PeerJ. 2014 Mar 18;2:e312. doi: 10.7717/peerj.312. eCollection 2014.
TNR and conservation on a university campus: a political ecological perspective.
How to manage the impact of free-ranging cats on native wildlife is a polarizing issue. Conservation biologists largely support domestic cat euthanasia to mitigate impacts of free-ranging cat predation on small animal populations. Above all else, animal welfare activists support the humane treatment of free-ranging cats, objecting to euthanasia. Clearly, this issue of how to control free-ranging cat predation on small animals is value laden, and both positions must be considered and comprehended to promote effective conservation. Here, two gaps in the free-ranging cat-small-animal conservation literature are addressed. First, the importance of understanding the processes of domestication and evolution and how each relates to felid behavioral ecology is discussed. The leading hypothesis to explain domestication of wildcats (Felis silvestris) relates to their behavioral ecology as a solitary predator, which made them suited for pest control in early agricultural villages of the Old World. The relationship humans once had with cats, however, has changed because today domesticated cats are usually household pets. As a result, concerns of conservation biologists may relate to cats as predators, but cat welfare proponents come from the position of assuming responsibility for free-ranging household pets (and their feral offspring). Thus, the perceptions of pet owners and other members of the general public provide an important context that frames the relationship between free-ranging cats and small animal conservation. The second part of this paper assesses the effects of an information-based conservation approach on shifting student's perception of a local Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program in introductory core science classes at the University of North Texas (UNT). UNT students are (knowingly or unknowingly) regularly in close proximity to a TNR program on campus that supports cat houses and feeding stations. A survey design implementing a tailored-information approach was used to communicate what TNR programs are, their goals, and the "conservationist" view of TNR programs. We gauged favorability of student responses to the goals of TNR programs prior to and after exposure to tailored information on conservation concerns related to free-ranging cats. Although these results are from a preliminary study, we suggest that an information-based approach may only be marginally effective at shifting perceptions about the conservation implications of free-ranging cats. Our position is that small animal conservation in Western societies occurs in the context of pet ownership, thus broader approaches that promote ecological understanding via environmental education are more likely to be successful than information-based approaches.