Feral cats are frequently maligned; by neighbors, local communities, bird enthusiasts, and even some ecological groups. Some communities even go so far as to ban feeding programs or, worse yet, euthanize feral cats.
A common argument against feral cats is that they prey on local wildlife, significantly reducing the population of at-risk species, perhaps to the point of near or full extinction. Though this is a legitimate concern in some very specific situations, this risk is nearly always limited to areas with unique geographical features, such as water-bound islands and otherwise insulated areas where prey species cannot adapt, relocate, or migrate.
The honest truth is that these criteria do not apply to the vast majority of communities and neighborhoods in the United States. Knowing this, it is, in my opinion, easy to see the reactionary opposition to feral cats as often hyperbolic and based on a limited understanding of the complexity of the issue.
Feral cats, as defined by the ASPCA, are “free-roaming domestic cats who were never socialized by humans or have lived outdoors for so long that they have reverted back to a wild state.” These are cats that have been born into the wild, that are lost family pets, that have been dumped outside by their previous owners, or that have been irresponsibly transported from one neighborhood to another. These cats live outdoors, hunt for food, or subsist on the efforts of well-meaning humans who offer them food and clean water sources.
Feral cats, despite formal or ad hoc feeding programs, are hardy, self-sufficient creatures and hunting is an important way they provide food for themselves. Lizards, birds, rodents, and other small mammals are frequently their prey of choice—and this is not always a bad thing. Many times, feral cats can function as a natural population control mechanism, preventing some prey species from growing in numbers beyond what the local environment can support.
A thriving local ecology is a matter of the delicate balance of many factors. When the population of any one species grows too large—whether that species is birds, rodents, small mammals, or even feral cats—that balance is lost and the local ecology can be disrupted.
Because feral cats do not accept human touch, they are typically not candidates for shelters or life with humans inside a home. It is important to note that the stress of being captive in a shelter environment can cause extreme psychological stress to these cats, which has a direct correlation with deteriorating health. And because these cats are unlikely to thrive in a shelter environment, they are therefore unlikely to be adopted.
Unadoptable feral cats are euthanized in open-admit shelters, or they are resigned to living in a cage for the rest of their lives if the shelter or rescue does not euthanize (i.e., no-kill shelter).
The problems of growing feral cat populations and the potential undesired impact on other local species, as well as solutions to address these concerns, are not either/or propositions. Community cats exist and thrive due to irresponsible human behavior, such as setting a cat loose outside when moving, or improper colony management that does not incorporate spay/neuter initiatives.
For me, the solution is multi-pronged; it must be flexible and will require creative problem solving skills.
First, pet parents need to be better educated about the reasons not to release a family pet into the outdoors; this is a fundamental first step.
Second, shelters and rescues need to coordinate together and develop or increase transport programs for healthy, adoptable cats to other areas of the country where pet overpopulation is not as prevalent, thereby creating more space in local shelters or recues to accept more pet cats that must be surrendered.
Third, responsible colony management practices need to be implemented, which should at a minimum include assessing how may cats can be successfully cared for, safe and effective trapping techniques, implementation of spay/neuter programs, ear tipping of surgically altered cats to recapture for TNR, testing for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FLV), and basic vaccinations, especially for rabies.
Finally, in areas where feral cat populations are too high or where geographic features place at-risk prey species in greater danger, these cats may need to be humanely trapped, spayed/neutered, tested and vaccinated, and then released into more appropriate areas or communities that do not have populations of small that are at risk. This method for cat population control is called Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR for short.
The issue of community cats is complex and is too often guided by strong emotions, no matter one’s perspective. We can best serve the needs of both feral cats and local wildlife by viewing the issue both objectively and as a whole. When that happens, we are best able to develop more effective and responsible solutions—for the cats and for the local wildlife.