A feral cat is a domestic cat that has either been born in the wild of feral parents or has reverted to a feral or wild state in order to survive. If the cat is a stray that has been lost or abandoned, it can be re-domesticated and placed in a home. However, if they have been born in the wild, the chances of doing this are greatly reduced.
Although the extermination of feral cat colonies is generally done for human convenience, there are times when individual trappers and animal welfare societies may undertake such a task to prevent suffering. Any attempts to solve the problem by trapping and removing the cats are mostly unsuccessful, largely because their presence in an area indicates an ecological niche for that number of cats. As long as the food source that attracted them in the first place remains, it is virtually impossible to prevent newcomers from arriving. The permanent removal of all the cats thus creates a vacuum that will soon be filled by migrating and abandoned (mostly unsterilised) cats. The repeated influx of new, breeding cats into a colony increases territorial and hierarchical fighting – the very behavioural patterns for which feral cats are labeled a nuisance. Conversely, if population numbers could be stabilised (by having them sterilised and by feeding them), the influx of new cats could be reduced, territorial behaviour within a colony would discourage migration into the colony from outside. The result is quieter, healthier cats, who are more acceptable to humans. Any programme aimed at managing feral cats also needs to monitor the dumping of cats in the area.
The bottom line is that as long as the food source remains, new cats will continue to arrive. Removing food sources such as edible refuse, prey species and handouts from cat lovers is mostly impractical and impossible to do. There is only one solution that is both effective and humane, but it requires serious commitment. By sterilising and maintaining a colony of feral cats on a given site, you will not only ensure that numbers are kept down and the cats die off naturally. But, they will earn their keep and ensure that the area remains rat free in return.
Trap-neuter-return (TNR) methods have been successfully used in many countries, including England, Denmark, the USA and South Africa for decades. These programmes are aimed at reducing the number of cats on site in order to create a smaller, stable and controlled population. Inevitably a colony will contain cats that are terminally ill, injured or very old and are thus unable to cope and for these cats, euthanasia is often the kindest option. Without intervention, feral cats will not only breed prolifically adding to the overwhelming pet overpopulation problem facing the country, but will lead lives filled with danger, disease, discomfort, hunger and fear. Suffering can only be countered with action.
If you are serious about getting involved with caring for feral cats, there are a few options available, and you could start off by simply volunteering to help as a feeder or foster home for an existing individual or group caring for feral cats in your area. You could also assist with adoptions, fundraising, publicity, educational or other activities in order to learn more about running an animal welfare programme.
Find a colony
If you have found a colony that no one is caring for and you are sure you want to get involved, then the fate of the cats must be determined before trapping begins. Their safety and welfare is the main consideration.
Do an internet search to find information or consult an organisation dedicated to feral cat welfare. If you decide to go the TNR route, then it is best to negotiate with the SPCA or another welfare society, who may be able to help with advice, trapping, transport and veterinary treatments at possible reduced rates. Click here for the contact details of groups & organisations.
Another way is to find a sympathetic vet to help you by providing cheaper sterilisation appointments. There are some excellent information packages available for feeders and colony caretakers and these should be consulted before embarking on any intervention programme. Do an internet search to find information or consult an organisation dedicated to feral cat welfare.
It must be emphasised that feeding feral cats without simultaneously embarking on a sterilisation drive is irresponsible and will only aggravate the situation. Similarly, studies have revealed that supplemental food must be provided after sterilising and when releasing the cats back on site.
You either need to hire one from your local SPCA (or vet that offers this) or you need to buy one. You can only do this if you are a welfare and genuine feral cat carer. Visit www.animalhandling.co.za to buy a trap.
Relocating feral cats is generally not a good idea, but in exceptional circumstances, this can be done. For example, many of the so-called “racetrack cats” in the USA provide a necessary and valuable servicing by reducing the rodent population in the stables and thereby eliminating the need for exterminators and dangerous chemicals. The cats perform a dual function and also provide company for the racehorses who are by nature, nervous and highly strung. At some of these racing stables workers report that the horses all have their favourite cat or cats that they even allow to “ride” them! Some US organisations do a fantastic job relocating ferals to barns and farms.
The cats can enjoy all the freedom of their wild ancestors, and have food, water, shelter and care on hand when needed.
Many myths about feral cats exist…
Myth: Feral cats live short, sad lives and suffer daily.
Fact: Studies show that neutered/spayed feral cats in managed colonies generally live as long as house cats do. Some of the UWC cats are 16 years old and many have lived between 12-14 years.
Myth: Feral cats should be adopted to good homes.
Fact: Feral cats are domestic cats that have reverted to a wild state. “Being forced into a house or other structure can be the most frightening experience possible for a feral cat,” says Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org).“While the cat may appear to acclimate, s/he is never at ease and never stops looking for a way to escape.” The stress of confinement can harm the cat’s health.
Myth: Feral cats are aggressive and will attack people.
Fact: Like other wild animals, feral cats stay as far from humans as possible. Feral cats do not attack humans or other animals unless they’re backed into a corner and feel trapped, and most are too cautious and skittish to allow that to happen (www.alleycat.org).
Myth: Feral cats are a health risk and spread disease.
Fact: Rabies is the only disease that can be transmitted from cats to humans. Fortunately rabies is not prevalent in the Western Cape, however it is an issue in other provinces and the Provincial Department of Agriculture sees the prevention of a rabies outbreak as a priority. They regularly have rabies vaccination campaigns and makerabies vaccines available through animal welfare clinics like the SPCA.
Myth: Feral cats decimate wildlife.
Fact: Humans decimate wildlife through urbanisation and industrial development which ultimately leads to the devastation of habitat. Recent studies in Australia (where feral cats are much maligned) have predicted that reducing cat populations would actually cause more harm to birds due to a resulting increase in rat populations.
Note: Helping feral cats is time consuming and can be frustrating and emotionally draining and very expensive. It can also be extremely rewarding and each situation presents new learning experiences. It is through people’s love and active involvement that further suffering and unwanted litters being born are prevented. In this way the quality of life for one of the most maligned and abused creatures on earth can be improved.