A feral cat is one that you might see around your neighborhood, hiding under porches, or parked cars, existing on the fringes of human society. Unfortunately, these poor creatures all share a very typical fate: difficult lives that end far sooner than cats who have someone to love and care for them. Fortunately however, reaching out a caring, helping hand isn’t difficult, and it’s also very rewarding, with long term benefits.
A feral cat can be defined in this way: “a cat who has no socialization, or, is too poorly adapted to be handled, and cannot be adopted into a typical home”. That is a heart breaking definition. Even more heart breaking – today, there are an estimated 80 million ferals roaming the streets in cities and suburban areas all across the United States; that’s just as many feral cats as cats who live in suitable homes. And, as female cats can become pregnant as early as 16 weeks of age, and then go on to produce up to three litters per year, the problem is almost incomprehensible – one single female cat and her offspring can in turn produce 420,000 more.
It might be easy to envision a cat roaming free and enjoying the life of a hunter and tiny tiger, master of its domain, but that is sadly not the reality of a feral cat’s life. The truth is that they live in all types of weather, often without adequate shelter, and certainly without shelter beyond what they can provide for themselves, all while avoiding cars, scavenging food from trash dumpsters, and being preyed upon by other wild animals.
They are subject to diseases, the never ending cycle of pregnancy, birth, nursing and weaning, and the abuse of any random person who has a mind to do them harm. It’s little wonder that the lifespan of the typical feral cat is a maximum of three years, while well cared for cats in loving homes can easily live into their teens. It’s also worth pointing out that feral cats cause a variety of issues for the humans who co-exist with them such as noisy cat fights usually in the wee hours of the morning, territory marking, infestations of fleas and of course, the breeding.
Many animal experts advocate TNR programs – which stands for “trap-neuter-return”. TNR programs are aimed at reducing the overall incidence of unwanted cat populations by taking the proactive steps necessary to break the endless cycle of reproduction among ferals. The programs work in this fashion: the cats are captured humanely, examined by a veterinarian, vaccines are administered, and they are then surgically sterilized and observed for any issues before being returned to their familiar, wild environment. At this point the hope is that caring volunteers from the community might provide food and shelter whenever possible, and observe the feral population for any signs of illness. Those who do advocate these programs claim that the advantages for cats include fewer health problems, and of course the end of unwanted litters. Not all animal advocacy groups stand in support of TNR programs.
They assert that releasing the cats back into the wild is simply abandonment all over again, and the larger problem remains unaddressed. These groups often offer relocation or euthanasia as alternative measures. Relocation may seem like a humane solution at first blush, but, it is ineffective in the long term because a so-called “vacuum effect” exists in feral cats. No matter where these animals are released a new colony will eventually form in that location, because due to their instincts, feral cats gather where they are able to obtain food, water, and shelter – however meager and inadequate. There are still more reasons why relocation isn’t a viable solution. Cats are territorial creatures by nature, and it’s completely natural for a cat to try and return to its established territory, and along the way, while trying to return “home” they are at risk of grave injury or death. As for euthanasia or eradication, while the public will often give generously in charitable support of TNR programs, once the idea of “putting down” animals becomes known, the charity tends to dry up.
You might be asking yourself why feral cats aren’t being tamed and adopted out to loving pet parents. The sad reality is, an adult feral cat has returned to a wild state of existence and is therefore virtually impossible to tame. Even through rigorous effort, the percentage of ferals who are eventually socialized in a way that’s sufficient to become a pet, is exceedingly low. The ASPCA supports the continued adoption of available cats and kittens currently living in shelters and awaiting their forever homes. Ultimately, the solution must consist of a final human component. Once the feral cat populations have been trapped and then released, there must be a human caregiver who is willing to adopt the colony and provide for them.
If you have a heart for animals, and I’m sure you do if you’re still reading this article, there is one single action you can take that’s vitally important – don’t contribute to the problem. Our society is more aware than ever of the importance of spaying and neutering our pets, and that’s a good thing. Also, please consider keeping your cat exclusively indoors, to keep him/her as safe as possible, and so they can never be lost and end up a tragic statistic. Beyond that, donate your time, and your money, as often as possible, in whatever ways are possible.
It is our obligation as members of a civilized society to care for those who exist at our mercy. That responsibility absolutely includes domestic animals whom we elected to take from the wild and make our dependents.