TNR Doesn’t Add Up

The numbers behind the new “study” showing “comprehensive TNR would cost about $2 billion less than eradication” for local municipalities simply don’t add up. Literally. Advocates for TNR should not use this study puff piece to bolster their position lest they discredit the entire movement for using questionable data to manufacture a benefit that is not supported by real data and uses bogus accounting.

The most obvious error is the failure to account for $ 874,952,500 in savings, which is a full half of the savings the report claims TNR provides.

The report lists 4 cost factors: trap/enforcement, neuter/spay, physical exams, and vaccinations.  The cost summation for these four elements is $14,874,192,500; but the report erroneously lists this as $13,999,240,000 which is nearly $875 million underreported.

There is no excuse for such a blatant error.

Now, before you get the mistaken impression that the cost figures in this study are highly accurate because of the many non-zero digits, the authors of the report are disguising how much rounding they have done by not obeying the convention of significant figures.  The budget numbers show superfluous precision.  The numbers reported imply a specificity of measurement that is much higher than the actual data gives.  You might assume that this error is introduced by multiplying a very specific cost per cat (say $148.74) by a very large but imprecise number of cats (say 100,000,000).  This is not the case. The creator of this report is using a very imprecise number for the cost per cat ($180) multiplied by an overly precise number for the feral cat population (87,495,250).  It’s unlikely that such a number can be estimated to within a million cats, let alone tens of cats as the report suggests.

So, let’s look at the data in a way that’s easier to comprehend.  Here, I simply divided the listed costs by the listed number of feral cats, and behold: the costs per cat are all perfectly even numbers rounded to the nearest $10!  This is not the work of a scientist or a statistician or even an accountant. The cost per cat for these various procedures is the one bit of data in this study that could reasonably be estimated down to the penny from empirical data. Yet it’s not.  This is sloppy math and reeks of a PR firm hired to cook up some data instead of a legit study that was commissioned by a neutral and independent source aimed at doing real analysis.

This isn’t a real study as it relies on no original research and fails to cite the most important numerical assumptions used in the formulation of its conclusion, specifically the per cat costs of the options listed, e.g. vaccinations, physical examinations, etc.  This would be the raison d’etre of such a study if it were authentic: to compare costs.  Instead, this report throws in useless citations that don’t actually provide useful data. The one citation that portends to corroborate the $15.7 billion calculation points to the HSUS website with a note that they estimate the cost of animal control at over $18.7 billion.  Not only could I not find this data at the site given, we are given no reason to believe that this HSUS number (which is the size of the NASA budget or the yearly profits of Chevron) speaks to the same costs that are listed in this report.

And let’s look at the numbers given in the report. Do they even pass the sniff test? NO!

The estimate of the number of feral cats is suspicious and unsourced.  This report lists 87.5 million but does not provide any real details on the calculation, just a lot of mumbo-jumo that was obviously stolen from another report.  For instance, why would the number of feral cats be dependent on the “unemployment rate” and if these costs are so carefully adjusted for regional variations why are such crude estimates used?  The HSUS which is sited as a source estimates “as many as 50 million feral cats in the United States,” which is a far cry from 87.5 million.  Since this report is focusing on the difference in total cost and not the much more modest difference in per cat cost, the motive here is clear: make the difference number as large as possible by reporting as many feral cats as possible.

There’s also no reason to find the total number of feral cats in the United States in such a complicated matter if the goal of the study is to do a cost comparison between three alternatives and you’re using the exact same price values for every cat in the country.  Any policy maker can choose which option on the cost per cat basis.  Saying $170 per cat versus $180 per cat just isn’t as sexy as “nearly TWO BILLION in savings!” (well nearly $875 million, but who is counting anyway?).

Let’s look at the per cat costs that this report implies. We have the trap cost of $50 per cat; since this is common among all the plans, we can ignore it for any error here effects all plans equally.

Next, we have a sheltering cost of $40 per cat, a food cost of $40 and laboratory costs of $10.  Why are we sheltering, feeding and testing cats that that are to be euthanized?  The report states that these costs are mandated in many states, yet there are no sheltering or feeding or laboratory costs worked into the TNR numbers.

These numbers are based on the inane assumption that euthanizing every feral cat will require treating every single one of them as a stray, and TNRing every cat will treat none of them as stray.

Equally preposterous is the cost basis of eradication/euthanization vs. the neuter/spay procedure.  Both are estimated to cost $40 per cat. This is preposterous.  There is not a veterinarian on the planet who could perform a spay/neuter operation for the same cost as a euthanasia. A spay is a delicate surgery requiring expensive and specialized equipment, one time use materials, and a surgeon’s skill.  Even a layperson can perform a successful euthanasia with a modicum of training.

Dr. Khuly charges the following retail prices to euthanize a dog at her Florida vet practice:

Catheter: $25
IV Sedation: $20
IV Euthanasia solution: $20

Not only is this the deluxe treatment with catheter and sedation, it’s also the price for a dog. In the comments, numerous people affirmed that the cost to euthanize a cat was significantly less than the cost for a dog given their smaller size.  The lowest prices quoted in the comments were $10 and $16 to euthanize a cat.

She also estimates that vets charge between $75 and $350 to desex a cat (again, much less than the cost for a dog):

Cat spays are priced more uniformly, since there’s not a big divide between the smallest and largest patients. Most are spayed quite young, too, which helps support this uniformity: $75 to $350 is typical.  Cat neuters adhere to an even smaller range: $50 to $150, typically.

So it’s clear that in the retail market the cost to desex a cat is significantly more than euthanasia, perhaps twice or three times the cost.

If we are really committed to euthanizing feral cat colonies instead of running them all through our shelters like lost pets, there are humane methods that can be accomplished in the field for much less than $1 per cat with no need for expensive poisons or a specially trained veterinarian or food costs or boarding costs or any of that.

The most preposterous element of this report is the “supported” package TNR cost, at just $30 per animal.  This figure supposedly relies on the assumption that all the rest of the costs will be donated.  This assumes $7.8 Billion in charity. That’s the entire peace keeping budget of the UN, that’s how much money the US Postal Service is projected to lose in 2010, and it’s also how much money Freddie Mac and CitiGroup lost in the fourth quarter of last year, and it’s the total estimated damage of the earthquake in Haiti. There is not $7.8 Billion in charity waiting for spay/neuter programs and there never will be.

There are between 40,000 and 50,000 veterinarians in the USA.  If every single one of them donated their time to spay and neuter cats, and the average procedure takes 20 minutes, and they all worked non-stop 8 hours, five days a week, it would take over 4 months to complete all the surgeries.  Good luck with that!

I’ve written kind words about TNR, No Kill, and Nathan Winograd in the past and I’m certainly willing to accept a major rethink in policy when the numbers work out.  Advocates of No-Kill do themselves no favor by using this study to bolster their cause.  Heralding such a dubious paid-to-order pseudo study as gospel in favor of No Kill opens up the entire movement to criticism and calls into question all the potential benefits of No Kill and TNR by tainting them with bogus puffery.

It’s a shame that Maddie’s Fund hired a firm to create an interactive fund raising portal instead of commissioning a legitimate study that would have illuminated the situation with good data.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.