Andrew Rowan, former director of Tufts University’s Center for Animals and Public Policy, estimates that between 60 and 100 million homeless cats live in the United States. Many of these cats are feral or “wild” cats, the descendants of unaltered tame cats who were abandoned and gave birth to kittens who never had contact with humans. Although ferals are fearful of humans, they are still domesticated and ill-equipped to survive on their own. Feral cats do not die of “old age.” They are poisoned, shot, tortured by cruel people, attacked by other animals, or hit by cars, or they die of exposure, starvation, or highly contagious fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline AIDS, feline leukemia, and feline infectious peritonitis. In one feral cat colony, half of the 32 cats were shot by a man who claimed that they were “attacking” his children. Cats in another colony were shot with darts. A loose dog killed several cats in another colony.
Even easily treatable conditions can be deadly for cats who cannot be handled and regularly taken to a veterinarian. Minor cuts or puncture wounds can turn into raging infections and abscesses. Untreated upper respiratory infections lead to eyes and noses so caked with mucus that animals can barely see or breathe. Ferals often scratch their ears bloody, driven crazy by the pain and itching of ear mites and accompanying infections. Others die of blood loss or anemia from worms and fleas. Urinary tract infections, which frequently lead to blockage in male cats, cause extremely painful, lingering deaths if not treated.
Feral cats themselves are also a threat to wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that free-roaming cats kill millions of birds and small mammals in the U.S. every year, including endangered species, such as the least tern and the piping plover.
Cats Can’t Live on “Bread” Alone
Many people who encounter feral cats start feeding them, but feeding alone can actually make the situation worse. Feeding ferals increases their ability to give birth to even more kittens who are destined to suffer and die premature deaths. It is essential to get these cats off the streets in order to prevent not only their own suffering, but that of their offspring. Feeding should only be done as a prelude to trapping, to get cats accustomed to eating in a certain place at a certain time.
Trapping Do’s and Don’ts
Before you trap, it is prudent to obtain written permission from the owner of the property on which the cats roam. Also, wear thick gloves, as handling feral cats can be dangerous for both the cat and the handler. Be gentle: Even humane traps (box traps) can terrify animals who have never been confined.
Line the bottom of the trap with a piece of cloth, a folded newspaper, or an old towel. It will not interfere with the spring mechanism, and the animal will be afforded a small measure of comfort.
Do not use the same towel/cloth again for the same purpose unless you have washed it well—animals are very sensitive to smells.
Do not set a trap and leave it unattended, even for a few minutes.
Anything could happen while you’re away. Set your trap, then back off, but stay within sight of it. Be patient. Plan to do your trapping when you have enough time to spend on site. Avoid trapping in bad or extremely hot weather. Cats are most likely to be up and about during early morning or late evening hours.
Place the trap on firm, flat ground so that it does not wobble when touched.
Turn the trap so that when the animals enter, they can keep an eye on your car, your door, you, or whatever danger they would not wish to turn their backs on.
Place a small trail of food leading to a large feeding clump at the back of the trap. Use a smelly canned food as bait, and place it on a paper plate or piece of newspaper. Avoid putting bowls or cans inside the trap. When animals enter, they may thrash around trying to escape, and a bowl could cause injury.
Immediately after the animal goes in, cover the trap with a towel or blanket (if you are trapping in cold weather) or a sheet (in hot weather). A trapped animal calms down more quickly when covered.
Gently carry the trap to your vehicle. The cat will be frightened, so be aware that even small movements or noises can aggravate the cat’s stress. Don’t slam doors. Always use a vehicle. Even if the animal you want to trap is just a few blocks away, drive or have a friend drive you. It can be difficult to walk even a short distance with a terrified cat struggling in a trap.
Make arrangements ahead of time for where to take the cat after he or she has been trapped. Never assume that the animal will be accepted unannounced. If you plan to rehabilitate and adopt out the cat, it is best to take the cat immediately to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, tested for leukemia and AIDS, and treated for worm and flea infestations.
If it isn’t possible to take the cat directly to a veterinarian or animal shelter, transfer him or her to a larger carrier equipped with a litter pan, food, and water by abutting the opened carrier to the trap and opening the trap door.
Never turn feral cats loose in the house—you may not see them again for days and will probably be faced with trapping them again to take them to a veterinarian or animal shelter.
After bringing cats home from the vet, put them in a quiet place separated from other animals for a week or two to allow them to recover from surgery and become accustomed to their new surroundings. When the cats have recuperated, they can be released into the house, but it may take months (or years) of patience and kindness before the animals begin to trust you. Do not allow feral cats outside, even after months of living in your home. They are easily frightened and may bolt and become lost.
Because of the huge number of feral cats and the severe shortage of good homes, the difficulty of socialization, and the dangers lurking where most feral cats live, it may be necessary and the most compassionate choice to euthanize feral cats. You can ask your veterinarian to do this or, if your local shelter uses an injection of sodium pentobarbital, take the cats there. Please do not allow the prospect of euthanasia to deter you from trapping cats. If you leave them where they are, they will almost certainly die a painful death. A painless injection is far kinder than any fate that feral cats will meet if left to survive on their own.
Where to Get a Trap
If your local animal shelter will not lend you a box trap, invest in one of your own. Cat traps cost $40 to $50. Humane box traps are available from the following companies:
ACES (Animal Care Equipment & Services, Inc.)
P.O. Box 3275
Crestline, CA 92325
Heart of the Earth Marketing
205 High St.
Fruitdale, SD 57742
Tomahawk Live Trap Co.
P.O. Box 323
Tomahawk, WI 54487