Theyre in alleyways, restaurant dumpsters and campgrounds. Theyre usually skinny and scared. These are feral cats, reverted to their wild state, trying to survive in an unwelcoming world. How many live in the United States? Nobody knows, but its safe to say tens of millions, says Donna Wilcox, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Alley Cat Allies (ACA). There are probably more feral cats than the countrys 64 million pet cats.
Many people assume that cats can survive on their own. But numerous feral cats die from starvation, abuse, disease, car accidents and extermination programs. Groups like ACA promote the humane control of feral cat populations via trap, neuter and return (TNR) programs.
If you see a cat in your neighborhood, first try to find out if hes a neighbors cat or a feral cat, recommends Wilcox. Put food out, and see if he comes over to eat while youre around, or if he will allow you to pet him. If so, the cat is probably either a former or current pet. Fasten a paper collar with your name and phone number around his neck (the same ones veterinarians use for hospitalized cats), asking the owner to call you. If no one calls, and the cat returns, take him home, and put found cat notices in the paper and around town. If theres still no response, neuter the cat if not done so already, and try to
find a good home for him.
If its a cat you cant approach, much less touch, you need to resort to humane trapping. Animal shelters often lend out live traps. Traps made by Tomahawk and ACES work best, says Wilcox. Cover the trap with a towel, and bait it with something smelly – like fish flavored canned cat food – to tempt the cat to enter.
Dont trap in inclement weather or leave the trap unattended. A cat can become cold, stressed or injured if left outside in a trap. If you place the trap where youve been feeding him, you can often trap him right away.
Kittens from four to 12 weeks old can be caught with smaller traps. The younger they are, the easier to trap, tame, and adopt out, notes Wilcox.
A trapped socialized cat – like a former pet cat – will likely be comforted by the sound of your voice. He can be re-socialized and adopted out. But a terrified cat is most likely feral. In either case, take the cat to a sympathetic veterinarian immediately, stresses Wilcox.
Until then, keep the trapped cat in a quiet indoor place – your garage, basement or bathroom will do. The veterinarian will anesthetize the cat inside the trap if necessary, then examine, vaccinate, eartip for future identification, neuter using dissolvable sutures, and return him to the trap for at least 24 hours of monitoring.When the cat is sufficiently awake, food and water can be slipped through the traps back door.
When the cat has recovered, release him where you caught him, says Wilcox. There, a feral cat caretaker must be present to provide the colony with ongoing food, water and shelter.
Although even managed feral cats stalk birds, Wilcox says the majority of kills are rodents. But bird lovers and cat lovers agree: The cat overpopulation problem must be solved. We need high-volume, low-cost spaying and neutering services everywhere, says Wilcox.
Saving Cats Saves Money
According to Wilcox, TNR programs have stabilized feral cat populations in several progressive communities. In San Diego, California, 15,000 cats were
euthanized in 1992, costing $121 per cat. Then, the Feral Cat Coalition began doing TNR. The number of cats killed dropped 45 percent, saving taxpayers $859,000 per year, relates Wilcox. Caring groups and individuals often pay for TNR programs themselves; ACA would like to see local animal control agencies pay instead.
Why the R in TNR? We return feral cats because theyre largely unadoptable, explains Wilcox. The taming process requires months of patience; and even then, cats may remain shy. That said, two former feral cats live in our office. In fact, one of them is tapping me on the shoulder right now!