May 17, 2007

Feral Cats

Posted in animal advocacy, companion animals, feral cats at 2:09 pm by nevavegan

I got into a pretty good discussion with Invisible Voices regarding her post about what people expect from animals. I hate to totally steal someone’s idea, but she got me going, and it’s going to be longer than a comment, so here goes…

One area where I find the disconnect between people’s expectations of animals and the reality and needs of those animals is in trying to help feral cats. Cats, as probably the most popular companion animal in the U.S., really bring out emotional reactions in people. We love to hug them, and pet them, and videotape them and put it on youtube… But despite this, cats are also probably the most frequently abandoned companion animals too. When they don’t live up to expectations, or exhibit an undesired behavior, or simply become inconvenient some people just drop them off at the shelter, still more simply turn the cats out of doors to fend for themselves.

After all these years of rescuing many types of animals, cats are still the animals I interact with most often, largely because there are just so many of them in need of help. Also of course, I’m qualified to provide some basic care to sick or starving cats, but when it comes to wildlife I don’t try because I’m not trained. So when I find wildlife in need of help (other than my mass fish rescue in which the fish merely needed to be put into water) I take injured birds, frogs, and squirrels to a wildlife rehabber.

The issue of feral cats really brings out divisions among the animal rights, animal welfare, and animal protection concerns. Those of us who have worked over a period of time with feral cat colonies have come to realize that feral cats, though they look just like every other house cat, are essentially wild animals, and this creates a whole different set of needs and concerns. When I find a tame cat, one who seeks out the company of people, living on the street, starving, my primary concern is to get that cat off of the street and into a home. A cat who trusts and loves people can become a target of violence and abuse from deranged people. A feral cat on the other hand will not only avoid people, but can be quite adept at avoiding capture.

When I’ve found a tame cat in need of help I’ve often just grabbed her up in my arms and carried her to safety. In the case of traumatized or stressed strays, I may have to scruff them and put them into a carrier. The only way to catch a feral cat is with a humane box trap, and even that is not a sure bet. One night Sean and I watched in disbelief as a female cat in a colony we were helping did incredible acrobatics to get the cat food out of the trap and still escape just as the door was shutting on her. They can be very clever, these ferals.

Even so, when I talk about managing a feral cat colony by sterilizing the adult cats and putting them back into the colony setting (actually the location nearly all of them have lived their entire lives) many animal-lovers will express concern to me that the cats might become victims of violence.

I do believe that feral cats are more able to hide, and more able to defend themselves than other cats, but it is a possibility that they could be targets of violence. We actually hope to reduce that possibility through the neutering, because it will reduce the behaviors that attract attention to the cats, like territorial marking, or loud yowling during mating season.

However, there is still the possibility that some kind of harm may come to the cats. As much as that possibility distresses me, I have to take a step back and regard it much as I would the possibility that harm will come to raccoons, squirrels, birds, or any other essentially wild, outdoor-living animal. That is I have to let go of some of my expectations about cats, that they love people, live indoors, and get pampered. I have to instead take a good hard cold dose of reality and ask what is best for the cats, and what their needs and expectations are.

If I think about myself there’s naturally always the chance that I could die a horrible death tomorrow (or later today for that matter). The tragedy at VA Tech and the crime stats for my neighborhood demonstrate that most of us are at some kind of risk all the time. Yet, I’d still rather take my chances with that than get a lethal injection today.

When individuals or groups advocate rounding up feral cats, taking them to the shelter, holding them on the off-chance that someone wants to adopt them, and then euthanizing them, this shows how skewed their expectations of these animals are. For a feral cat any close interaction with a human is terrifying and stressful. Being held in a shelter is sheer terror for a feral. The painless lethal injection in this light becomes less humane. My husband and I always say that if someone was completely set on killing feral cats, it would be more humane to shoot them, or put out food laced with drugs to make them sleep and then somehow kill them there on the spot. Several days of being carted around and held in a stressful environment is honestly worse for them than even a couple minutes of pain.

Luckily though, there are non-lethal ways to control feral cat populations, namely neutering them and putting them back into the colony. True, catching them and taking them to the vet is incredibly stressful for them, but it improves their overall health, and since they have years left to enjoy their lives, we consider it a good trade off. We also take steps to calm them during the process, like covering the traps with towels or sheets so they won’t see a lot of people, they’ll feel somewhat hidden and protected. This definitely works as I’ve observed cats going nuts in the traps, only to instantly calm down when the trap is covered. We also make sure they have a calm, quiet place to recover, without many people or strange animals around. Instead the only other creatures they’ll see most of the time are their colony-mates, other cats they already know.

