Managing Feral Cats
First, let's define what is meant by "feral." Technically, the term refers to a cat that has had no human contact and is thus truly wild. However, in everyday usage, most people think of feral and stray as the same thing: cats who bunch up and form colonies, create messes, are a health hazard, and produce great numbers of wild kittens.
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Practically speaking, it probably doesn't matter whether we call them feral or stray. The fact remains, they are shunned by humans and left to fend for themselves in whatever environment they occupy. In cities and towns, this may be abandoned buildings, alleys, behind restaurants, or wherever they might find food and water and some shelter. In the rural areas, where many town people dump unwanted cats, they must find these basic needs in a much more difficult scenario. There is little if any water, no shelter, and food is sparse or non-existent. Hunt, you say? Hunt what? Does anyone really think mice are that plentiful? Does anyone really think a former housecat has hunting skills? Instinct, yes, but skill, no. That has to be taught. They don't have time to learn it the hard way.
They need what we need... what any living being needs... food, water and shelter. And for that people hate them? Being stray or feral isn't even their fault, yet we blame them for many things anyway.
These are the most common misconceptions about feral cats:
1. They are a health hazard because they harbor many diseases. Ferals, or strays, are typically quite healthy, in fact, as long as they're thriving in their environment. Perhaps someone is feeding them, or possibly they are in a "managed colony" where compassionate people have already trapped them, "fixed" them, and returned them to their neighborhoods. Or maybe their living area provides sustainable options, such as shelter, food and safety. Under good conditions, they are not likely to have any diseases. Even rabies isn't common among cats.
2. They are dangerous and could attack if you get too close. Ferals, and most strays, are fearful of humans and won't approach. And if a person tries to approach them, they run away. That's why Trap Neuter Release programs use traps. Granted, once trapped, they are extremely terrified, so it's not a good time to touch one. You will be bitten and/or scratched.
3. They can never be tamed and put into homes. This can be true if the cat is mature and has grown up without human interaction. However, feral kittens usually can be tamed. Mature cats that are stray may have been abandoned from a home life with humans. They can be retamed by people who understand cats and are willing to work with them. Still, even a feral can be taught to trust a human, but typically this will only be one or two regular caretakers, and cuddling is out of the question.
What is the answer? Only one that works: Managing them. "Trap-and-kill" has never worked, and never will. Ignoring them only encourages the situation. The best way to manage them is to trap, neuter, and return them to their locations, where they settle down, live out their lives, and do not reproduce. In time, the population at that area dwindles, sometimes to no cats at all. But if there is no continued management, more strays arrive and the cycle of misery repeats. And where do these new arrivals come from? People who dump cats they no longer want. Therefore, managing a colony must also be supported by restrictions about abandoning pets. In some areas, abandoning them is against the law.
The bottom line is that whether a person likes or dislikes animals, they must be responsible enough to protect their communities by doing what works.
Learn more about the problems of cats from Dr. R.J. Peters.
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