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Wild Thing

Feral cats are winning our hearts & our help

By Alexis Fasseas

They roam the streets, scavenging through dumpsters and junkyards, slinking into shadows at the sight or sound of humans. They are predominantly undetected, an urban myth to many city dwellers. But feral cats are an all-too-abundant reality for the people working to save them.

Feral cats are felines that have had little or no human contact; as a result, they exist in a wild state. Approach them and they’ll bolt; pick up one that’s injured or sick, and you’ll likely sustain severe gashes or bites. They’re not “mean” cats, contrary to what some might think; they’re simply terrified of humans, much like a squirrel or raccoon. Unlike totally undomesticated animals, however, feral cats often can be socialized with patience and kindness.

There are an estimated 60 to 80 million feral cats in the United States, and the population is growing. Most die before reaching one year of age, and too often, their deaths are tragically slow. Feral cats are at the mercy of extreme heat and cold, disease, lack of water and food, dangerous cars and trucks, coyotes and aggressive dogs, and other potentially lethal forces. But increasingly, people across the United States are mobilizing to help this special group of animals.

“I Didn’t Know She Had It In Her”

The explosion of feral cats can be traced to the 1990s, when cats became extremely popular as pets. Unfortunately, too many guardians didn’t realize that female kittens can breed when they’re as young as five months old. An unspayed kitten will run away to seek out a mate. And when it’s time for her to give birth, she’ll usually try to find a secluded spot, such as an abandoned house, a drainage pipe, or a car in a junkyard. If her young ones aren’t exposed to humans before about three weeks of age, they’ll become feral. Luckily, kittens are good candidates for socialization, if rescued early on.

Since a single mother cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years, it’s easy to see why the feral cat population has escalated. The problem has grown even more dire because of irresponsible guardians who abandon their cats. Even a “house cat” will revert to a feral state when left alone for a long period of time.

In cities nationwide, including Chicago, new groups are forming to help communities deal with their burgeoning feral-cat populations. Most of these task forces are made of everyday people who work with local animal-control specialists and shelter workers. They generally use a practice called Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), a philosophy that originated in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Introduced to the United States 11 years ago by the nonprofit group Alley Cat Allies of Washington, D.C., TNR involves humanely trapping stray and feral cats and having them sterilized. Usually, the cats are re-released into their old neighborhoods. A tattoo or small ear notch tells future trappers that the cat has already been spayed or neutered.

Despite its growing popularity, TNR has been controversial in cities where pets aren’t allowed to roam the streets. In Chicago, ordinances prohibit people from letting their pets roam, and anyone who feeds or cares for an animal for 14 consecutive days becomes his or her legal “owner” or guardian. This makes TNR, or even feeding feral cats, difficult for residents to justify legally. Some animal advocates are asking Chicago officials to exempt feral cats from the “roaming” ordinance, but its future is still uncertain. Anti-roaming laws are usually enacted not just for human health and safety, but for animals’ safety, as well.

But in the meantime, some might argue that TNR will become a necessity in Chicago, at least in some neighborhoods. The only alternative to getting cats off the streets — trapping and killing them — isn’t an effective practice, studies show. In a phenomenon known as the “vacuum effect,” the few remaining strays in an area quickly fill the void with more breeding. Soon, the feral-cat population is once again up to its previous levels, and continuing to grow. Maricopa County, Arizona, is a good example of this dynamic. For 20 years, the county operated under the “trap-and-kill” philosophy. Yet the numbers of stray and feral cats the county euthanized never declined. In 1998, the county instituted TNR, and 2001 marked a 27-year low for euthanasia rates there.

“Trapping and killing are ineffective,” says Becky Robinson, national director of Alley Cat Allies. “Killing does not stabilize or reduce the population, and it doesn’t stop the complaints.” Also, trapping and killing feral cats can have an adverse effect on rodent control. Several years ago in Ventura, California, animal control workers removed large numbers of feral cats that roamed the public beaches. Soon, officials were dealing with an overrun of rats on those same beaches. Without natural predators, mice and rat populations can escalate, as well.

Felines Prowling the Windy City

In Chicago, the newly formed Chicagoland Stray Cat Coalition is looking at ways to reduce the number of feral cats wandering the region. Made up of more than 30 shelters, rescue groups, agencies, and individuals, the coalition is launching public awareness campaigns, spay-neuter efforts, and other projects. The CSCC hopes that TNR can become a widespread practice in municipalities where it doesn’t conflict with local ordinances.

Recently, one member of the coalition — PACT Humane Society in DuPage County — introduced TNR to a community in McHenry County. Leaders of a town home association in Hanover Park were considering how best to handle a feral-cat community that had arisen in the area. PACT members explained the process of TNR to the association, which liked the idea. PACT, which runs a successful TNR program called CORE, is now recruiting logistical support from the neighbors to launch a TNR campaign.

Another group in DuPage County, Feral CAT (Cat Action Team), provides TNR throughout the area. The group’s 15 volunteers also foster the kittens from feral-cat colonies, get veterinary care for them, and find them loving homes. Generally, area residents call Feral CAT for help with colonies they’re keeping an eye on, says Founder Amy Slack. “The people I’ve dealt with have been very generous,” she says. “They have all these cats who are having litter after litter of kittens, and they don’t know where to turn. So they’re very happy to have our help.”

In McHenry County, the Animal Outreach Society is working with the county’s board of health to set up TNR programs for the thousands of cats who roam wild there. Other local organizations have stepped up to the plate, as well. In Chicago, PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) operates a high-volume spay/neuter clinic that offers daily $10 sterilization for ferals; in private clinics, the surgery can run up to $200. The Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society also has performed free spay/neuters on feral cats. And countless area rescue groups and individuals are working year-round to reduce the number of kittens born in the wild.

Good Neighbors Needed

But most of all, experts say, feral cats need the help of the public. Currently, rescue groups and task forces simply don’t have enough staff to capture and sterilize all the feral cats that exist. Caring people are desperately needed to educate their family and friends about the importance of spaying and neutering. They’re also needed to help the feral cats in their own neighborhoods. Anyone, for example, can set up a TNR program. Groups like Feral CAT, PACT, and the CSCC can help with training, traps, extra staff, food, and sturdy shelters. After cats are sterilized and returned, neighbors can then monitor the colony, providing food and water, hay for warmth, and veterinary care for cats suffering from illness or injury. In areas where managed feral-cat colonies are illegal, neighbors can still make a difference by calling a feral-cat advocacy group. The cats can be trapped, sterilized, and relocated to a managed colony elsewhere.

“Obviously, the ideal place for any cat is not outside, but they are there, in large numbers,” says Rich Sanborn, who helps direct the CSCC. “If people are allowed to help the cats in their neighborhoods through TNR, we’ll get the populations under control soon. And we’ll have a healthier group of animals out there, too.”

For more information:

Alley Cat Allies,
    (240) 482-1980
Animal Outreach Society (McHenry County),
    (815) 385-0005
Chicagoland Stray Cat Coalition,
    (773) 517-5199
Feral CAT (DuPage County),
    (630) 985-8665
PACT Humane Society (DuPage County),
    (630) 375-7017
Spay and Stay (Lake County),
    (847) 289-4557

Authored by Alexis Fasseas.  Original article published April 2003 in Chicagoland Tails.
Article Copyright Tails, Inc., Used with Permission.

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