their ordinances.  

As of May 1, new language will define community cats as “any free-roaming cat that may be cared for by one or more residents who is/are known or unknown.” Cats “that are eligible to be part of a community cat program are deferred from enforcement of the licensing, stray or abandonment provisions of the regulation.”  

And in a major win, the new language also states that “an animal shelter and any contracted shelter organizations shall prioritize the Trap-Neuter-Return method as the preferred outcome for community cats.” 

Duplicating the pilot approach during the pandemic  

The current reality of the pandemic has led many shelters to take great leaps of faith in how they do business. Out of necessity, we have all had to push past our reservations about doing things differently. In doing so, new practices are essentially following that pilot model—and overcoming resistance in the process.  

Stanislaus Animal Services Agency (SASA) in California implemented an emergency online foster application without knowing what to anticipate from the community. The result was that close to 90 percent of the shelter population went to foster homes, and 75 percent of those were adopted BY the fosters.  

“We had zero pushback from the staff or the community, and I think it’s in part because people didn’t have the time to resist the change,” says executive director Annette Patton. “The best part was that the staff came to their own realizations that programs like these are the way it should be. With the huge success of the emergency foster program, a new foster program will emerge and become the future lifesaving program at SASA.” 

Karen Froehlich, president of SPCA of Texas, says that her team has learned to look at serving animals and the community differently.  

“Nothing is off the table when it comes to lifesaving. Today we watched 14 cats do a virtual meet-and-greet and were picked up by their adopter curbside,” Karen says. “Fosters are also adopting out pets within their neighborhoods, never having to speak to an SPCA of Texas adoption counselor. That’s something we never would have done before.”  

Welcoming change one pilot project at a time  

Legislative and community wins in Harris County show that the pilot concept is a less scary way to ease into adding programs that are significantly different from traditional shelter services. The new ways of doing business brought on by the pandemic mirror that model. If we can get people to be less scared about trying something new, that would be a huge silver lining coming out of this very challenging time. 

Bethany Heins  
Director of Operations and Strategic Projects, National Programs
Best Friends Animal Society