A Final Word About the Future

Until we collectively abandon our first notion of attempting to tame and place or relocate every feral cat, we will continue to be "behind the eightball" in our efforts to get ahead in the game of feral cat overpopulation. And until we change our perceptions of what natural cat behavior is by believing that the only place they can be happy and safe is in a home or a barn setting, the more we will fall behind in our goal to reduce the overpopulation of feral cats and reduce the unbelievable number that are killed each day.

Essentially, our progress depends on how much and how effectively we can reprogram our minds away from homing and relocating feral cats and towards trap-neuter-return (TNR).

While we are putting off trapping and sterilizing to wait for eligible and safe barn homes in which to relocate, or for openings in already overflowing sanctuaries (some of which are only equipped to cage the cats for the rest of their lives), more feral cats are being born.

While we put off trapping and sterilizing to wait for volunteers (who are not already inundated with their share of rescued strays) to devote their limited time and limited space in their homes to tame feral cats, more feral cats are being born.

While we wait hopefully for the local authorities or volunteer humane groups in our communities to develop programs to deal with feral cat overpopulation, more feral cats are being born.

Clearly, the ball is in our court. When so many thousands of cats-both domestic and feral-are killed every day, it is up to the compassionate individual to take definitive action with TNR.

The overpopulation of feral cats did not just happen recently. It has evolved over a very long period of time. While the exact number is unknown, there are an estimated 60 to100 million in the U.S. alone.

Many reasons account for the overpopulation of feral cats:

  • cats were trusted to fend for themselves (and these are usually unsterilized cats)

  • spay/neuter was not widely available

  • spay/neuter was not affordable spay/neuter was not considered necessary by veterinarians until after seven or eight months of age, even though most cats are sexually mature by six months of age; many people were advised to allow their cat to have at least one litter before spaying

  • early-age spay/neuter was not available

  • animal agencies who place cats do not follow up on spay/neuter compliance

  • the public was not aware of or concerned about the overpopulation crisis and the resulting high kill rates in our shelters

    This is by no means a complete list. But adding to the mix is the fact that cats are prolific-extremely prolific. The population was out of control years before the current movement to spay and neuter on a large scale.

    The horrifying reality is that, within a matter of a few years, cats have not only become the number one companion animal, but also the animal most killed in our shelters. The facts are stupefying. We live in a country where 17,000 cats are killed each day-healthy cats, both domestic and feral. Population control must be our number one priority. Non-lethal control.

    The most effective and efficient means of keeping ahead of the overpopulation of feral cats is through TNR. TNR is the method recommended thirty years ago by the pioneering scientists, veterinarians and caretakers in Denmark and England. The successful guidelines we use today are based on their research and recommendations. That is, the sterilization of all cats in a colony (not just either males or females) and returning them to their original colony site.

    Feral cats are the result of lost and abandoned cats left to breed unchecked and are a significant percentage of the overall number of felines who make up the numbers of unwanted "surplus" animals. They don't fit into the behavior patterns we expect to see in our domestic cats. Still, we have lumped domestics and ferals together in the same category as "companion animals." Yes, ferals are offspring of the companions who share our homes, beds, and laps, but the definition of feral-existing in a wild or untamed state-reveals how much we must change our perception of these wild creatures.

    "The cat was one of the last animals to be domesticated, thousands of years later than the dog and readily reverts to living wild," says biologist Roger Tabor in his book Understanding Cats

    Tabor, one of the world's foremost experts on feral cats, has been studying them since the mid-1970s. He maintains that feral cats living a wild existence can manage extremely well in most cases to maintain healthy, happy, and relatively long lives.

    For many years it has been a widely accepted statement that the life span of cats living outdoors was less than three years, more often even closer to one year. The fact is, however, that there is no scientific background for that statement and, in addition, no one has been able to ascertain who or what group is responsible for initially reporting it. To the contrary, Alley Cat Allies and others, especially in the U.K., who have worked with ferals on a long-term basis, have found that the life span is in actuality closer to 10 years.

