What, Exactly, Is A Feral Cat?

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The usual description of a feral cat is: a cat that has reverted to living wild after being domestic, or the offspring of such a cat. But there isn’t anything exact about it. Domestic cats who turn wild usually do so after being abandoned by their owners. And it is a gradual process.

Some are dumped in bush areas or other unfamiliar surroundings. Some are simply left behind. Either way, the cat has to learn to deal with a totally different environment with no cues.It has to figure out where safety and food are and what threats exist. It has to learn not to trust, not to expect the kindness and care that it may have known before. These are the beginning survival tasks faced by an abandoned cat. If the cat successfully learns to stay alive and avoid threats by being wild, that cat is now fully feral. And when you meet up with an abandoned cat, it can be anywhere along that continuum. So-called stray cats, still somewhat friendly and tame, are at the beginning of that continuum.

But don’t let growling and aggressive behaviour fool you. That can be simply the fright reaction of an animal trapped into an unknown, possibly threatening situation.  You won’t know the extent to which it is truly feral, until it is able to relax a little. I was once brought a feral cat in a trap by a rescue group because I lived on acreage and was able to house it for awhile.  After letting the trap and cat sit for awhile and talking to the cat, I had a hunch it wasn’t really feral. I opened the trap door hoping I wouldn’t be attacked, and Elva crawled into my lap and purred. Other rescuers have had similar experiences.

On the other hand, I trapped Nigel in a bush area. The vet tech and I both had the feeling he wasn’t fully feral yet. But he was timid and snarled if cornered. After recovering from neutering, I was ready to return him to the bush. But he wouldn’t leave the cage! He simply refused. Noise, sprayed water, nothing would make him budge. And the cage was too big to go out my door. So he stayed. I couldn’t touch him but talked to him and he met the other cats through the cage bars. When I was sure they all knew each other and he wouldn’t be attacked as a newcomer, I let him have the run of the house. I can only pet him when he is resting in the bedroom, but he gallops around the house like he owns it, knows the routines and where everything is. I consider him semi-feral. Kelti the kitty nurse, is another semi-feral at my house.

Abandoned cats fall between the cracks. They are not pests like rats but they aren’t really wildlife like raccoons either. They tend to survive longer than abandoned dogs. If they are toward the feral end of the continuum, they aren’t considered adoptable and the animal control agencies don’t know what to do with them. For that reason they frequently end up being euthanized. There is a rescue group in my area that works to find barn homes for these cats, giving them shelter and food in an uncaged environment:  But the fact is, that finding a safe, humane environment for feral cats is a major challenge.

Feral cats live relatively short lives, estimated at 1-1/2 to 2 years unless they are cared for. We often think of them as being hit by cars, or eaten by larger predatory animals (where I live feral kittens are grimly referred to as “eagle bait”). But anything that interferes with their having a food supply can be the beginning of a slow, torturous death. Infected, painful teeth, or a fractured paw, easily treated in a tame cat, can be a crisis for a feral cat. If a cat has learned to scavenge from garbage instead of hunt, human changes to the environment can lead to starvation. Contrary to popular belief, hunting is a learned activity.

Abandoned and feral cats are legion and they are a human-created problem. There are many rescue groups that work to give these animals a humane life. The groups run “trap, neuter, return” programs where feral cats are spayed or neutered then returned to their colony, maintained by the rescuers.

In 2006, with the help of two of the local rescue groups and some military members, I ran a trap, neuter, return program (TNR) at the Navy Dockyard where I worked as a civilian. The following TV spot gives an overview of that process.

Trap, Neuter, Return is an effective and humane way to stop feral cat overpopulation. After two years of TNR at Dockyard, no more kittens were found or reported.

One of the examples of TNR that I used when requesting permission to begin my own TNR program was an already existing TNR program at the Navy Dockyard on the opposite coast. Pierre Filiatreault, a Navy engineer,  had begun his TNR program in 2005. Given the harsher climate on the east coast, Pierre became known for his “catty shack”. Retiring from the Navy a few years ago, Pierre the Catman  continues to care for the Dockyard cats of Halifax, Nova Scotia as well as other feral cats in that locale.Pierre is not the only cat activist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Not long ago, a veterinarian there began a campaign for his cat, Tuxedo Stan (born of a feral mom), to run for mayor of Halifax. This was a gently humorous way to draw attention to the feral cat overpopulation and neglect .Halifax decided that a cat could not be mayor (unlike Talkeetna, Alaska) but Tuxedo Stan garnered worldwide attention that will no doubt benefit feral cats all over the globe.

In addition to the never-ending work done by the rescue groups, there are also individuals who make a special effort to shelter or care for a feral or stray cat when it comes into their lives. For these folks especially, I want to point out that shelters can be purchased if the rescuer is unable to build one or convert a tote or doghouse. And because these cats are not easily handled, I have found that audio frequencies are excellent for calming and for healing minor ailments. It was one of my feral cat roommates who led me to those audio frequencies and my e-book details what I found.

There are many ways to help with feral cat neglect and overpopulation. One of the easiest ways is to donate time, money or wish list items to your local feral cat rescue group.

2013/08/11 originally

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