The Urban Wildlife Series takes a look at wildlife we share our city with. This is the third in a series. You can view the others, as they are added, by clicking here.
Street cats are a part of our urban landscape, and it’s a rare alley/empty lot/junk-filled yard that doesn’t house at least one feral cat, if not an entire colony of cats. I think of these cats as ninjas – silent and fast but sneaking about and watching your every move. Many people have success “befriending” cats like this and will often leave out food or scraps for the cats. In my neighbourhood, I’ve spied at least one feeding station and there are probably more. Ferals come to rely on these feeding stations and unless the cats are altered, pretty soon you have large colonies of cats living near the food. That’s when they become pests and that’s generally when people start complaining.
A true feral cat was born in the wild and does not trust humans. Ferals can also be house cats that have reverted if they were abandoned or lost. Unaltered male feral cats can be nasty critters if cornered – because it’s about survival for them. They will fight, yowl, mate, and generally make themselves nuisances. Females usually become timid kitten factories – pumping out litter after litter of unwanted cats.
Here in New Westminster, the Royal City Humane Society operates a TNVR program and there are a few active groups throughout the Lower Mainland that deal with feral cats, notably Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue and Maverick Cat Coalition. The BC SPCA has its hands tied for the most part – feral adult cats are difficult to house and are generally unadoptable. You can socialize a very young feral cat – but it takes tonnes of time and dedication and the right cat to start with in the first place.And chances are that cat is actually a reverted, abandoned street cat. It’s been my experience that adult ferals brought to SPCA shelters, if accepted at all, don’t stand a good chance. Kittens can be tamed if caught early enough, but adult feral cats are between a rock and a hard place. Wildlife rescue won’t take them, and the SPCA isn’t set up to deal with them.
The best and most humane way to deal with feral cats is a protocol called Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return, or TNVR. The basics of TNVR are trapping the cat humanely using a live trap, neutering it to prevent more litters, vaccinating the cat to prevent diseases, and then returning it to its colony to live out its days in whatever format that takes. There are a few caveats, however. Someone also needs to care for altered cats for a day or two while their alteration incisions heal. Returned cats need a dedicated feeder – someone to put down kibble and clean water as required. The cats are usually given tests for diseases that are easily transferred around a colony. And lastly, someone has to pay for it all – the altering, the vaccinations, the testing for diseases, the care they require while being vetted and healing, and then the food they eat after they are returned.
The BC SPCA has an annual Feral Cat Spay Day which is a great way to help, but it’s once a year. The SCPA Clinic in Vancouver aims to offer free alterations for ferals all year round, depending on appointment availability. As well, some vet offices are also supportive of feral cat work, and will give deals and financial breaks where they can. But street cats breed and fight all year long and it’s seemingly endless work and not everyone can get to the SPCA Clinic in Vancouver with a trapped feral cat for an appointment. The don’t exactly go into the traps on a schedule. The largest impediment to helping out ferals, however, is that street cats are low on the beloved animal totem pole: cute puppies come first, followed by dogs, then kittens, then cats, then small amusing critters like hedgehogs, then small furry critters like rats and mice, then reptiles, and then ferals. When the animal loving world only has so much time and so many dollars to spread around, quiet ninjas who offer no love, no cute factor, and only make themselves known when they are annoying? Well, they are understandably at the bottom of the heap.
But street cats are contributing in their own way and provide a offer a service you might appreciate. They are excellent hunters and will keep the vermin population low in their territory. They don’t require much in the way of pay – some regular kibble and clean water – especially in winter – and perhaps a soft cubbie somewhere in a garage or barn to hide in would be nice. Those that do like the company of humans might even allow the odd pet or scritch from a trusted “regular” and street cats can be rather amusing to watch as they entertain themselves. The few cats who do become tame and end up as properly socialized housecats are generally incredibly loving – advocates say these are the cats who are so grateful for a warm, safe, soft space that they will be the most demonstrative pets. Advocates also say that feral cats are a human-created problem in the first place as most ferals are abandoned cats or cats who have become lost and have no permanent identification like a microchip or tattoo.
So next time you are out walking in an alley or along a quiet road, or at the barn or the unused garage at the back of your house, and you get that feeling that SOMETHING is watching you, consider that it’s a street cat, doing what it does best and impersonating a ninja.
For more information about feral cats, check out Alley Cat Allies. They are a US based group and their website is loaded with great information.