Return to Field

What is Return to Field?

In traditional trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, community cats are trapped and transported directly to a spay/neuter clinic, where they are sterilized, vaccinated, and ear-tipped for identification. Following recovery, the cats are returned to the location where they were trapped to live out their lives without producing any more kittens. TNR programs have been shown to work, decreasing colony size through attrition and decreasing shelter intake. But TNR relies on members of the public trapping community cats, bringing them to a spay/neuter service, and paying for the surgery. Not everyone is willing to do that.


As an open admission shelter that accepts stray animals, community cats are sometimes brought to us as “strays”. Because many community cats are feral and not socialized to people, they normally are not candidates for adoption. Picture trapping a raccoon and putting him into an adoption kennel – he might be cute but probably wouldn’t be eager to curl up on the couch next to you. That’s similar to how feral cats would react if we tried to adopt them out. Shelters have also come to understand that there are also some community cats who aren’t feral, but are happier living their lives on their own terms. Typically they have multiple people who feed and watch out for them (many of them think that they are the cat’s only caregiver!). For these cats, altering, vaccinating, and returning to their community allows cats to live where they are comfortable with people who care about them. Sometimes when cats aren’t typical adoption candidates they can go into Barn Buddy programs like ours, but think about how much cats dislike change. If we could ask them, wouldn’t they rather go back to the outdoor “home” they know well versus a brand new place with new people and potentially other existing cats?


To address these challenges, shelter-neuter-return (SNR) programs have been implemented for cats already in shelters. These return-to-field (RTF) programs operate similarly to traditional TNR programs, with the exception that the cats have been admitted to a shelter at some point in the process. As part of the Million Cat Challenge we were proud to be among the first Ontario shelters to bring this program into Ontario, and are pleased to see more and more shelters initiate life-saving programs like SNR. All cats who are returned to field are vet checked, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped (so we can track if they come in again), and ear tipped (to identify them as altered). This program is one of the many we have implemented that has allowed us to reduce our community’s cat euthanasia rate by over 92% in just 8 years! Want to be part of this work? Return to field is only possible with the support of people like you – please consider donating to help us continue to save more cats.  


While it might seem like this program is an option if you have cats who you are considering TNR’ing yourself, we encourage you to bring them to our clinic instead and take advantage of the community cat package. When cats are brought in as strays, while they may be altered and returned as part of our Return to Field program, the decision on if they are adoption candidates, and if not, if they are healthy enough to return, and if the return location is suitable are ultimately up to the Humane Society.  

Is Return to Field humane? Isn’t that just dumping cats – something you tell people not to do?

In return to field, the key word is return. Cats are returned to their outdoor home – the place where they are comfortable and thriving. These are not stray house cats; cats who are part of this program are community cats whose home is outside. That may not be the easiest life, but it is the life they are comfortable with. Their lives are actually made even better through this program because they are altered and vaccinated as part of the SNR process. And like other wild animals, most of them do very well – in a study of more than 100,000 stray and feral cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states, less than 1 percent of cats were found to have debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases.


It is important to remember that cats who are candidates for this program are already in good body condition and healthy – meaning that regardless of if someone was feeding them or not they were still doing well and thriving. Euthanizing these healthy cats simply because they would not make good pets is something we, and many other organizations, will not continue to do just out of a fear that their life outdoors won’t be ideal.


Even Alley Cat Allies – the largest global advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and improving feral cats’ lives – says that leaving community cats outdoors is the “only humane option. Cats have lived outdoors for thousands of years and can live—and thrive—in every habitat and climate, from farms to cities, and north to south. Outdoor cats can have the same lifespans as pet cats. A long-term study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association of a TNR program noted that 83% of the cats present at the end of the observation period had been there for more than six years—showing that the cats were living about the same amount of time as pet cats, who have an average lifespan of 7.1 years.”


The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) – the first humane society in North America and still one of the largest in the world actively promoting animal welfare – also supports RTF for community cats. RTF is also supported by Humane Canada – a federation representing more than 50 humane societies, municipal animal welfare organizations, and SPCAs as well as the National Animal Care & Control Association.