If you have ever tried to approach a stray kitty on the street only to watch it glare at your with wild eyes and dart under the nearest car or bush, it is very likely you have met a feral cat.
The Feral Cat
A feral cat is one that has been born in the wild and so has never been touched by a human hand. Feral means "wild".
Feral cats usually live in colonies on empty or abandoned urban properties, in city parks, alleyways, dumps, in the grassy areas of school campuses, farms or anywhere they can manage to find food and shelter.
The Stray Cat
A feral cat and a stray cat are not quite the same thing.
A stray is a cat that has been owned at one time, and has either become lost or been abandoned. It has returned, partly or wholly, to a wild state. The stray may be wary of a people but because it has at one time been comfortable with humans, it may be possible for a person to earn its trust again, given patience and time.
If the stray cat becomes pregnant and gives birth in the wild, her kittens, however, will be true ferals.
The Number Of Ferals
Although there are no concrete statistics, it is estimated there are more than a million feral and stray cats in the US alone. Because cats reproduce quickly and at a very young age, feral cats are a growing concern in many cities. A single female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 cats in seven years, producing two or three litters per year.
The Problem Of Feral Cats
The problem of feral cats isn't new nor is an issue unique to any single country. Some European cities have been dealing with the problem of too many feral cats since the 1600's. As the numbers in an individual population of feral cats grows, certain problems arise:
- Most feral cats must hunt for their food. If their food prey includes birds, and especially if those bird species are endangered, bird-lovers will want to protect the birds by eliminating the cats.
- The bathroom habits of feral cats can be annoying and unsanitary if they begin to leave their "calling cards" in city gardens and alleyways.
- Un-neutered male cats on the prowl at night yowl, scream and fight other males, disturbing the sleep habits of their human neighbors.
- Feral cats can carry diseases including toxoplasmosis and rabies, creating a risk to both humans and their pets.
The Old-Fashioned Solutions To Feral Cat Control
Going back centuries, when feral cats populations grew large enough to become a problem, the solution was often violent. Feral cats were:
- Captured in a leg-hold traps, then killed
- Trapped by animal control officers and euthanized (as the feral cat is unadoptable)
These solutions were often temporary, because when all the wild cats were eliminated from a territory, more feral cats often moved into the area within a relatively short time.
Trap - Neuter - Return (TNR)
The modern solution to controlling feral cat populations is to trap is called Tray-Neuter-Return or TNR for short. This TNR process effectively decreases the number of feral cats because they are no longer able to reproduce, yet maintains a population of cats in the area.
In a typical TNR protocol:
- Each feral cat is live-trapped individually.
- The captured cat is spayed or neutered.
- The cat is vaccinated for rabies and distemper.
- Each cat is ear-notched to allow it to be easily identified visually as a member of a feral colony that has been neutered. Ear-notching prevents an animal from being "treated" more than once.
- In some instances the cat is microchipped for further identification.
- The cat is re-released back into its home area.
- Any kittens captured are given to shelters to be adopted if they are young enough to be socialized with people.
- Very sick cats or cats carrying disease that make them a danger to other cats are humanely euthanized.
Funding Of TNR Programs
Most TNR programs are run by volunteers who watch over the feral colonies, process any new arrivals and often supplement the colony's food sources by providing commercial cat food. The cost of veterinary care (neutering, vaccinations, etc) is covered by public donations. Some enlightened cities have government funded programs for TNR.