The CATalyst: Bird Advocates and Feral Cat Advocates Can Get Along. Here's How.

Steve Dale, CAT FANCY writer and syndicated newspaper pet columnist, provides a weekly cat news roundup.

By Steve Dale, CABC | Posted: September 27, 2011, 3 a.m. EDT

Steve Dale
Author Steve Dale

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No one knows how many feral and stray cats there are in America. Estimates range wildly from one half to about one and half as many as owned cats, of which there are around 75 million, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

As you read this controversial column, all I ask is that you use a little common sense.

In recent years, there’s been a line drawn outside the cat box. On one side stand wild bird groups such as the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society. On the other side you find advocates for trap, neuter, return — groups such as Alley Cat Allies and Alley Cat Rescue, as well as hundreds of grassroots programs across the United States.

I believe all these groups could come together. Here’s why.

All agree that feral cats are a problem. Feral cats will kill songbirds and other wildlife. Feral cats might be a nuisance, and could potentially threaten public health.

Captured friendly cats (formerly owned cats) or young kittens found in colonies could be adopted. In general, however, adopting feral cats isn’t a good idea.

The socialization process for feral cats is lengthy, doesn’t always work and requires a particularly dedicated adopter. Meanwhile, friendly cats who are habituated to people are euthanized because the feral cats may take up precious shelter space.

Feral cats might not appeal to adopters and could sit in cages until they’re euthanized. Other facilities simply euthanize feral cats on intake. Either way it’s an expensive and inefficient proposition.

Most importantly, this method lacks efficiency. Officials can rarely trap all the cats in a colony in the first place. Cats are induced ovulators; they repopulate when they need to. This natural survival process actually has a name: The vacuum effect. Indeed, in no time cat colonies manage to typically not only fill the void of the cats trapped and taken away, if conditions are right, they exceed it.

This process of animal control removing cats from a colony — as many as they can — then cats repopulating has gone on for centuries. It has never worked.

Eventually, an alternative method was popularized, first in some European countries and South Africa, before trap, neuter, return (TNR) made its way here.

TNR Makes an Impact
TNR pioneers include (but are not limited to) Ellen Perry Berkeley, author of “TNR: Past, Present and Future,” Louise Holton, now with Alley Cat Rescue and Becky Robinson, co-founder of Alley Cat Allies. These three women, and others before them, are true innovators.

Here’s what TNR is. Feral cats are humanely trapped. And then spay/neutered and vaccinated for rabies (in some places they are also microchipped, so each cat is specifically identified). The problem of trapping all the colony cats, or dealing with new cats entering a colony still exists. So cats are ear-tipped to indicate they’ve undergone the TNR process.

Vaccinating for rabies eliminates that potential public health concern. And if the cats are spay/neutered, obviously, they cannot continue to reproduce.

The colonies are often overseen by volunteer cat loving caretakers. Cats are often supplemented with food, which lessens their need to catch birds or other wildlife, and gets them through tough climates.

It’s been shown repeatedly that TNR can work.

Before detractors come at me, I realize that this issue isn’t always black and white. For example, it can take years for a colony to dwindle – and even if caretakers supplement cats with meals, some cats will continue to hunt.

Also, it’s not unheard of for people to actually dump their unaltered cats into colonies — somehow rationalizing that the cats will at least be cared for. Other times, neighbors (for reasons I don’t exactly understand) rebel against the managed colonies and harm cats.

TNR does work, at least in most cases. And while not perfect, it’s far better than a system which has been given thousands of years to succeed and continues to this day to fail. It’s also more humane, and more to what the general American public prefers.

Bird Advocates Speak Out
I use all of the above as a backdrop to the most recent TNR controversy. On Sep. 21, the American Bird Conservancy issued a press release entitled, Feral Cat Colonies Present Perfect Storm for Rabies Risk. If you read what is actually written, you’ll find little validity. I’m not sure what the point of the press release really is.

