Look in alleys, parks shopping sites, abandoned buildings and rural areas and you will find them: colonies of feral cats trying to survive in a world in which they do not fit. The number of feral and stray cats in the United States may be as high as 60 million, according to Alley Cat Allies, a group dedicated to the humane control of feral cat populations. This figure is rapidly approaching the 64 million cats that have owners. Unlike cats that have homes, however, feral cats generally are considered throwaways, unwelcome and unwanted.
Feral cats are not quirks of nature; they are most often the result of pet owners' abandonment or failure to spay and neuter their animals. For example, many people assume their cats will survive on their own when they move away. Such assumptions kill millions of homeless cats at animal shelters across the country each year. Many more feral and stray cats die from starvation, abuse, disease and predators.
A large factor in the animal overpopulation equation, feral cats also cost taxpayers big bucks. In California, animal control agencies and shelters spend millions annually for cat-related expenses. Feral cats, however, seem to fall through the funding cracks. In San Diego County, thousands of feral cats "were being ignored, neglected and swept under the rug" says Sally Mackler, co-founder of the San Diego Feral Cat Coalition. "Nobody was dealing with these cats." Although calls for help poured into local humane organizations, no public or private agency in the county specifically addressed feral cats, she adds.
Until the fall of 1992. To respond to the feral cat problem in their area, representatives from local veterinary, humane and cat fanciers' communities formed the Feral Cat Coalition. "Our group was born out of frustration generated from trying to help these animals," Mackler says. The arrival of FCC co-founder Dr. Rochelle Brinton, a humane-minded veterinarian, got the program up and running, Mackler adds.
The coalition has one purpose: to reduce the numbers, problems and suffering of feral cats through education and sterilization. Accordingly, the unique group only spays and neuters feral cats. While under anesthesia, the cats receive rabies vaccines and antibiotics, their ears are cleaned, and obvious wounds and abscesses are treated. Once recovered, they are returned to their neighborhoods. FCC, which relies solely on donations, charges nothing for its services.
To date, more than 3,000 cats have been sterilized by the completely volunteer organization, and the numbers are growing. Up to 100 cats are spayed or neutered in clinics run twice a month. Each clinic is staffed by several licensed veterinarians who donate their time and hospitals and 25 qualified volunteers who handle everything from anesthesia to postoperative care.
While 3,000 may seem like a drop in the overpopulation bucket, Mackler believes the program is making a difference in San Diego County. Assume, she says, that roughly 1,500 of the cats sterilized through the organization are female. If they had not been spayed, in a year's time each female could produce approximately 10 more cats. Add it up. "It is the numbers you don't see that are significant," she emphasizes. "What would have been produced down the road will never become an unwanted cat that suffers, a statistic in an animal control log or a cost to the taxpayer."
Focusing only on sterilizing feral cats has provided the coalition with some clout: a smoothly working system members are willing to share with others. As its resources allow, the group provides assistance and information on clinic procedures and field operations and shares its philosophy on trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats. Perhaps most important is the group's willingness to explain how it educates people and cooperates with the public.
With more than 15 years of humane work behind her, Mackler says working with the coalition has been the most rewarding experience she has encountered. To others, she advises, "It is possible to reach like-minded people. If you want to help feral cats, realize that it can be done."
[Page updated November 2009]