Historical Background

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) Feral Cat Project (TUFCAT)

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is situated on a vast, 160 hectare property in Bellville South, on the Cape Flats. The campus and its various residences are also home to 28 well-established colonies of feral cats, totaling about 180. The UWC Feral Cat Project (TUFCAT) was initiated by animal loving UWC staff, who could not ignore the plight of the literally hundreds of sick, unsterilized and starving cats.

Lecturer, Sharyn Spicer (Department of Anthropology & Sociology) and the late Andre Oppelt (former Operations Manager) initiated a TNR and feeding programme in 1996, and continues despite many setbacks. These included the tragic death of Andre, the university official who sanctioned the project, as well as major opposition from the adjacent Cape Flats Nature Reserve, which is inhabited by 82 bird species, the cape chameleon and the rare brown spotted mouse.

During our first official audit in 1999, we counted approximately 365 cats. At this stage we were not yet aware of the colonies living at various residences both on and off campus, so in fact numbers were significantly higher. When we counted again in 2000, we counted 356 cats. In 2004 we counted a total of 229 cats (but this did not include the colonies “discovered” thereafter at 3 other residences). Since 2000, we have ensured that the cats have food every single day, including during the university holidays.

Every year, approximately 25–35 cats disappear, die or are put to sleep because they are very ill or injured. About 15-20 new cats arrive per year (either strays wandering onto campus in search of food or mating opportunities or domestic pets that are deliberately dumped) and approximately 5-6 litters (with about 3 kittens in each) survive every year. This number will decrease further as the remaining cats are sterilised. If we can prevent any new births, as well as newcomers arriving on campus, cat numbers will continue to decline steadily. Apart from stopping breeding and keeping the cat’s healthy, once done, the other advantage is that the sterilised cats protect their colonies by chasing away newcomers, thereby keeping the colony stable in terms of numbers. As a direct result of the trapping and sterilisation activities, UWC as a whole is becoming less attractive to wandering opportunistic stray cats seeking food and breeding partners. But, unfortunately it remains a popular dumping site for unwanted domestic pets and we intend to continue running awareness campaigns to try and combat this. We have already witnessed significant improvements and students and staff are increasingly contacting us if they have problems with their animals such as being able to keep them or if they require veterinary attention, rather than simply dumping them on campus and/or elsewhere.

We estimate that by end of 2016, we will have trapped and sterilised almost all the cats living on campus, including those living at off campus residences. This, combined with natural attrition resulting from the relatively high mortality rate of cats, particularly ferals whose average life-expectancy is estimated to be around two years, will reduce the existing cat population even further. Interestingly, many of the UWC cats are seniors and some of the oldest colonies are 12-16 years old! This is remarkable for feral cats.

Overall, the feeding and sterilisation project, along with the extremely popular booksales, has drastically improved the situation in that people on campus are far more tolerant of the cats than they were in the past. Not only are the cats declining in numbers, they are healthier and all in all are seen as less of a nuisance. It is in the interests of the institution to keep (sterilised) core cat colonies on campus to prevent any potential rodent problems from emerging in future. The cat’s rodent management skills have not gone unnoticed and UWC won the Green Campus award in 2012. One of the university’s ‘green’ innovations is the use of feral cats as a form of environmentally-friendly rodent control.

Apart from the cats that currently live on campus, since our inception, we have removed over 850 cats and kittens and about 195 dogs, many of which were tame domestic pets that had been deliberately abandoned. Some of these animals were very ill and had to be put to sleep, but the majority of them were rehabilitated and new homes were found for them. Before they are adopted out, the animals are sterilised, vaccinated and dewormed. In addition they often have to be boarded and advertised before they are adopted and the project pays for all of these costs.

Many institutions and factories continue to opt for inhumane and impractical solutions and attempt to eradicate entire cat colonies. This approach was initially attempted in some places at UWC, such as Hector Petersen Residence. However, as predicted, removing the cats simply created a “vacuum” or ecological niche that was soon filled by opportunistic, unsterilised (and often unhealthy) strays from the surrounding areas.

UWC’s success and humane stance has not gone unnoticed and our project has convinced management at other institutions to follow suit. UWC is frequently cited as an example of “effective humane feral cat management,” thereby facilitating the establishment of similar projects at other institutions who also have many feral cats to manage. These include, Wits University, Pollsmoor Prison; Cape Peninsula University of Technology (Zonnebloem & Pentech campuses), Sun City, Rhodes University UKZN (Durban & Pietermaritzburg campuses). TUFCAT offers advice to companies and individuals dealing with feral cats on an ongoing basis.

TUFCAT has entered into a service agreement with UWC and remain responsible for all aspects of caring for the cats, as well as removing tame animals and also dead cats. UWC pays us a nominal monthly amount for this and also covers the cost of sterilizing the ferals. All other costs are carried by the project. Staff, students, animal lovers and a few corporates donate to TUFCAT.