Sneaking through back alleyways and abandoned lots, millions of feral and stray cats make their homes in our cities and rural areas. Often fearful of people, these “wild” cats are blamed for everything from decimating bird populations to killing sea otters. What’s the truth behind these feral felines and why are some people so determined to save their lives?
By: Dr. Jim Humphries, Veterinary News Network
Cat lovers are abundant across this country as is evident by the more than 80 million pampered felines sharing our homes. But, living outdoors is another huge population of cats that has far fewer admirers and lives in constant danger of imminent death, usually at our hands!
There is no way of knowing for certain, but experts estimate that the feral cat population in North American equals or even exceeds the “owned” cat population. A feral cat is one that is unsocialized to humans and actively avoids contact. Stray cats, on the other hand, are often ones that have left home or are cats that have been abandoned by their owners. These “strays” will often approach humans and even allow petting. All cats, feral, stray and owned cats who are simply roaming the neighborhood are all members of our domestic species, Felis catus.
Traditionally, feral and stray cats are caught whenever possible and taken to local animal shelters. There, if they are calm enough for adoption, they might find a new home, but the vast majority of these felines end up dying at the end of a euthanasia needle. According to Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org) 70% of cats who make it into a shelter are killed, making euthanasia the number one documented cause of feline deaths in the U.S.
Alley Cat Allies started in 1990 proposing to stop the killing of millions of cats. Becky Robinson, one of the founders, remembers walking in an alleyway and seeing a whole colony of “tuxedo cats”. Watching the cats interact gave her insight into the social lives of these “wild” animals and prompted her to work towards their preservation. Since that memorable night, Becky and her volunteers have introduced Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) to the United States. Originally conceived in England, these TNR programs have helped improve the health of many feral cats through vaccinations and sterilization.
In a nutshell, TNR allows volunteers to capture feral cats using humane cage traps. The cats are then taken to participating veterinarians who anesthetize, neuter and vaccinate the animals. After an identifying notch is placed in the cat’s ear, they are allowed to recover in the cage and then returned to their original capture site and their home colony. Caretakers then monitor the overall health of the colony and conduct a population census while providing feeding stations for the cats.
The TNR programs are not without critics though. Bird watchers worry about how feral cats impact songbirds and other wildlife. Neighbors living near feral cat colonies are concerned about cats urinating and defecating in their yards. And, public health officials are concerned about potential transmission of diseases like toxoplasmosis, plague, and rabies. The website TNR Reality Check (www.tnrrealitycheck.com) maintains that there is little proof that TNR programs work to control populations of feral cats.
Ms Robinson disagrees and points to several recent scientific articles that show TNR is a valid principle for controlling and even reducing the size of a feral cat colony. Furthermore, she questions the validity of claims by groups such as the American Bird Conservancy that these cats are the biggest threat to songbird survival.
Cat owners should take care that they are not adding to this controversial issue. Many of the cats in these colonies are abandoned at the site by their owners. Some people fear taking their cats to shelters and feel less guilty about leaving the cat alone outdoors if they know the colony has a caretaker providing food. This, however, is unfair to the people trying to maintain the colony and also exposes your unprepared cat to the dangers of the outdoor world.
If your personal circumstances change so that you are unable to keep your cat, don’t simply leave him or her at the mercy of the outdoors. Contact your local humane groups or shelters for their advice and assistance in re-homing your feline friend.
Dealing with the millions of feral and stray cats in this country will be a controversial topic for many years. But, as Becky Robinson says, “cats have lived on the outskirts of our society for almost 10,000 years. This is a fact we shouldn’t try to change.”
To learn more about the work of feral cat organizations across the country, you can visit www.alleycat.org.