Feral Cat Day 2012
With two cat related “holidays” coming up in October – Feral Cat Day on October 16 and National Cat Day on October 29 – it’s a great month to talk about our feline friends. We here at Found Animals spend a lot of time thinking about cats and we’re excited to share with you.
History of Cats
Humans have always had a complex and nuanced relationship with cats and many historical figures have considered their felines both companion and muse. From Marie Antoinette to Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein to Freddie Mercury, and Mohammed to Mark Twain a huge diversity of people (including lots of men!) have appreciated the mystique and appeal of felis catus. Twain in particular wrote eloquently about cats – these are two of my favorite quotes:
“I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course.”
“Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the leash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”
Recent research indicates that cats first began to be domesticated around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. Unlike other animals which humans domesticated for a purpose, (milk, transportation, protection) cats likely domesticated themselves for the opportunity to hunt mice that flourished where humans stored grain. As the relationship between cats and humans progressed, felines were revered and valued by cultures from Egypt to Rome and the Far East. But then the tables turned in Europe in the middle ages and myths about cats began to spread, cats became associated with witches and the devil.
For some reason, however, cats came to be demonized in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were seen by many as being affiliated with witches and the devil, and many were killed in an effort to ward off evil (an action that scholars think ironically helped to spread the plague, which was carried by rats). Not until the 1600s did the public image of cats begin to rally in the West.[i]
As civilizations spread around the world, cats tagged along doing their own “colonizing”. Specifics of how cats arrived in the Americas are not known, but “Cristopher Columbus and other seafarers of his day reportedly carried cats with them on transatlantic voyages. And voyagers onboard the Mayflower and residents of Jamestown are said to have brought cats with them to control vermin and to bring good luck.”[ii]
Fast forward to the United States in 2012 and an estimated 39 million households own nearly 87 million cats[iii]. Compare that to 39 million households with 78 million children under the age of 18[iv], and 78 million dogs owned in the US – and it’s safe to say that pet cats are now more popular than kids or dogs!
If cats are now the undisputed champion of house pets it’s a great time in history to be a cat – right? Well, not entirely. If you’re a house cat in a loving home, life is good. But if you are a cat on the street – or in the shelter – times are tougher than ever. The ASPCA estimates that nearly 4 million pets were killed in U.S. shelters in 2008, and up to 75% of those are likely cats. In the Los Angeles Metro area in 2010 cats made up just 45% of the 194,000 animals that entered local animal shelters, but 65% of the 100,000 killed. Yikes. That’s 65,000 cats killed in LA area shelters in 2010 alone. When we dig into the shelter statistics further, we see that the categories of cats that are most often killed are “feral” cats and un-weaned kittens (who are likely the offspring of feral cats).
Feral Cat 101
So, what is a “feral” cat, you ask? Many cat owners and cat lovers are not familiar with “feral” cats. My favorite definition of a “feral” cat comes from the Animal Center:
“While the term “stray” generally refers to cats who have been recently abandoned and are still domesticated, feral cats are defined as the “wild” offspring of domestic cats and are primarily the result of cat owners’ abandonment or failure to spay and neuter their animals, allowing them to breed uncontrolled.”[i]
“Feral” cats are actually the offspring of domestic cats that have little human contact and revert to their wilder ways. And since stray cats or un-sterilized free roaming house cats have offspring that become feral cats, all cats with outdoor access are potentially part of the problem. And feral cats are a problem for a whole variety of reasons.
Firstly, in most cases it is not very much fun to be a feral cat. You have to fend for yourself in an often inhospitable environment. That means scavenging garbage and hunting small animals and insects to get enough to eat. Living outdoors year round with no shelter from rain or cold is very unpleasant in most climates – as is being at the mercy of disease, fleas, predators such as coyotes and dogs, and urban dangers like cars and poisons. Outdoor cats (whether truly feral or simply stray or free roaming) have a substantially shorter lifespan than their strictly indoor brethren. Being a feral cat is a far cry from a luxurious life purring on laps and napping in sunbeams.
And, though in some situations feral cats provide important rodent control, in others they are a real threat to endangered wildlife. For as many cat lovers and advocates as there are willing to care for feral cat colonies, there are an equal number of people who don’t appreciate being near the noise, smell, or other annoyances that can come with a group of outdoor cats. If you’ve ever been awakened by a loud cat fight in the wee hours of the morning you know the feeling.
Since humans and our house cats are the reason that feral cats exist, it is our responsibility to manage their numbers and the associated issues for the cats themselves, the environment, and the community. Within the animal welfare world, a practice known as “Trap-Neuter-Return” or TNR is the preferred method for managing feral cat populations.
“Using this technique[TNR], all the feral cats in a colony are trapped, neutered and then returned to their territory where caretakers provide them with regular food and shelter. Young kittens who can still be socialized, as well as friendly adults, are placed in foster care and eventually adopted out to good homes.”[ii]
Successful TNR efforts to manage cat colonies take a lot of hard work and dedication. If you are interested in helping cats in the Los Angeles area, we are lucky to have two wonderful groups that would love your help – FixNation and Stray Cat Alliance. Both of their websites have a ton of great information on how TNR works and how you can get involved. Outside of Los Angeles an internet search for “TNR” combined with your city name should turn up local groups.
Even if TNR doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there are two very important things that you as a cat owner can do to help make sure that your house cat does not create feral cats or threaten local wildlife.
1. Keep your cat indoors
2. Make sure your cat is spayed or neutered