Article by LISA KOEKEMOER
When sociologist Sharyn Spicer started working at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 1994, she decided to do something about the sick, starving and emaciated feral cats she saw through her office window every day.
“I must do something,” she told herself, and that was the birth of TUFCAT, the UWC Feral Cat Project which is a trap, sterilise and release programme on the campus. Tufcat volunteers consist of UWC staff, students and cat lovers.
Ms Spicer said when the project was started there was a lot of superstition about the cats. “People used to scream and run away and say it was witchcraft.
“We’d have major dramas here but today the cats are fully accepted as part of the campus life. I think the most important achievement for us is changing students’ attitudes towards animals,” she said.
Other universities are now using Tufcat’s model to deal with their feral cat populations, she said.
The University of the Witwatersrand, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Rhodes University, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and Sun City apply their model because they see it as workable, Ms Spicer said.
People regularly contact Tufcat for advice on feral cat populations, Ms Spicer said.
The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS) cattery manager, Rita Brock, convinced authorities at Pollsmoor prison to deal with their feral cat problem using Tufcat’s model.
Ms Brock said the situation at UWC was similar to Pollsmoor’s in the sense that some cats are not the offspring of feral cats, but unwanted cats that had been abandoned.
Besides cats that are abandoned on the campus, another perpetuating factor in the increase of the feral cat population is the odd trap-shy cat that reproduces, said Ms Spicer.
Notwithstanding this, the UWC cat population has shrunk from 300 in 1998, to 168 and 80% of the cats on campus are sterilised, she said.
Tufcat has chosen not to remove the cats because “nature hates a vacuum,” Ms Spicer said, and it has been proven that if feral cats are removed, others settle in the “ecological niche”.
“Leaving a feral cat to its own devices is the cruelest thing, I believe,” she said.
The average lifespan of a feral cat that has no human intervention is two years and it is a “very hard life”, Ms Spicer said. “Some cats at UWC are 13 years old,” she said.
In the absence of intervention the cats eat garbage and become sick and they also display nuisance behaviour such as ripping garbage bags open and following humans, crying for food, Ms Spicer said.
Tufcat’s aim is to ultimately set up a research fund for animal studies, which will include the study of feral cats, Ms Spicer said.
However, there is no perfect solution for feral cats, she said. “Getting involved is the choice you make. The lesser of the two evils. Do something and they have a life or do nothing and they have no life at all,” Ms Spicer said.