Copyright 1995, Sarah Hartwell

Two years ago two black and white cats began making regular night-time raids through the cat flap to pillage my own cats' food. Nothing unusual in a street where there are plenty of pet cats, except that a survey of the neighbourhood revealed that no-one actually owned them (most people thought they were mine!). It seemed that they had been dumped in "the cat lady's" garden by someone who just could not be bothered to contact a cat shelter.

"Tom" and "Fred" were unneutered adult males and close buddies rather than rivals, so they must have been raised together. They were so people-shy that they were virtually feral, vanishing as soon as they realised I had spotted them. They liberally sprayed my kitchen, to the great delight of my spayed girls and the not-so-great delight of myself.

What should I do? Should I chase them away? Should I supply food for them and suffer a kitchen reeking of tomcat? They weren't my cats, so I had no duty to see to their welfare. The family two doors away temporarily solved the problem by setting their dogs on the two cats. Tom never returned and Fred ceased spraying and slept in the kitchen at night which still left me with a tomcatty odour about the place.

All my cats are neutered so the presence of a full tom was not going to cause me any family planning problems. The wildlife here is not endangered so there was no need to eliminate a single feral cat. Not all owners in the area were responsible enough to have their cats neutered (though I had been working on them) and Fred was a big, unneutered tom ready and willing to do his duty for catdom. There was no urban animal problem in the area, but Fred could change all that.

Calling him somebody else's problem was not going to make the problem go away. He had established a stable territory and found food so I made it my responsibility to make him socially acceptable. I borrowed a box-trap and caught several of my neighbours' cats, my own cats (until they wised up to the trap's purpose) and some wildlife before I finally caught Fred. I got a good look at my pungent captive. His face was scratched and his fur was full of grime. He was whisked off for neutering next morning and was returned to me that evening, still swearing but two lumps short of a tomcat. The vet had ascertained that Fred did not pose a health risk to other cats so I released Fred in the familiar territory of my garden and he limped off into the dusk without a backward glance.

It was weeks before I saw him again and I barely recognised the old rascal. The scratches on his face had healed. The once-grey areas of his coat were white and he was in better condition. I set up a mirror near the kitchen so that I could see him come in to eat without him seeing me. The cat hairs in his usual sleeping place proved that he still 'lived here', but he no longer left a distinctive odour.

Fred was not 'my cat', but he lived on my land so it became my responsibility to either eliminate him or neuter him. Had I had him destroyed, another stray would soon have taken over the vacant territory. It isn't good enough to simply feed strays, they must also be prevented from adding their offspring to the stray and feral population.

There are many responsible cat lovers and breeders who make it their responsibility to help strays which turn up in their neighbourhood, but there are also far too many cat lovers who turn away saying 'it's somebody else's problem' or allow their own unneutered cats to roam and breed. These strays aren't somebody else's problem, they're everybody's problem. It's up to every cat lover to do something to reduce the stray cat problem - by ensuring that their own cats don't stray or breed (no, not even one litter), by or aiding cat welfare organisations and by educating their friends.