We have a large window in a rec room located along the back of our house that overlooks the creek bottom and farm fields behind us. I love to sit there and watch the wildlife. With binoculars, I watch and study everything from geese, ducks and pheasants, to deer, fox and prairie dogs. Many of the pictures I have used in articles over the years were shot overlooking this area.
Technically I am working when I am in that room, studying animals. My wife refers to it as “goofing off.” When she confronts me about it, I try in vain to explain my actions. She utters something about my studying with my eyes closed and then laughs herself silly as she exits. I find her evil chortle very unladylike and plan on telling her so next chance I get.
One of the critters I see more and more of lately are cats. Not the mountain lion or bobcat types, but the house cat variety. The population seems to grow every year and it got me to study on the situation and see what is going on.
Sometimes these cats you see belong to a neighbor. The cat is out doing the “cat thing” and will most likely return back home to a warm bed and bowl of cat food. Some of these cats however, are strays that have been lost or abandoned by careless owners, and others are actually feral cats.
Feral cats are unsocialized and tend to be somewhat fearful of people, trying to keep their distance. They usually live in groups called colonies, and share a common food source and territory. The colony may include recently abandoned cats or those who were recently lost by their owners.
Feral in a cat is a behavioral characteristic and not a biological one. An outdoor kitten can be born feral, taken indoors and socialized as a family pet. It takes longer to bring around a feral cat so a great deal of patience is important.
The older a kitten born in the wild is, the more difficult it is to domesticate them. A full-grown adult cat that was born in the wild may take years to socialize, if ever.
True feral cats avoid contact with humans. They will be difficult, if not impossible to approach. Most often, a feral will crawl, crouch, hide and stay low to the ground with their tail protecting their body.
A feral cat will not make eye contact like a domestic cat will. Speaking to the feral will usually go unanswered with no purrs or meows. Caution should be exercised when approaching because they can lash out and be aggressive if cornered or threatened.
If you encounter a cat that is dirty and its fur is a mess, something that looks like it is wild, it is probably someone’s lost or abandoned pet. A feral cat will probably have a clean and well-kept coat because the cats in a feral colony groom each other.
Feral behavior will increase with each successive feral generation. The more feral generations from a once socialized ancestor, the wilder that cat will be. The amount of human contact a cat has can also influence just how wild he or she may become.
The important thing to remember is that no matter how long a cat may live in the wild, it will never become wildlife. While they live outside year-round and exhibit wild behavior, very few subsist on hunting alone. The vast majority relies on some form of human-based food source, such as dumpsters or trash cans or food bowls of pets left in the yard. If a cat is mewing and begging for food from you, it is probably a lost pet and not a feral.
A further concern is not only the number of cats released and abandoned, but also their amazing fertility rate. It is estimated that a single pair of feral cats can grow to a population of 10,000 within five years. In some locales, the feral population exceeds the number of domestics.
The Humane Society estimates that there are 30 to 40 million feral cats living in colonies throughout the United States. These wild-cat colonies have coexisted with humans for over 10,000 years.
All is not peaceful with the feral cat populations. The IWRC, Education and Resource for Wildlife Conservation Worldwide estimates that up to four billion wild birds are killed by feral cats each year in the United States.
Transmission of infectious diseases from feral cats to wild species has become an emerging threat for wildlife conservation. There are shared infectious agents between domestic cats and wild cats, such as pumas and bobcats.
The removal of feral cat colonies always stirs up the emotions of the community. Most people do not support the use of euthanasia to remove them. People still view the wild tabby as someone’s former pet, and rightfully so, aside from a few generations. Remember, they are not wildlife.
Some jurisdictions practice a sterilization program. These programs, called trap-neuter-release (TNR) have been used in large metropolitan areas with somewhat contradictory results.
Some studies of the effectiveness of TNR programs show an effective rate with as little as a 55 percent neuter rate, while other studies show without neutering 100 percent of females success will not be attained. Many ecologists suggest that TNR is not effective at reducing, and ultimately, removing feral cat populations, especially if contact with owned cats cannot be prevented.
There is no real answer to the feral cat problem. We have to look back at ourselves, because people have caused this problem. I will continue studying wildlife from my perch in the backroom of the house. My wife does not realize that occasionally, I have to close my eyes to properly absorb what I have seen. I have tried to explain it but she just doesn’t get it.
Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For outdoors or survival related questions or comments, feel free to contact him directly at his email email@example.com