Feral Cats – Living on the Edge of Society

Creeping through the back alleys and vacant lots, millions of stray and feral cats live on the edges of  our cities and suburbs. Fearful of humans, these “wild” cats are blamed for everything from killing off songbirds to attacking the sea otters. So, what is the truth behind these feral felines and why are some humans so determined to help them ans save their lives?

More than 80 million pampered felines share our homes and cat lovers are abundant across our country. But, those cats living outdoors have few admirers and live in constant danger of imminent death, usually at our hands!
There is no way to know for certain, by some experts estimate that the feral cat population in North America may equal or even exceed that of the “owned’ cat population. Feral cats are not socialized to humans and avoid contact with people whenever possible. In contrast, “stray” cats are often those cats that have left a home or have been abandoned by their owners. These strays may have been socialized to humans at one time and will often approach people and may even allow petting.  All cats, feral, stray and owned cats that simply roam the neighborhood are all members of the domestic species, Felis catus.

Traditionally, feral and stray cats are trapped whenever possible and then are taken to local animal shelters. Once at a shelter, if they are socialized to humans and have a calm disposition, some cats may be adopted out. However, the vast majority of these feral cats may be harboring diseases, such as Feline Leukemia, or they are totally wild and cannot be adopted out. These cats will often face death by lethal injection and may be euthanized. According to an organization for feral cats known as Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org) nearly 70% of the cats that arrive at shelters are euthanized making euthanasia the number one documented cause of death in felines in the United States.

Alley Cat Allies formed their organization in 1990 hoping to stop the killing of millions of cats. One of their founders, Becky Robinson, recalls walking in an alleyway and seeing a whole colony of “tuxedo cats”.  Observing the alley cats interacting with one another 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 the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) concept to the United States. Originally conceived in England, these TNR programs have helped to improve the health of many feral cats through vaccinations and sterilization and are working towards reducing the size of the feral cat colonies.

Simply put,  the TNR uses volunteers to capture the feral cats in humane cage traps. These wild cats are then transported to participating veterinarians who anesthetize, neuter and vaccinate the animals. To help identify the cats that have been sterilized so that they do not have to be trapped again, a notch is cut in the cat’s ear. The notched ear is easier to see from a distance than a tattoo on their belly. Once they have recovered from the surgery, the cats are taken back to their original capture location and allowed to re-join their home colony. Caretakers will then monitor the overall health of the colony and conduct a population census while providing feeding stations for the cats.

The TNR programs do have their critics. Bird watchers are concerned about the impact of feral cats on songbird populations and other wildlife. Neighbors living near feral cat colonies worry about cats urinating and defecating in their gardens. While public health officials are concerned about zoonotic diseases, such as toxoplasmosis, plague and rabies. These colonies also seem to have a higher incidence of Feline Leukemia, and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus that can cross over to “owned” cats that may be outside. The website TNR Reality Check (www.tnrrealitycheck.com) states that there is little evidence that TNR programs help control the feral cat population.

Ms. Robinson disagrees with their findings and points to several recent scientific articles that demonstrate TNR is a valid means for controlling and even reducing the size of a feral cat colony. Furthermore, she also questions the validity of claims by such groups as the American Bird Conservancy that feral cats are the biggest threat to songbird survival.
Cat owners may also be contributing to the controversial issue. Many of the cats in these feral colonies are abandoned by their owner and are left to fend for themselves in these colonies. Some cat owners are hesitant to take their cats to animal shelters and may feel less guilty about leaving the cat alone outside if they know the colony of feral cats has a caretaker that is feeding the cats. However, this is unfair to the people attempting to care for the colony and exposes your defenseless cat to the dangers of the outdoor world.
With the economy tightening, many people are given the tough choice concerning their pet cats, especially if they are forced to move and cannot afford the pet deposit of the new apartment or rental house. If your personal circumstances changes and you simply cannot continue to keep your cat, do not simply leave your cat to the mercy of the outdoor elements to fend for himself. Contact your local humane group or city shelter and request their assistance to help find your feline friend a new home.

Dealing with the sheer quantity of millions of feral and stray cats in this country alone will be a controversial topic for many years. But, as Becky 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, feel free to visit www.alleycat.org

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