From Here to Eternity, Changing the Animal Control Universe for Community Cats

Twenty-five years ago, I would have never imagined that an unmanned spacecraft would hurtle through space on a 3-billion mile journey to the furthest, sunless reaches of our vast solar system. But, thanks to American ingenuity, the fastest spacecraft ever launched will fly by Pluto, the last unexplored planet, to collect data and photograph its frozen surface. NASA's New Horizons' nine and a half year mission will culminate in an historic encounter on July 14.

New Horizons almost didn't leave the ground. The idea was met with underwhelming support. The Bush Administration cancelled the project twice. There it would have ended but for the unceasing determination of a group of grassroots scientists, known as the Pluto Underground. These advocates launched a relentless public engagement campaign in support of the mission. Against all odds, they succeeded and New Horizons blasted off in 2006 thanks to these activists, transforming our universe of information forever.

There are other things I could not have imagined 25 years ago when I had my own historic first encounter with a colony of community cats, also called feral cats. Back then, I could not have imagined that a national, grassroots movement would be actively working toward the day when no cats are killed in America's shelters. I could not have imagined a National Feral Cat Day, or that Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) would be taught at veterinary schools. Nor could I have imagined a national conference that would bring advocates together from all over the country for the sole purpose of saving animals' lives.

Our universe looked very different then. Community cat caregivers desperate for support had nowhere to turn. Standard procedure at animal control facilities was, and remains today, to catch and kill healthy community cats, both adults and kittens. It was blasphemous to suggest there could be high-volume spay and neuter services, TNR programs, kitten nurseries, or treatment for cats with ringworm.

But even back then, when Pluto was just a light speck against the stars, what was once fantasy was becoming reality. Advocacy groups like Alley Cat Allies, founded in 1990, began lobbying nationally for greater protection for cats and for the adoption of TNR in animal shelters. Other organizations began to implement lifesaving programs to save cats too.

A shift in thinking was also occurring in the shelters themselves, with shelter veterinarians challenging false assumptions about TNR and navigating shelters toward progressive programs.

As New Horizons flies by Pluto, nearly 2000 people will be flying to Atlanta to help chart the future for animal care and protection at the Best Friends National Conference. Between July 16-19, colony caregivers, veterinarians, shelter administrators, rescue groups, advocacy professionals and animal lovers will come together to embrace innovation, inspire one another, and share ideas and strategies to save animals.

The fact that the conference is being held in Atlanta is, in itself, meaningful. At one time, the city's shelter system was mired in antiquated thinking and ineffective catch and kill practices. But thanks to former criminal defense attorney, Rebecca Guinn, the trajectory of Atlanta's animal control policies is changing. Guinn founded the Lifeline Animal Project to provide on-the-ground support to colony caregivers and implemented Atlanta's first TNR program. Not only that, she is in the process of leading two of Atlanta's most problematic shelters to embrace TNR. Guinn is speaking at the conference.

As New Horizons makes its final approach, it does so due to the corrective measures its advocates used to help it reach its target. Similarly, the insights, inspiration, and new information collected at the Best Friends National Conference will help advocates reach our target.

We aren't there yet. But we know our destination. When animals are no longer killed in shelters we will have reached our own Pluto.

Follow Becky Robinson on Twitter @FeralBecky.