Feral cats have long history

Domestic cats have been living with people for about 10,000 years, according to recently uncovered archaeological evidence. Sometimes the cats provide great benefit. Credit cats for killing rats who spread the Great Plague. Today, we know living with housecats is beneficial for our health.

However, for as long as the species we call the domestic cat (Felis catus) has existed, there have been feral cats living in fields and cities around the world. Likely at least two cats accompanied Columbus to America. Scientists estimate there may be as many or even more unowned cats in America than the 82 million owned cats.

At first, the only means for eliminating these unwanted cats were attempts to poison them. But attempts to poison never worked to control their numbers anyway. Cats are pretty smart, and hard to fool (try sneaking a pill into your cat's food).

The preferred approach in many places has become animal control: Culling a colony by humanely trapping, and then bringing cats into the shelter for humane euthanization or adoption.

It turns out people mostly don't want even nuisance cats trapped and killed. At one time, adoption seemed an option for ferals, but it turns out to be a bad idea. Housing the generally unadoptable feral cats meant valuable cage space was being taken up while adoptable cats were being turned away or euthanized.

"These cats have never been socialized to people, and they're extremely fearful," says Becky Robinson, who had a better idea for feral cats around 20 years ago.

Robinson began a trap, neuter, return program in an alley not all that far from the White House. Each cat was humanely trapped, delivered to a veterinarian for spay/neuter and vaccinated for rabies. The cats' ears were notched to identify which cats were in the program. Then, the cats were returned to the same alley to live out their lives. Caretakers supplemented the cats with food, and identified any newcomers to the colony who would also be trapped, altered and vaccinated.

"There was a huge need for a humane way to deal with feral cats; as soon as people heard we were using TNR successfully, they called wanting to know more," says Robinson, the founder and president of Alley Cat Allies, based in Bethesda, Md. Today there are 225 organizations dedicated solely to TNR, not to mention the many shelters that offer TNR programs.

To support feral and stray cats where you live, celebrate National Feral Day on Friday by becoming involved. To learn more, contact Alley Cat Allies, or call 240-482-1980.