    Because the cat is now the number one companion animal in the U.S. and in the U.K., our society is forgetful that this is a recent role. Around 4.000 years ago in ancient Egypt, cats made their way into homes from the wild. In the 1500s, only the most daring would admit to liking a cat. Even by the 1800s, cats were "still stigmatized by the taint of witchcraft, which had left residual antipathy and antagonism towards cats," says Tabor in Understanding Cats.

    Since that time a shift has occurred. Attitudes have evolved (especially in the U.S. and U.K.) toward cats as companion animals, including acknowledgment of the humane treatment that is their right. Humane groups in the U.S. hold the theory that all cats, whatever their circumstances, are better off indoors in a traditional home environment.

    Because of this shift in perception, cats are now the victims of new stigmas equally as serious as those under which they lived during medieval times. They are now seen as killers, devastators of wildlife, spreaders of deadly disease, and polluters of the environment (are cats the unfortunate mirror we are now holding up to ourselves?). Cats are killed daily by the thousands because of these perceptions-shades of the Dark Ages-but with the salve to our collective conscience that it is for their own good. And keeping all of them exclusively indoors is for their own good too. But is it really?

    For some, yes. For others, no

    There is a gray area in which we find our feral friends, who may already be safe and happy in the environment in which we found them.

    Besides the fact that relocation is difficult and can only work if strict guidelines are followed, relocations can sometimes plunge a fearful and stressed feral cat into a situation more precarious than the one he was taken from. Unfamiliar surroundings, established cats and other animals, and a multitude of other factors can cause relocation to be a miserable fate for a cat who was previously happy and assimilated into his old environment.

    Sanctuaries, as previously mentioned, are full to overflowing and can also be a stressful and unhappy existence for some cats-especially if they spend all or most of the time caged. Additionally, such wonderful and conscientious sanctuaries as Best Friends in Kanab, Utah, are only able to take in six new feral cats per month, according to Karen Green, animal placement assistant at Best Friends. "We receive requests to take in as many as 600 cats every month, both domestic and feral," Green says. "The ferals we do take are usually only those with very special needs, medical or otherwise. We counsel many of the people who call us to implement a TNR program in their area." Green has also observed the stress factor for ferals who are removed from their familiar surroundings.

    Animal behaviorist and author Peter Neville has this to say in his Claws and Purrs: Understanding the Two Sides of Your Cat: "In so many cases feral cats would have fared better if they had been left to take their chances on the wild side rather than put in the halfway house of the animal sanctuary for sometimes a lengthy, or even a lifetime, sentence. [In the wild state] it will usually have acquired sufficient immunity to local viruses to survive and will be able to live on those highly evolved wits."

    To make matters worse for the feral cat, accurate information about true cat behavior has been lacking in the U.S. An understanding of ferals and their ability to survive, and to be "fit and robust" (Tabor) in their wildness, is only recent in this country. Even the term "feral cat" was largely unknown by the general public until fairly recently, and still, as many caretakers find, requires frequent explaining. According to SPAY/USA in their Winter 1999 issue of Network News, "Ten years ago we heard next to nothing about feral cats. Thanks to intensive work-particularly by Alley Cat Allies-these cats began to be recognized."

    For the sake of feral cats we must come to the realization that they can live safe and happy lives outdoors in an urban environment.

    TNR is the kindest act a dedicated caretaker can perform to assure the health and long life of the colony

    This concept is not new and has been prevalent in England, a country we can all agree is in the vanguard of "animal-friendly" nations, and where feral cats are accepted as part of the urban wildlife. We must not let misinformation and misguided feelings of guilt about returning sterilized ferals to their environment undermine our ultimate goal to control their populations through non-lethal means.

    It is true that some feral cats (particularly kittens) can be tamed and placed in homes and it is also true that in some cases a feral colony has become established in an unsafe environment and must be moved. But until we stop focusing on homing and relocation as primary goals, and focus on TNR-with emphasis on sterilization-we will rapidly lose ground. We will never get ahead of the game in population control, and we will never get ahead of the game in changing people's perceptions about cats as accepted and welcome members of our urban environment.