Shelters argue that abandoned cats belong in their outdoor homes. Rescuers say these “community cats” face myriad dangers, and often live in fear and want.

One particularly disturbing talking point of shelters these days is the claim that when they abandon cats brought to them as strays, they’re returning them “to their outdoor homes.” What, exactly, does that mean? A home is more than a geographic location. It would normally include a source of food and water, provide some level of safety and protection from the elements, and, ideally, someone who cares. In the shelter’s use of the term, it is simply a location they assume the cat is familiar with. Never mind that it may have been recently abandoned there, or that the person bringing it to the shelter may be lying about where it came from.

These are the answers shelters give when asked about the advisability of returning cats to the outdoors:

What if there are hostile humans in the area?

No problem. Just ask them to put down their bows or pellet guns and read this pamphlet on how to keep cats out of their yard.

Coyote concerns?

Oh well, they’re everywhere. Some cats do fine around coyotes.

Found crying at my back door, seems desperate for human attention?

It was outside so it’s a community cat. We can’t unbalance the cat community by putting it up for adoption.

What do you mean, it’s a community cat?

It’s outside, and it doesn’t appear to be owned.

If it knows to ask a human for help, it must have been cared for in the past. It sounds like it’s been abandoned, which means it’s a crime victim. Or maybe it’s lost. Shouldn’t we help it? Isn’t it entitled to protection, a holding period, and admission into your adoption program

There’s no proof that it’s lost or abandoned.

So, the burden of proof is on the cat?

We require evidence.

Why not just hold it and see if anyone claims it?

A lot of these cats have people who love them, feed them, name them and would miss them terribly if they went missing. But they wouldn’t look for them in the shelter.

Oh, so they are owned cats. You’re doing surgeries on people’s pets and clipping off part of their ears without the owner knowing, then releasing them the next day to find their way home?

No. They’re not owned. We can’t say they’re owned because then we’d be required by law to hold them for the owners to reclaim.

Well, why not do that?

We told you; they don’t have owners. They have people who love them, feed them, name them and would miss them terribly if they went missing. But they would never go to the shelter to look for them or take them to the vet if they were injured.

So they do have owners.


You could post a picture of the cat where it was picked up, with information on how to reclaim it, and people who care about them would see it.

We don’t want to.

What if community cat feeders who are out there every day caring for a colony tell you that a specific cat just showed up, is not part of their colony, and is being chased or attacked by the other cats when it tries to eat? That it climbed in their lap, hungry and crying, and they brought it to you so you could find it a home? Could you do that?

No. It’s a community cat. If its body condition is good, that means its thriving.

How do you know that it wasn’t just abandoned a day or two ago, and so still appears healthy?

We’re experts.

Well, isn’t the caretaker of a colony an expert on that colony?

No. We are.

What if you’re wrong, and the cat does not have any source of food or water?

We assume it does.

You do know that abandoning a cat is against California State law?

We’re working to change that.

That last statement is not an idle threat. A recent bill in the California Senate (SB 1459) sought to exempt “community cats” from protection under the abandonment law. They defined “community cat” as “a domesticated cat who lives primarily outdoors and appears to be unowned.” Pet Assistance Foundation, with the cooperation of Fix Our Shelters, Social Compassion in Legislation, PETA, and many of you reading this, through hundreds of phone calls and emails to legislators, successfully got that bill amended. All language referring to community cats and amending the abandonment law to exclude them was removed. But they will try again.

Meanwhile, we are in court, striving to get the laws protecting cats enforced in San Diego. It’s difficult. The organization routinely breaking those laws, San Diego Humane Society, is also the one entrusted to enforce them.