She was a fierce cat, hissing and growling whenever I came close. There was no way I could touch her four babies. Most of the time all I saw of them, all black and huddled in the back of the carrier, was their eyes. I called her Mama Cat.
She was feral, which means that she was not domesticated, or tame — in other words, she didn’t trust humans. Feral cats live outdoors, often in groups or “colonies.” Tens of millions of feral cats live among us in the United States, according to the ASPCA. Today, October 16th is National Feral Cat Day, a time to learn about feral cats and what we can do to help them.
40% of Americans have done something to help a needy cat at one time or another — from putting out a bowl of food to trapping and neutering or spaying a feral cat and returning her to her colony (TNR).
TNR, or trap neuter return, is the most effective method for managing colonies of feral cats. It is what it sounds like: trap the cats, have them neutered or spayed, then return them to their colonies. TNR has many advantages:
- Spayed and neutered cats don’t create more feral cats.
- Spayed cats don’t go into heat, which means the females don’t howl, and the neutered males have much less reason or inclination to fight with and yowl at each other.
- Returning the cats to their territory means there is no vacuum for other non-neutered feral cats to move into, which they would — there wouldn’t be a feral colony there in the first place if it weren’t a good spot for undomesticated cats, with nearby food sources and some shelter.
People who consider feral cats a nuisance sometimes want to kill the whole colony, but that would just invite new cats into the territory, besides being barbaric.
Sometimes people who want to get rid of a feral colony advocate relocating the whole clan, but that is a tricky business — terrified cats are torn away from their home and placed in an unfamiliar location that may not be hospitable. Relocated cats will often leave the new territory, defeating the purpose of limiting them to a place that is more convenient for humans and exposing the cats to the dangers of being alone in unfamiliar places, such as starvation, fights with other cats for territory, traffic fatalities and other risks.
Another approach cat-haters take is feeding bans, which are laws or rules that penalize people who try to feed hungry outdoor cats. Advocacy group Alley Cat Allies reports that these bans don’t work: “Studies have shown that other sources of food are always available – including food scraps in household trash and municipal garbage facilities.”
TNR is so much more humane, as Mama Cat’s story shows. She was trapped and brought to me after she gave birth. When her kittens were weaned, Mama Cat had her spay surgery, and after she recovered she returned to her feral colony, to the place and the cats she knew. Her babies stayed with me while I continued my favorite job: socializing them, which generally means cuddling, kissing and playing with them so they will be friendly to humans and ready for adoption. I adopted one of the kittens myself, an adoring cat we named Zelda (pictured above). Because of TNR, Zelda is a spoiled indoor cat and is not outdoors, unspayed and swelling the ranks of feral cats.
If you want to help a feral cat, please remember not to bring her to a shelter. Nearly 100% of feral cats who enter shelters are killed there, Alley Cat Allies reports. Instead, look for local organizations and rescuers that can help you with resources and support. One way to start is contacting Alley Cat Allies for referrals.
Managing a feral cat colony — e.g., feeding the cats, providing shelters, and conducting TNR — can greatly increase the cats’ lifespan. It is the single best thing you can do for feral cats: it can mean the difference between life and death. On this National Feral Cat Day, consider what you can do for the outdoor cats you see darting and hiding around your neighborhood.