From birth to death, some cats are never touched by a human hand. Others have known only cruelty. Still others may have old sense memories of happier days before losing a home as a stray or by abandonment. To survive at all, most cats who are homeless for any length of time become wary of humans. If they survive long enough, they are likely to find a place within a feral colony, transmitting distrust of humans to their kittens. Lone homeless cats (or small groups) have a much less difficult time learning to live with humans than adult feral cats who have never known kind human touch. It’s not impossible for such mature cats to become housepets, but they may never feel comfortable with close human contact even after bonding with human caretakers.
Such cats do not suffer psychically because they lack an affectionate relationship with humans. They suffer because they are cold, hungry and threatened, and they suffer because their physical strength is weakened by the unforgiving consequences of their reproductive activity. When their physical needs are met, they will sun themselves as serenely as any house pet. They can even enjoy contact with human friends without wanting to become pets. A healthy cat does not need to be euthanized to be “put out of its misery” in not having a home with humans. It is not kindness to that cat, who will struggle ferociously for life.
Euthanasia is not the answer
It’s a tough problem. Imagine yourself living in a neighborhood where a dozen or more feral cats roam the alleys, giving birth to sick, weak kittens. It is a haunting sight. At first, neighbors might take in a kitten or put out some food for an obviously pregnant cat. After a while, however, the late-night fights and howling, the overturned garbage, attacks on pets — and the clear misery of these feline lives — become too much to bear. Perhaps the triggering event is a cat who “ungratefully” bites or scratches a would-be rescuer. Someone calls animal control officers to “get rid of these nuisances.” For a while, the neighborhood may be silent, but almost certainly new cats will arrive.
Trapping for euthanasia simply cannot keep up with an over-population of homeless cats. An all-out war leaves a vacuum quickly filled by survivors that don’t get the message that they should not reproduce and other cats who move into the territory to mate with them. Shelters that rely on local government contracts for such time-consuming trap-and-destroy missions tend to lose financial and volunteer support from animal-lovers, and so such operations become sporadic. No one is happy with trap-and-destroy. Not the cats. Not the public, which sees more and more homeless cats. Not euthanizing shelters, who are diverting energy from more rewarding functions. Not animal lovers, who prefer to give their time and money to organizations providing life instead of death. And meanwhile, over-population increases. Nobody wins.
But there is an alternative to euthanizing healthy homeless cats. Virtually all the reasons that humans regard homeless cats as nuisances can be addressed — at the same time that the quality of life for those cats improves. Everybody wins.
That alternative is called “spay and release.” It begins with trapping. But then, under “spay and release,” cats go to low-cost vet clinics for spay or neutering and shots. After a few days in recovery, these cats return to their original site with the neighborhood or a few committed human friends pitching in for basic shelter and maintenance. Cats receiving such support will do more than any animal control officer to discourage new arrivals from joining them — and new arrivals will not be attracted by the lure of mating. Midnight mating calls and fights will decline, and a healthy population will first stabilize and then gradually decline.
Members of such protected colonies can be readily identified by a tattoo or ear-notch, distinguishing them from new arrivals whose price of admission to the colony will be the same course of trapping, spaying or neutering and shots. Kittens become a rarity, and with neighborhood monitoring there is enough time so that foster homes and adoption become options. A stray who has lost its way will stand out in the crowd to get help in returning home before it is lost forever.
This is not utopian. It is a description of the “shelterless” rescue organization that relies on volunteers instead of buildings, cages and payrolls. And it is an approach pioneered in England and Europe and now having good results in San Diego with the Feral Cat Coalition.
A neighborhood approach
Spay-and-release is ideally suited to a neighborhood concerned about roaming bands of feral cats. Once neighbors begin to see a link between helping and making a difference, spay-and-release can even help to make a neighborhood more of a community for other activities. And it can work in any neighborhood, not just in affluent suburbs. Organizations such as Alley Cat Allies, which has been involved in the management of several colonies, can suggest ways to meet the financial costs — which will be considerably less than the usual cost of vet services and food. They also will try to link a neighborhood with an experienced volunteer.
Not just neighborhood colonies
Feral colonies can be found not just in the alleys of neighborhoods but in an extraordinary range of precarious environments: parking lots, abandoned buildings, parks, outside of nursing homes and hospitals, prisons and fire stations. Some begin by finding a single human friend who first offers a few scraps of food and then realizes that feral cats have a built-in clock to remind them of the precise moment when a human friend should arrive.
A secret society
Don’t expect such human friends to reveal where the feral colony is located. The danger is all too clear; it only takes one telephone call to begin a “trap and destroy” operation. Human friends sneak into the parking lot with their pockets bulging with cat food, get up at dawn to feed a colony before others awaken In some jurisdictions, they are even considered criminals for feeding feral cats. They’re more than feeders; they round up cats and kittens for spay/neuter, vet care and do more to end overpopulation than any “trap and destroy” operation.
This is not work for everyone, even for those who are dedicated can burn out. And such burn-outs can have disastrous effects on the cats who have come to depend on their human friends. That’s one of many reasons why anyone who takes on feral colony management should do so within the support network of a solid rescue organization.
ALL HELP HELPS
Whether an orphaned kitten, a homeless adult cat or an entire feral colony, human kindness combined with spay/neutering does help. And for any cat who has lost her way, the difference between life and death can be just a few weeks or months of foster care. Many cats and kittens who would be euthanized as “unadoptable” just need a few weeks or months to learn trust. Don’t let the “feral” tag fool you. If you’re not sure you can handle fostering, contact a rescue organization and express your concerns. Before you know it, you’ll be part of a network of compassion. One of the best places to start is Alley Cat Allies.