For starters, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the two primary rabies vectors are bats and raccoons. Cats are much further down on the list.
ABC says: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people are exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals such as cats and dogs.”

True — but that doesn’t include feral cats. While feral cats are considered a domestic species, the CDC refers to animals in close contact with us such as pet dogs and cats.
The press release notes that feral cats are perceived as domestic and approachable. Perhaps that’s the case. But the next sentence should say, “And when approached, feral cats run away.”

True, formerly owned cats might not run off or the cats don’t run off from people they know, such as colony caretakers. Also it’s true some cats have been identified with rabies. But those managed colonies are supposed to be vaccinated for rabies in the first place. The part of the entire point of TNR, which is a part of the solution. Perhaps, this report is correct to assert some cats in managed colonies are not being vaccinated – if so, it’s a wake up call to vaccinate them.

Actually, I bet the percent of feral cats in managed colonies vaccinated for rabies is far higher than the percentage of pet cats in homes vaccinated for rabies.  
Regardless, it’s a fact that cat to human rabies transmission hasn’t occurred for over 30 years.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the barrage from bird groups. And it makes me really sad, because like many cat owners I also love birds and love nature in general.

Privately, over the years, bird advocates have admitted to me — off the record —  that while cats do certainly impact songbird numbers, the reality is that light and air pollution, habitat degradation and likely climate change might be more significant factors. Making feral cats look bad, however, always gives them press attention; cats are an easier and more manageable target than weather or habitat loss.

A Truce
CatChannel.com is the first place I’ve published this – but let’s call for a truce. I believe bird groups can be a part of the solution.
  • Let’s agree that feral cats are a problem, and don’t belong in the environment. But also agree, TNR is the best solution (and most humane approach) known to date.
  • To benefit birds, cats and the environment, the bird groups rightly support the notion of restricting cats to indoor life. Outdoors, only allow cats in areas within cat fencing or under supervision.
  • One problem with TNR is simply a lack of dedicated volunteers and other resources. The bird groups might be of assistance here.
I will continue to pursue these efforts, which you will read more about in upcoming columns. Meanwhile, let’s all remember: October 16 is National Feral Cat Day. You can help cats wherever you live; there are likely feral cat colonies near you. Learn more by contacting your local shelter, Alley Cat Allies or Alley Cat Rescue.
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Reader Comments

Jennifer    Scottsdale, AZ

12/10/2013 11:16:04 PM

Thank you for finally saying the truth about the situation. We need to help the birds, but not by killing cats. I have advocated to other groups it is time for cat people to show we want to help the birds. I support TNR and provide bird baths and homes in my yard, with the occasionally feeding of the birds. My cats are indoor only cats.

Laura    Middletown, OH

5/15/2013 5:14:07 PM

wE ARE VOLUNTEERS FOR THE FERAL CATS, OR THOSE WHO ARE DUMPED OFF KNOWING THEY WILL Have food in a colony. I was just about to bring one inside my house after about 6 months, when all of a sudden she didn't come out of the outside house I purchased for her. "Sweetie" was wonderful. Took her to the Vet and she had full blown leukemia and hiv. She had to be put down. There was a lady who said she would take a few of these cats, as I had another one from a chicken place rescued, and she lived a good life for a yhear, then she died. So trap, fix them and a rabies shot or whtever they need is the nswer. We do it ALL THE TIME OUT OF OUR OWN MONEY. WE ARE NOT A 501-c. God blesss the precious cats who are born without homes or food.

kathy    Indianapolis, IN

12/4/2011 10:04:48 PM

I have been careing for what was a very feral cat for 2 years she is fixed and lives on our deckfront and back gets along good with our big dog. i am thinking of bringing her in before the realy bad weather hits this year . i have been a little worryed how she will get along with my 2 inside cats ? I can pick her up and cuddle her she has come a long way she trusts me and my husband.

Dr Patrick Mahaney    West Hollywood, CA

10/5/2011 11:14:14 PM

Interesting exploration of the relationship between TNR and birds. Nice job Steve!

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