Friday, February 23, 2024
cat rescueDaily FeatureTNRTuesday

Bringing TNR to the US, an Interview With Louise Holton

Louise Holton and Onyx
Louise Holton and Onyx

So there are 56 cats living in an alley who need care. You get in touch with other rescuers, gather up all your traps, schedule surgeries and get to work, right? Except it’s 1990 and there’s no TNR—those cats are probably going to be trapped and killed. But two women decided that was not going to be their fate, and they went on to change the fate of millions of cats here in the US.

One of those women was Louise Holton, who was feeding those feral cats in the alley behind her accounting business in Adams Morgan in Washington D.C. While growing up in South Africa she had seen TNR in practice. “I learned about TNR in South Africa in the mid-1970s when the Johannesburg SPCA started doing TNR in South Africa following British protocols,” Holton said. Death was not going to be the fate of those cats she’d come to know and care for, instead she was going to trap, neuter and return them to the alley and continue to care for them.

At that time, while TNR had been practiced regularly in the UK since the 1950s and other European countries and South Africa after that, leading to a UK conference on the subject in 1980 that presented the primary scientific references for feral cat control, in the US TNR was only practiced here and there by individuals with no cohesive organization or even protocols. That changed with these cats.

In her organization’s handbook she explains,

“In 1990, I had come full circle. Having been involved in the animal movement for many years and with wildlife and conservation groups, I was under the impression that companion animals and even community outdoor cats, were being taken care of by the thousands of animal shelters in the country. Unfortunately, that all changed when I became involved with my first feral cat colony in Washington, D.C. I got quite a shock to find out that the feral cat issue had been almost totally ignored, or viewed in a very negative light. The local animal control, and even rescue groups, called these cats ‘fractious’ animals, with catch-and-kill considered the only solution.

“Having worked with the Johannesburg SPCA in South Africa on TNR in the mid-1970’s, and knowing of all the fine work being done in Britain for outdoor cats, I decided to focus on stray outdoor cats and co-founded the first national network for outdoor and feral cats, Alley Cat Allies. Several years later, I founded my second organization, Alley Cat Rescue, to focus on helping all cats — domestic, stray, and feral.”

Where do you start with 56 cats and no TNR organizations to help?

Today we have organizations that support TNR with materials and advocacy, but in those days where would you start, even just finding the right kind of traps, and a veterinarian who could provide surgery for a cat that couldn’t be handled?

“We borrowed some traps from the local animal control, although at that time they admonished us to bring the cats in to them presumably for euthanasia?” Holton remembered.

“I worked closely with Brentwood Animal Hospital in Brentwood, Maryland during those first years, and Dr. Manzoor TNRd thousands of feral cats for us,” she said. “Together Dr. Manzoor and I wrote the first Fact Sheets for veterinarians to use to share our expertise with them.” Those fact sheets earned Holton a Muse Medallion from the Cat Writer’s Association, the highest honor from the international organization in its annual communications contest.

Through this, instead of continuing to practice TNR on their own, Louise Holton and Becky Robinson saw the need for structure and guidance to help those who wanted to provide the same for cats in their care. They decided to found an organization that would provide leadership to those who were asking for help in learning and practicing TNR, and to advocate for its acceptance around the country. “In 1990 we found that first colony in Adams Morgan Washington, DC, and after we started with TNR others found out about our work and started asking us for help,” Holton explained, and that started them on the path of changing the lives of millions of cats in this country.

In the process of setting up TNR at that time Holton discovered Annabell Washburn who ran a TNR project on Martha’s Vineyard and on the Virgin Gorda Islands, taking Tufts veterinary students to the island every year to TNR cats. “We became instant friends ad went to many conferences together teaching others to TNR cats,” she recalled.

Holton also brought advocates of TNR to this country to help establish the need and process for TNR and rescue for all cats. At that time she went to visit Roger Tabor in the U.K. World-famous biologist and author of many books, videos and TV series about cats, Tabor was on the original panel in the United Kingdom who advocated for TNR in the mid-1970s. “I brought him over to the U.S. to help us arrange the second national workshop in the U.S.  Dr. Andrew Rowan who was with Tufts at the time and who helped with Annabell Washburn’s trip to the Virgin Gorda Islands, and put on the very first feral cat workshop in 1991 at Tufts Veterinary School,” Holton explained.

Alley Cat Rescue, advocating for all cats, stray, abandoned, feral and wild

Alley Cat Rescue (ACR), founded in 1997, is much like the TNR organizations we know today that not only TNR cats but also provide a foster and adoption program for friendly cats and kittens. ACR offers a low-cost spay/neuter clinic, Cat Action Teams to help people throughout the United States, the May Spay Challenge, and a successful barn cat program relocating feral cats to backyards, barns, warehouses, and shops to provide rodent control, plus information on low-cost clinics and services all over the country. ACR began a TNR program in Los Angeles in 2015 and has sterilized hundreds of cats in the city. ACR also launched the Spring Spay Challenge, a global event inviting vets to provide two or more free or low-cost sterilizations per week for community cats during March, April, and May, just before and at the beginning of kitten season.

Also an advocate of wild cats, Holton launched a project in South Africa in 2008 to help the African wildcat that is the ancestor of our domestic cat, Felis lybica, remain pure and free from hybridization by funding sterilization of 500 feral cats outside the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. With funding from then IDEXX CEO, Jon Ayers, ACR started funding a project in 2019 along the border of Kruger National Park in South Africa where many African wildcats still live in a pure form.


Alley Cat Rescue’s Guide to Managing Community Cats (download here)

Alley Cat Rescue website

Trap-neuter-return (Wikipedia)

Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals


Art With Donation from Portraits of Animals!

marker illustration of 63 cats
“The TNR Story”, 8″ x 14″, Sharpie markers © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

This award-winning art was inspired by working in post op at the May 25, 2014 Homeless Cat Management Team TNR clinic. I’ll make a $5.00 donation to HCMT for each poster sold to help spay and neuter more cats so there won’t be so many to rescue. Quantity discounts are available if you want a stack for a clinic or event. Read more about this artwork and purchase a print of this sketch.


All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

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Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life

Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters

Tuesday: Rescue Stories

Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork

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Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy

Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats

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From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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