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The Forgotten Pet's Drive

From ALLY: the Newsletter of the Alliance for Animals,
Vol. 11, No. 2:

An oppressively hot summer day, a bitter winter night... whatever the season, whatever the circumstance, we can't help but empathize with the creatures outside, cut off from the warmth and safety of our own homes. We see them shivering in the wind, huddled together seeking shelter from the cold. Is this any life for a cat? Surely we are derelict in our responsibilities as caring people if we leave them outside to fend for themselves against what must be impossible odds...

" Some people say we should neuter and release feral cats. But they can't mean these cats, these beautiful cats we've been feeding, who are coming to meet us at meal times, who even seem to know their names. These cats could be tamed, if someone would just take them in and work with them. We already have quite a few at home and we have been working with them. Some of them are doing great, and we are sure we can find them homes. If only someone would just give them a chance...

... it is cruel to leave them outside..."

It is an oft-heard story.

We are sure we know what is best. Cold is bad. No one should have to live out in the cold. We mean well when we take these feral cats in. We mean well when we expect them to share our homes and lifestyles, join our other feline companions, enjoy our food, our shelter. It may take time, but surely they will come to recognize that we care about them, and mean them no harm. Surely they will come to thank us for rescuing them from their harrowing lives outside...

But it is we who do not understand.

It is we who mistake our own needs for those of the cat; it is we who need them, not they who need us. We need to feel important, we need to feel special - we have that "special" touch that will tame a feral cat. We have "saved" them, we are truly compassionate, even heroic. We give up hours of our day to sit with them, nurture them.

We don't see that we are terrorizing them, forcing them into an alien environment because it fits our definition of what is best. We don't see what is really special - the essential "catness" of the feral cat, her independence, natural wildness and strength.

The feral cat's life may in fact be shorter than that of the domestic cat on our bed, but it is her life, her relationships with her comrades and her environment, her world. Her every instinct tells her to avoid the human, avoid confinement. She tries desperately to escape from us, to get back to the world she knows and understands. If we understand the cat at all, if we care about her at all, if we can rise above the human need to possess and control, we must let her go. We can cherish her from a distance, admire her spirit, celebrate her life for what it is, help her by honoring her needs as they truly are. Neuter her, protect from disease, build her a shelter, educate the community about her, but do not try to "own" her. Give her freedom, peace of mind, and dignity.

-- Donna Bishop --
Founder, Alliance for Animals

The following is excerpted from "Feral Colony Management and Control", a fact sheet compiled and copyrighted by Alley Cat Allies, 1801 Belmont Rd., NW, Suite 201, Washington, DC 20009-5164. For more detailed information about their trap, neuter & return program, please write to them at the above address or visit their website at

Feral cats are the offspring of stray or abandoned domestic cats who revert to a wild state. Raised without human contact, they are fearful of humans. Feral cats live in streets, alleys and parks because of human caretakers' neglect of their unsterilized domestic house cats, allowing them to roam and reproduce. Many people abandon or dump unwanted unsterilized cats, and these animals often end up in feral colonies.

Stray and lost cats congregate near food sources such as garbage dumpsters, where rodents collect to feed. The cats start breeding and form colonies. An estimated 60 million feral cats live in the U.S., and worldwide are part of the urban ecology in virtually every city. They live in deserts near human settlements as well as on islands near Antartica where scientists transported them to control rodents.

Feral cats are found in a wide variety of living situations:
  • College campuses.

  • Students feed unsterilized cats, then abandon them when they leave for vacation or finish their education. Campuses are often located in residential areas. Cafeterias insure that a constant supply of left-over food will be thrown out in dumpsters. Attracted by this food source, lost or abandoned cats enter from the residential areas and start feral colonies.

  • Military bases.

  • Army and Navy bases have a transient human population, and abandonment of cats is commonplace when people are transferred to other bases. Many of these animals are not altered.

  • Fast food places and restaurants.

  • There is usually a constant source of left-over food in dumpsters, attracting rodents and stray cats.

  • Densely populated urban areas.

  • Negligent owners allow domestic, unaltered cats to wander, and garbage left in alleys encourages the formation of colonies.

  • Hospitals.

  • In the United Kingdom, hospital grounds represent areas where successful colonies of managed, sterilized cats live. Left-over food outside kitchens attracts rodents and therefore stray cats. Hospital personnel have found that caring for feral cats is therapeutic for long-term patients, providing a great deal of enjoyment. Such programs have been particularly successful for patients in mental institutions.

  • Farms.

