THE AMERICAN FERAL CAT PROBLEM
This article was originally written in 1994. Only minor updates have been changed to reflect changes in policies of organizations mentioned in the article. It provides a good background and introduction to the topic and contains valid information.
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 US Department of Agriculture while American surveys suggest that between 36% and 60% of unneutered pet cats go feral within 3 years.
Feral cats are domestic cats which have gone wild, and their offspring which are born in the wild and have no exposure to humans during the critical socialization period (generally considered to be 3-8 weeks). Feral cats can be found living in both urban and rural areas across the United States. In Britain, neutering and long-term management of feral colonies proved to be an effective and humane method of controlling populations. Eradication programs are inefficient of resources, expensive and ineffective since new ferals rapidly recolonize cleared areas. Eradication programs have the added risk of killing escaped or indoor-outdoor pets.
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. Alley Cat Allies use non-lethal means of control, including the trap-neuter-return method which is successfully used in countries such as England, South Africa and Denmark.
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 US 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.
WILDLIFE ENEMY NUMBER ONE
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. One Wildlife Services worker bluntly stated that feral cats, and outdoor house-cats, are weeds which are in the wrong place and the wrong time and should therefor be killed.
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.
Attempts to vilify cats and failure to recognise problems such as human mismanagement of bird habitats lead to misguided efforts, by individuals and by humane societies, to exterminate feral cats. People like a tidy explanation for songbird decline and cats are the most convenient target for blame. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Bird Conservancy erroneously targeted all free-roaming cats - pets, strays and managed feral cat colonies - as the "problem." In actuality that had not identified the underlying problem, they had identified a scapegoat which allowed the real issues (habitat destruction, urban sprawl, road construction, pesticides, pollution) to be avoided.
Most studies indicate that birds form only a small part of cats' diets. Cats are rodent specialists and except for specialise cases (such as island locations where, of necessity birds form a major part of cats' diets) feline predation on birds remains at a sustainable level, forming part of the 'survival of the fittest' mechanism. B.M. Fitzgerald, a long-time researcher on the subject of feral cats noted that birds in suburban and rural areas of Britain have co-existed with cats for hundreds of generations and have withstood feline predation. (The major causes of songbird decline in Britain are habitat and food source destruction through the adoption of intensive farming methods which destroys both habitat and food sources, construction/road-building and over-zealous gardeners). Urban ferals are opportunists and in may live primarily off of rats, scavenged animals, garbage and food provided by cat-lovers. Rural ferals are frequently found in the vicinity of farms etc where they perform a useful role in controlling rodents attracted to those places.
A major problem faced by humane societies dealing with ferals has been that of Rabies. The Rabies vaccine licenced for use in Europe was developed in the US, but ironically it was not licenced for use there for many years (this has changed since this article was originally written in 1994). 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 possible (but unlikely) 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. The problem is not the real danger but the imagined danger which can cause normally sane people to demand feral cat eradiction.
European and American studies indicate that cats are very rarely a vector for rabies. Cats can, however, carry the disease for the very short time it takes them to die from it themselves. Rabies is transmitted by saliva (bites), not claws (scratches) and infection would require rabies-infected cat saliva to get into open wounds. Feral cats are a very minor player in the rabies chain in America.
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.
KILLING THE PROBLEM, NOT THE CATS
Large-scale Trap-Test-Vaccinate-Alter-Return schemes are gaining acceptance in the US though they initially faced opposition from some of the large humane societies. When this article was originally written in 1994, the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) was 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. The view was that feral cats live short brutal lives in the wild and should be destroyed for their own good. However, this view could be taken to its logical conclusion in which case all American wildlife, from deer to racoons, should be destroyed to save them from the suffering of short, brutal lives in the wild. Feral cats are wild animals and are adapted to the wild environment. Altered ferals in managed colonies may achieve life spans equalling that of a housecat.
Since this article was written in 1994, the HSUS changed their stance on ferals and now supports trap-neuter-release schemes as a method of feral cat control. Though other societies and individuals still oppose the methods on grounds of 'legalized abandonment' or because of perceived cat predation,
A number of humane organizations still routinely trap and destroy ferals, while others trap and destroy ferals which are "causing a nuisance". In a climate of pet cat overpopulation, ferals present an unwelcome drain on the resources of some humane organizations.
An added complication is the pet overpopulation problem in the US. 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". A network of organizations, including the Feral Cat Coalition, is making available information about feral cats' habits and about humane methods for controlling the cats.
Maverick Cats, Ellen Perry Berkeley
Alley Cat Action (the Alley Cat Allies newsletter)