Support your local feral cat colony—don't kill it

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.

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  1. 12 years ago
    Georgia G.

    I've mentioned this before on other sites but about 9 years ago I had a pregnant, very feral cat show up. I, of course, fed her and she stayed. She had her kittens, I captured them & took them to the pound, where in my ignorance I thought they would be tamed and given homes. Only later did I learn they were immediately euthanized. I cried for days. It took me five years to tame that cat but I allowed her to have her other litters in my work room, where I could go down and play with the kittens. She did allow me to do that thankfully and I was able to place them in good homes. I named her Cleopatra and eventually was able to touch her, then pick her up and finally have her spayed and get her shots. She now sleeps on my bed but is definitely my cat, not allowing anyone, including my husband, near her. It took a lot of time and patience, but Cleo was well worth the effort. She's a lovely addition to my household. There is a new red tomcat now staying around the house my husband and son are taking bets on how long it will take me to tame him. I've already named him Big Red.

  2. 12 years ago
    Robin R.

    TNR is a wonderful program! I volunteer with a local spay neuter task force here in Alberta - we go to very rural locations and hold clinics in which we spay or neuter hundreds of animals in a very short time, and we also surrender animals that have come from clearly abusive situations and many local rescue groups band together to foster, socialize, and find homes for these newly lucky cats and dogs. If this program didn't exist there would be a lot more violence towards animals in these areas, and in turn domestic abuse as well. The people have a better appreciation for the animals that surround them and everyone benefits from this program (2 and 4 legged). This program deals with both feral animals and personal pets, many of whom have never seen the inside of a house or a gentle human hand even though they are "loved."

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