Of course people are also worried about the effect of feral populations on the ecosystem. I don’t want to be dismissive of concerns, but actually neutering the cats and leaving them in the colony has been shown in study after study to reduce the overall population of ferals. While removing and killing colony members has actually been shown to speed up the reproductive cycle of the remaining cats, so that the population typically continues to grow.

I do wonder how much harm feral cats can do in an urban environment. While we’re all concerned about preserving songbird populations, many of the birds in urban settings are ferals themselves, like house sparrows and pigeons. Additionally the common city rats (Norway rats) and many of the mice in urban settings are also introduced species. So a feral cat in Washington, DC is not the same as setting a bunch of cats loose on a small island inhabited by rare birds who have never encountered a predator before.

This area also used to have predators the size of house cats, roughly, in terms of the American Bob Cat. We however drove most native predators out of this region, and so they have been replaced with predators more adapted to living near humans, like feral cats and increasingly coyotes.

People should keep in mind that feral cats in urban environments help keep rodent populations (most of them as I said imported, non-native rodents) under control, without the use of poisons which pollute the environment and can kill other animals like birds and companion animals. Don’t get me wrong, I love mice and rats, they’re clever complex creatures, but within the urban ecosystem there’s always the chance of one population or another becoming out of balance.

Another concern people have about ferals is that exposure to harsh weather is cruel. But feral cats do not get cold during the winter in the same way humans do. Though it is always good to provide a colony of feral cats with insulated shelters for the coldest months, most cats find ways to keep warm. They huddle together for warmth when they rest, they go into the sewers where it’s warmer, and they are experts at finding warm spots. They also have fur to keep them warm of course.

Ok, some obligatory cuteness… Rescued kittens

So we have an obligation to help to reduce the feral cat populations, a problem we humans created through our own irresponsibility, while at the same time respecting the unique nature and needs of a feral population.



  1. Deb said,

    You bring up so many good points! I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before, that ferals are wild animals in the same way that birds and foxes and mice are, but it is true. I’ve heard arguments in favor of the automatic euthanasia when “controlling” a feral population, but it seemed off to me, for the reasons you stated – that the actual numbers are kept lower when there is an established colony there already. (my bio background coming into play again!)

    I don’t have any direct experience myself, so it is always good to hear from people who are speaking from experience, not just theory.

    It also made me think of the mute swans (animal person wrote about it in a few posts in the past few weeks) and in general about species like starlings. I think it is starlings.

    A lot of people see them as an intrusive species, because they’ve pushed a lot of other species out. It isn’t ideal, of course, but that pushes human expectations on how nature should be. How arrogant of us! Nature is fluid. There are predators, there are prey. The predators compete with each other for resources, and so do the prey. The balances are always changing, even in “stable” ecosystems. Why humans expect that things will stay the same or that a random population point in the past is re-reachable, is really sort of absurd, when you really start to think about how things work in nature.

    And you brought up the bobcats – foxes are actually pretty good at hunting birds too. I could list several adaptations the red foxes have, physically. From their bone density (lighter than most in the canine family, to make them better jumpers), smaller stomachs (again, the jumping), and several other things. Foxes are also really good at living in urban areas. So we can push the bobcats out, and guess what? The foxes will move in in greater numbers because they have less competition. This is one example of how nature works.

    Plus, when you get down to it, humans are causing a lot more problems for the song birds than the feral cats ever could. Hello, ddt. I think that was us, not the ferals. Silent Spring was written in the 70’s (which reminds me that i need to read it – i’ve only heard what it is about) and I don’t think we’ve really learned that lesson yet. not when we continue to blame ferals for songbird deaths while ignoring our own responsibilities along those lines.

    Of course all of that is sort of a tangent (big surprise! lol) to the main point, which is about the ferals, and what they would chose given the choice between their colony-mates and humans. And I guess they are making that choice already. We just need to start listening.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Basically I feel like if everything else is equal then it’s better to not have “invasive species” but since there are so many here already it’s difficult to target just one or two obvious species. Often a new species will move in because there’s a vacuum when another species been driven out.

  3. Ariix said,

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Neva 🙂

  4. Vincent Guihan said,

    Word. Excellent post.

  5. Neva Vegan said,

    Thank you!! It’s amazing how many “animal people” still don’t get the feral cat issue.

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