Community Cat Advocates Need a Messaging Makeover

August 2012 by Becky Robinson

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

It might be fair to characterize Alley Cat Allies (ACA) President Becky Robinson's attitude toward the current state of community cat advocacy as, "How's that working out for you?"

Despite decades of development of trap-neuter-release (TNR), as well as overwhelming public sentiment against "catch and kill" programs, Becky says that ear-tipped cats in established, managed colonies are being rounded up and killed all over the country.

"We have a very entrenched institutional and government system that's doing the same thing it's been doing despite 20 years of TNR," Robinson said. "These TNR programs are being funded by foundations and individuals, by Maddies Fund®, PetSmart, PETCO, and hundreds of thousands of people. And here's what's happening: ACA is getting calls saying, ‘My ear-tipped cat colony has been trapped and killed.'

"Sometimes that's the result of just one call of complaint. Sometimes the call wasn't even a complaint at all; they were looking for help to get the cats spayed and neutered. But in some government agencies they figure if they're hearing from people, it's a problem."

This experience has set ACA on a new path. "We don't just need tools," she said. "We need to change our philosophy. We in the movement have been framing our message wrong, including ACA. Now, we're trying a different approach. We have separated from the pack."

Robinson's call for change includes the following points:

Don't tell communities what to do about their cats; find out what they want and need. "We were involved in an effort in Santa Ana, California, where there was a typhus outbreak. People were blaming community cats, and we wanted to help.

"We didn't confront them. We didn't do battle with them. We sent three people to work side by side with them.

"We explained that it's fleas, not cats, that spread the disease: ‘Flea treatments? Sure, we can spring for some flea treatments!' Which we did. Within a week, they were asking us for more help."

Don't make assumptions. "We far too often assume communities want to kill cats, or want bad policies. Usually, what they really want is to know how to respond to people who call and complain about cats in their yard or on their car. They need practical help.

"Approach everyone in a community as if they are going to talk to you rationally. If you're going to do a public presentation, you may need to write three drafts and get the venting out of your system first. But after that, approach it as if they're really going to listen."

Get the right people into the right positions. "The person who is an expert at walking the walk may not be an expert at talking the talk. We're action oriented, but working with people and communities is a different world. You can run into some serious opposition and you can turn opponents into allies if you do it right. But you have to switch gears, use your brain in a different way.

"That can be very hard for those who want to see results immediately. The folks who can trap a colony in a week and bottle feed babies when they're half asleep. They can run a spay/neuter day and alter a hundred cats without missing a beat. These people are hands on people, and that's dynamite. But those people are not necessarily good at public speaking, legislation, lobbying, politics, and planning.

"If you don't have someone who is a good public speaker naturally, get them coaching. That person may have people skills and smarts, but may need to be scripted to do a great job of public speaking."

Stop pitting one animal against another. "Community cat advocacy is not about who is right and who is wrong, or cat vs. bird, or a battle of dueling statistics. That is not our goal, it's not the answer, and it's not what Alley Cat Allies advocates.

"The point you need to focus on is that catch and kill is horrible and cruel and doesn't work. It deteriorates the community. It hurts people to round up and kill cats. And catch and kill has helped perpetuate the population of feral cats, the very thing that it set out to stop."


About Becky Robinson:
Becky RobinsonBecky is president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, the nation's only advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats. Based in Bethesda, Maryland, the mission of Alley Cat Allies is to end the killing of cats and lead the movement for their humane care. Under Robinson's leadership, based on years of hands-on investigation and expertise, Alley Cat Allies established the first best-practice standards for Trap-Neuter-Return in the United States. Today, with more than 260,000 supporters all over the world, Alley Cat Allies is the recognized authority on feral cats, and the leader of the movement to protect and improve the lives of cats everywhere.


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