The following article is copyrighted by Sarah Hartwell and presented by the Feral Cat Coalition with permission. Sarah has written many articles about feral conditions in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia. Many of her works were originally intended for audiences outside the U.S., but the information is very good and useful to people from all corners of the globe. One of her original reasons for research and writing was to raise money for feral programs.
Note: This article is a few years old and may be out of date on some issues. The underlying premises are, of course, valid.
Britain has an estimated 7 million pet cats and 1 million ferals. By comparison, the United States has approximately 60 million pet cats and 60 million ferals. Feral populations are swollen by breeding and the dumping of unwanted pets; 5 million cats and dogs are "dumped" annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while American surveys suggest that between 36% and 60% of unneutered pet cats go feral within 3 years.
Despite this huge and longstanding problem, the first national organization concerned solely with feral cats did not appear until 1990 when Alley Cat Allies was founded by Louise Holton and Becky Robinson as America's version of Cat Action Trust. Holton and Robinson are campaigning for humane control by sterilization of ferals and stabilization of colonies rather than constantly destroying healthy cats.
Concerned individuals were already doing their best to tackle local feral problems. Inspired by Peter Neville's talk at a WSPA conference in Boston in 1984, AnnaBell Washburn set about neutering feral cats on the island of Martha's Vineyard. At the time, information about feral cats in the United States was scarce; the Animal Protection Institute of America said that it did "not know enough about feral animals to begin programs geared to assist and protect them." Consequently, much of the information used by American feral cat welfare groups was from British studies.
Although the position varies from state to state, the "house cat" is a "non-game mammal" to be killed if "unduly predatory" and the "wild house cat" is an unprotected animal to be shot with impunity. Fish and Wildlife Services may state that it is not their policy to control feral animals except in cases where they carry rabies, yet at the same time produce brochures advising that all "vagrant" cats be "destroyed." Each year, game wardens trap or shoot thousands of feral cats, for real or imagined destruction of domestic stock or game animals.
As well as facing extremes of weather, variable food supplies, motorcars and hostile humans, American ferals are prey for feral dogs, coyotes, bobcats, hawks and owls. In turn the cats prey on wildlife and are frequently blamed for a drop in the numbers of birds or small mammals. Recently, songbirds in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park went into decline; feral cats were blamed rather than the recent landscaping of the park causing a loss of habitat and food for the birds! Feral cats make useful scapegoats.
A major problem faced by humane societies dealing with ferals is that of rabies. The rabies vaccine licenced for use in Europe was developed in the U.S., but ironically is not licenced for use in the U.S.! Rabies is on the increase on the East Coast of America and part of the "solution" is to trap and destroy feral cats as potential carriers. Although feral cats are a vector for rabies and may also cause a nuisance by raiding chicken coops and rabbit hutches, they are less of a danger to man and livestock than feral dogs which have been known to attack humans.
FCC Note: The literature indicates that cats are actually not a vector for rabies. They can, however, carry the disease for the very short time it takes them to die from it themselves. Another item of note here is that rabies is transmitted by saliva (bites), not claws (scratches). Feral cats are a very minor player in the rabies chain.
As if rabies, being eaten by large predators or shot by game wardens isn't bad enough, American ferals have a bad image. One writer in an American magazine stated that that feral cats routinely preyed on pet cats, immediately reinforcing the indoor-only style of cat ownership and perpetuating the feral cat's unfortunate and undeserved image.
Large-scale trap-test-vaccinate-alter-return schemes are still in their infancy in the U.S. and face opposition from some of the large humane societies. The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) is totally against feral cats and colonies, even monitored colonies, claiming that TTVAR schemes are "subsidized abandonment" and forcing feral cat caretakers to constantly defend their position. A number of humane organizations routinely trap and destroy ferals, while others trap and destroy ferals which are "causing a nuisance."
FCC Note: Since this article was written, the HSUS has changed their stance on ferals and now supports trap/neuter/release.
An added complication is the pet overpopulation problem in the U.S. 80% of domestic cats taken to humane shelters are euthanized, or worse, the shelters are legally obliged to hand over unhomed animals to laboratories ("pound seizure"). In such a climate of overpopulation, it is often impossible to place domestic kittens in homes, let alone tamed feral kittens. If so, feral kittens may be spayed/neutered at 8-12 weeks of age and returned to the colony. American veterinarians report no adverse effects of early neutering.
Alley Cat Allies and the other groups which are now being set up throughout America are working hard to improve the lot of the feral cat and to "kill the problem, not the cats."
Content Copyright Sarah Hartwell / Feline Advisory Bureau
HTML Copyright 1996 Feral Cat Coalition
[Page updated November 2009]