  • Most farmers allow feral cats to live in barns to control rodent populations. Often these cats are underfed in the mistaken belief that this will make them better "mousers." This is a false notion, as hungry cats will move away to areas where better food sources exist. Poorly fed cats are also susceptible to diseases. All too often, farmers do no sterilize the animals, causing further overpopulation problems.

  • Holiday resorts, hotels, parks and campgrounds.

  • Many cats are found here for the same reasons mentioned above. During the summer months, vacationers often feed the cats. During the winter they are left to fend for themselves. Left in freezing conditions, they suffer from malnutrition, starvation and illnesses which are often fatal. The fittest survive to breed.

    Attempts to eradicate whole colonies of cats usually fail because the ecological vacuum created is soon filled by other strays. Unmanaged colonies are often regarded as a nuisance because of territorial behavior such as spraying, fighting, and caterwauling during mating periods. Stabilizing the colony by neutering results in healthier animals and much of their undesirable behavior is eliminated.

    Caregivers are often blamed for perpetuating the problem by feeding stray and feral cats. While it is true supplemental feeding creates healthier animals and increases the chance of more kittens surviving, feral colonies will survive even if only meager food sources such as garbage and rodents are available. This has been proven in deserts and on deserted islands throughout the world where ferals survive without any nearby human habitation.

    Instead of blaming the feeders and criminalizing their actions (which is often suggested), we should encourage their acts of compassion by assisting them with the resources and information available to sterilize the animals.

    In a recent poll it was estimated that 17.5 million people feed 35.2 million stray and feral cats in the U.S. It seems a natural act for humans to feed animals to keep them from starving. Cats turned away from a possible food source will cross busy highways in search of other sustenance. They will suffer from malnutrition and starvation, and most will survive and manage to add to the overpopulation of feral kittens. Isn't a good life in a managed, sterilized colony with a caretaker providing nutritious food much more preferable?

    Alley Cat Allies promotes a comprehensive management plan including sterilization as well as provision of food and shelter. We are part of an international campaign to educate the public about feral cats and focus attention on the plight of unmanaged feral colonies. Humane control measures pioneered in the United Kingdom over two decdes ago are becoming a popular choice for many groups and individuals concerned with the welfare of ferals in the U.S.

    Endorsements for the trap, neuter and return method come from many sources worldwide and include: Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, In Defense of Animals, The Doris Day Animal League, The Fund for Animals, World Society for the Protection of Animals, and in the United Kingdom from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the Cat Protection League, Cat Action Trust and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

    [note: We want to stress that there is a difference between a truly feral cat, and an abandoned former "pet". A feral cat has never been socialized with human beings, and is to all intents and purposes, much like any other "wild" animal living outside. An abandoned animal is one who was once socialized, lived with human beings, and has been forced out of his or her home. While an abandoned cat may then have no choice but to take up residence with a colony of feral cats, and may indeed be too frightened to seek human contact initially, these cats will readily revert to being "tame" once taken back inside. Abandoned housecats lack the skills to care for themselves adequately outside and should be taken in.]

    (Contact Donna Bishop for more information or to obtain a booklet - 617-268-7800)

    Table of Contents

    I. Why Trap

    • Feeding, neutering, responsibilities
    • Neuter-and-return method
    • Why neuter/return preferable
    • When neuter/return not recommended

    II. General Information

    • Will trap harm cat?
    • Will males lose self-defense ability?
    • Will trapping and surgery traumatize cat?
    • Will trapping frighten away other cats
    • Trapping more than one cat at a time
    • Inadvertently trapping wildlife
    • Inadvertently trapping pets
    • Trapping pregnant/nursing females
    • Trapping kittens
    • Legal/practical issues

    III. Trapping - How-Tos

    • How to begin
    • Best time to trap
    • Location of trap
    • Baiting the trap
    • Retrapping
    • Type of trap to use
    • Equipment
    • Attending the trap
    • What to do after trapping
    • Keeping cat in trap
    • Feral cat behavior
    • Transporting cat to vet
    • Trap-shy cats

    IV. Veterinary Care

    • How vet handles cat
    • Recommended vet care
    • Releasing cat after surgery
    • Neutering age
    • Spaying pregnant/lactating females, cats in heat

    V. Returning to Site

    • When and where to release cat
    • Reaction of cat after release
    • Relocating feral cats

    VI. Caring for Feral Cats

    • How much and how often to feed cats
    • Socializing feral cats
    • Introducing feral cats to indoor pets
    • Euthanasia

    VII. Fundraising

    • Veterinary costs
    • How to raise money
    © Alliance For Animals
    232 Silver Street
    South Boston, MA 02127-2206
    617 - 268- 7800