Oct. 16 is the 13th annual National Feral Cats Day sponsored by Alley Cat Allies and is now an international campaign with almost 500 documented education and fundraising events worldwide. Feral cats are true wild cats, not pets. They avoid humans and cannot be touched. As working cats, they traveled the world with ancient sailors, killing and eating rats to protect food stores. Later some were abandoned deliberately on far islands to reduce exploding rabbit populations introduced by humans. Colonies or clowders form around food sources. Choosing to live in close proximity to humans for at least 10,000 years, they became helpful as barn cats, keeping rodents from taking over storage buildings and field crops. Today they are everywhere except Antarctica and ever more visible, from city harbors to inland towns to deserts to rural communities like Lake Tahoe. With urbanization, feral cats also became alley cats, casino and restaurant parking lot cats, and abandoned pets who reverted to a wild state in mobile home parks, closed military bases, and on university campuses. Today their existence is in jeopardy.
Although recognized as important to the ecosystem as any other species, in recent years feral cat populations have increased and methods to control or eliminate them have escalated. In the name of conservation and restoration, islands have been cleaned of cats through poisoning, shooting and cruel, extreme methods. In most cases, the islands later became overrun with “pests” previously controlled by feral cat predation. Called the “vacuum effect,” it has been observed across many species, documented by biologists. Yet again the increase and spread of the human species gives rise to heated debate about who belongs where and how to share habitat. False information about the bird kill rate attributed to feral cats has not helped their plight. Studies show cats to be mainly scavengers and as hunters, they prefer rodents and other burrowing animals. Samples from outdoor cat stomachs confirm that common mammals appear three times more often than birds.
For more than two decades, Alley Cat Allies has been working to educate people about feral cats and how to humanely control populations, especially in urban areas. There are legions of anonymous colony caretakers, including a few in South Lake Tahoe, who take responsibility for ACA promoted Trap-Neuter-Release programs to reduce and eventually eliminate feral cat colonies through attrition. These compassionate advocates monitor local colonies in all weather, provide feeding stations, sometimes basic shelters, and pay for veterinary care as needed in addition to sterilization. The ferals always are vaccinated for rabies and often for contagious cat diseases as part of the TNR protocol. An ear is tipped so that treated, neutered ferals are recognizable to prevent being trapped repeatedly. Studies show the colonies remain healthy with that support and the population decreases over time.
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Associate Director of the Feline Health Center Bruce G. Kornreich is working on another approach. “Darting the cats with an immunocontraceptive would be less invasive and much more practical with regard to logistics, expense and the ability to sterilize large numbers of cats.” Kornreich points out that “Estimates place the size of the (American) feral cat population at between 60 and 80 million cats. Too many owners are releasing their cats to become a part of the unowned cat population without thinking about the consequences. It is a fallacy that (pet) cats can be happy only when they are allowed outside. Indoor cats also have no effect on native animal populations.”
It is estimated that tens of millions of cats around the world revert to feral status after being deliberately dumped into colonies, becoming strays never found, or leaving a bad human environment in search of relief. Friendly cats who come to a door and allow human touching are lost pets, not true feral cats. They should be reported to animal services so owners can claim them.
Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.