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For many people, feral cats are invisible, transparent as glass; going unnoticed in their daily struggle to survive, surrounded by folks who don’t give them a second glance. Some cat lovers notice feral cats. They invest their time, money and energy into taking care of these cats, but for most people, if the cats are noticed at all, it’s only to be tormented and treated as pests.
What a shame. Because feral cats are just that, they are cats. They are domestic cats gone feral, biologically identical to their pet brethren (those pampered felines that share our lives). Feral cats have the same emotional and mental capabilities and needs, even if they have grown away from human companionship. Feral cats are not wild animals.
What is a Feral Cat?
One definition would be a cat that did not have proper socialization with humans during the critical stages of 2 to 12 weeks of age. At this stage of its life, a kitten develops a basic concept of the world around him. What the kitten is not introduced to early on, is likely to intimidate him later in life. So, not exposed to close human contact at a young age, the kitten will grow up apprehensive of most human beings.
That being said, inherent temperament also plays a large part in a cat’s tendency to move away or be close to people. Some pet cats, born and raised with people, may still be timid and shy. On the other hand, some true feral cats can show distinct tendencies towards creating human contact with the people they trust.
In addition to the criteria of socialization with people, we need to consider the standards of the cat’s current dwelling conditions. Feral cats do not have the advantage of being raised in a home; unless rescued, they remain homeless for the rest of their lives, living on the streets and in back allies, in every town and city worldwide. Therefore, when they are captured and placed in a home, the environment is so alien to them they do not know how to respond and will go into hiding and seclusion. This behavior tends to frustrate some pet owners, for they are expecting this feral cat to respond as a domestic cat would. It takes time, and patience, but eventually you can bond with a feral cat.
Not every cat that you see on the street is necessarily feral. Some of them may be strays. A stray is a pet cat that was either abandoned or got lost. They belonged in a home once and if they are not re-homed quickly, strays will often die on the streets for they lack the survival skills of the ferals.
All feral cats have pet cat roots. However, most of these traits are buried deep, taken over by the survival tendencies essential for their continued existence in harsh conditions. They are all offspring of stray cats that survived long enough on the streets to produce kittens. And there is the crux of the problem: Pet owners not being responsible enough to spay and neuter.
The Problem of Feral Cat Overpopulation
It is estimated that there are over 60 million feral cats in the United States. While more people are becoming involved in taking care of feral cats, most ferals still lack access to proper feeding, veterinary care and shelter from the elements.
Cats are extremely fertile. Given ways to secure water, and food and placed in the right climate, they can produce two to three litters of kittens each year. On the streets, as conditions are far from ideal, most of the kittens die. However, some make it to adulthood bringing another generation of feral cats into the world.
Over the past century, people moving into urban areas have inadvertently created ecological niches for feral cats. By providing open garbage cans, sources of water such as air conditioning systems, and buildings to provide shelter, mankind has allowed the feral cat population different ways to continue growing. Cat lovers taking pity on feral cats may throw them leftovers. While done with the best of intentions, this only serves to attract more cats, until the person feeding the cats realizes (sometimes too late) that she can no longer support them all.
When overcrowded and not taken care of, feral cats tend to make people angry. Even cat owners sometimes detest them, joining a communal effort “to do something” about this problem. Unmanaged feral cats can cause problems. They get into the garbage; they fight at night (especially during mating season). Whole males are territorial, chasing pet cats as well as spraying urine around. In unmanaged colonies, the sight of starving, sick and injured cats and kittens is sadly a common occurrence.
Controlling The Feral Cats Population
Millions of cats all over the world have lost their lives due to the misguided belief that feral cats should be exterminated like vermin. Unfortunately, some municipalities still believe that feral cats can and should “be eradicated”. In reality, this is never a viable option. With cats being such prolific animals, any space made available by removing or destroying other cats will soon be filled again. Eliminating cats, by poisoning them on the streets or trapping them and putting them to sleep, requires trained staff and a lot of preparations – it’s by no means cheap. And to overcome the ever-breeding cats, these gruesome operations must be repeated often. Not only are these methods cruel and inhumane, but taxpayers’ money is wasted as well.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. Developed over the last few decades, cat welfare organizations have come up with a method that is both humane and effective – Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR for short.
Applying a TNR program to a colony of feral cats means humanely trapping the cats, neutering all of them (and at the same time applying other medical care if necessary) then returning them back to their habitat. In many areas, there are protocols in place ensuring that the whole procedure is done with a minimal amount of stress or risk to the cats involved. If you find that you need to trap a cat, please follow the guidance of one of the organizations that specialize in TNR.
Why TNR Works
Although the feral cats are returned to their place of origin (a concept that sometimes deters the people who want to abolish the cats), the problems associated with the presence of those cats disappear. The neutered cats that don’t howl at night; have a diminished need for food. Now that no tomcats or pregnant or lactating females are in the colony, the males will cease spraying. They also quit fighting over the females. This results in a marked decrease in sick or injured cats. This also stops inbreeding, As an added benefit, caretakers of feral cats often get guidance from the organizations involved on how to properly take care of the colony, in the best interest of cats and people alike.
While it may seem costly to spay and neuter feral cats, low-cost spaying clinics are often available. In many places around the world, municipalities are funding the TNR programs or carrying them out on their own, having discovered that the TNR option is in fact more cost-effective than any other method of population control.
What You Can Do For Feral Cats
First of all, acknowledge their presence. They are cats just like your beloved Fluffy – they are not wild animals and they do need your help. Taking care of feral cats can be very rewarding.
The most important aspect would be to contact the various organizations and learn more about how to take care of these cats. Learn how to go about having your colony neutered or spayed. If you cannot afford to spay and neuter, please don’t feed the feral cats. You will only be creating problems for the cats and yourself. Carrying out a TNR project is the right way to go – but do make sure you are proceeding in the correct manner.
Feral cats often need you to speak up for them. If your community is still unaware of the benefits of TNR, then research the issue. www.straypetadvocacy.org is a great place to start looking for materials that will help you win your argument. If feral cats are being abused or killed where you live, report the matter to Alley Cat Allies, (also a great place for you to learn more about how to take care of feral cats and how to carry out a TNR program).
Let’s do something for the feral cats — we created the problem and it is our responsibility to help them now. They really are not transparent, and they are everywhere you look!
Get help for your questions and support from fellow lovers of feral cats at our Caring For Strays And Ferals Forum.
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