Something I know a little bit about is feral cats.
Original Feral Kittens
I’m often surprised when people online use “feral” to indicate outside or stray. Feral means wild.
It’s a HUGE mistake to think of all outside or stray cats as feral, because many of them are quite comfortable around people and need good homes. Feral cats, on the other hand, are not usually habituated to humans, or at least not in the first 6-9 weeks of their lives, and have reverted back to a wild state. As such, they can be very dangerous if you try to treat them like the cats you may be familiar with.
I got started feeding feral cats because I had a garden in the backyard of the apartment where I live (it no longer exists — my *sshole landlord cut it down to the ground several years ago). I liked sitting outside on nice nights and saw a mama cat and her two kittens in November one year going into the yard next door and thought they would not make it through the winter, so I began putting food out for them. That was the beginning. I’ve fed the ferals in my backyard for many years since then.
Original Feral Tomcat
As I sat outside (later that spring) watching them eat, I started seeing how they act and how they act differently from socialized cats. For instance, feral cats have a zone that, if you step one foot over it, they will move away from you. The zone is larger or smaller, depending on how feral the cat is. The gray and white Tomcat, above, needed the biggest buffer zone I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t get closer to him than about 20 feet. He would just move back. That photo was taken with a zoom lense! He was very wary. I used to catch sight of him many blocks away from our apartment. His territory was huge for a small animal! When he came into the yard every cat was on alert. He wasn’t nasty (some intact males are bullies), but commanded the utmost respect. No other cat would challenge him and most gave him a lot of space. The feral cats I feed will let me come in close when I have food in my hands, but after that it’s usually a minimum distance of 3 feet. If I step in closer they just move away. It’s important to try not to make them nervous about their space, because they are already pretty wary anyway.
I feed the feral cats after midnight because I work 2nd shift and come home late. On nice nights I was able sit outside and watch the cats eat. I used to put out 2 trays of hard food. Those long, rectangular planters have a long, rectangular trays that sit under them and I bought a couple to put hard food in, thinking several cats could line up to eat. It worked, but the cats must know each other already to sit side by side. If there was a new cat, s/he had to sit apart from the other cats and wait for them to finish, then cautiously get something to eat. It took a while for a new cat to be accepted by the group and until it was, it had to wait. It seems barging in isn’t tolerated, except with kittens. Kittens can barge in all they want and it’s fine with the adults! The younger kittens often stand on the food itself to eat. It’s so cute. No boundaries!
Feral Kitten eating out of tray
If cats don’t like each other (and some don’t) one will come later than the other so they can avoid direct confrontation. If a female has kittens, she will wait until the “crowd” clears to bring her kittens to eat, and most definitely take care to avoid an intact, top male cat. I think it’s because they might harm the kittens. Mama cats are fierce when it comes to any other cat who gets too close to her kittens. I’ve seen a very small female growl or just give the stink-eye to other cats while her kittens are with her, and the other cats always back off right away. They know mamas with kittens mean business.
Mama ferals don’t bring their kittens out to eat until they’re about 3 months old. They know who feeds them and the kittens have to stop nursing at some point, but the mothers, while knowing to bring their kittens to friendly feeders, are still very cautious. I’ve known several mama cats over the years who were pregnant, and then “not”, who came back to eat, but I never saw the kittens until they were about 3 months old. These extremely wary mamas are quite clever and bring their kittens to eat much later than the other cats, and also when I’m not outside, so as not to expose their kittens to people/other cats too early. They see everything as a threat. I got a little bit smarter and started going out at odd times in order to spot the kittens when I knew a female had had a litter. That’s a thrill, to see a little kitten in the yard, eating. I can’t think of anything cuter than a kitten!
Feral kittens, although small, are very fast
3 Feral Cats eating
, and there is no way to catch them manually; it works better to use a humane trap. They are way
too fast. I’ve tried. Also, it’s best not attempt to pick up or corner a feral cat or kitten. They can shred you and inflict very real and serious damage. Plus cat bites can turn septic quickly (because they are puncture wounds and the top of the bite closes over). Don’t try it. Humane traps are the best way to trap feral cats. With kittens, you want them not to be too small because if the trap springs, it could catch them and break something, but if they are older/bigger, they will trip the trap and be caught w/out harm.
Trapping feral cats has a learning curve! I went to a clinic given by a woman I know who has a feral cat organization, and she showed a video on how to do it. I think “Alley Cat Allies” (online) has a video about how to go about doing it. If not, they have a lot of info about feral cats in general and can point you to a website that has videos. I learned quite a bit about feral cats from Alley Cat Allies. It’s a great website if you are interested in more information about feral cats.
Another Feral Kitten under car
The reason to trap feral cats is because it’s best to TNR them. T/N/R stands for Trap/Neuter/Return. It’s the terminology for the most human way to manage feral cats. The fourth initial should be “F” for “Feed”, and the fifth should be “S” for “Shelter”. TNRFS. “Tenurfus”. Doesn’t roll off the tongue very well, does it?! Returning neutered/spayed ferals to the same place they live is a must or they will desperately seek to return to their territory, and very possibly be killed as they try to find their way back. It’s inhumane to dump feral cats elsewhere. Providing food and shelter, as well as spaying/neutering, is the best way to stabilize a group of feral cats so they don’t procreate, and also “fixing” cats cuts way down on territorial fights and fights about breeding (as well as howling and screeching — who wants to hear that!).
If feral cats are removed from an area it just creates a vacuum, and since these cats are attracted to a habitat for a reason (believe me, there were cats coming through my backyard every night for years before I ever started feeding them), other cats will discover the place eventually and fill the void. The trick is to neuter/spay, so you cut down on unwanted kittens and stabilize the population.
Many feral kittens cannot be socialized to humans and need to live out their lives as feral, outdoor cats. Some can come inside, but most are just too wild. It depends on the individual cat, of course, but if a kitten won’t let you touch it and grows up not allowing you to come very near, you can be pretty sure it wouldn’t do well inside. However, they need shelter from rain and cold, and providing outdoor shelters greatly eases their lives and provides a place to wait out inclement weather. Cats often die from upper respiratory illnesses, and shelters help cut down on that, too.
Original Feral Female Kitten
There were two kittens (both torties) in the yard once (after mama had dropped them off they stayed) and I was able to tame one. I would sneak up very quietly behind her when she was eating, and then touch her. This took months, but finally I was able to stroke her (from the back, if they see your hand coming in front of them they run) and one day she PURRED! After that she let me pet her all the time, though she never let any other human come near. Her sister never, ever, let me touch her and remained feral. Taming her (I named her “Ina”) was one of my big, feral triumphs!
I’ve had many more failures than triumphs. The most difficult thing with ferals is they’ll come to eat faithfully for months or even years, and one day just disappear and you never know what happened. It’s hard. I worry when they don’t come for a night or 2. Sometimes certain cats will come for weeks, then not come, then show up again. I’ve had some cats (not feral) who do that, but they always come back around. With ferals, though, once they find a good place to eat they usually come every night, so when one is missing, I worry. I used to keep a chart and track how many came each night, and when one didn’t come I’d record that. After months if one didn’t come back I’d finally put “deceased” next to their name. I stopped recording but keep more of a mental tally nowadays. It’s the not-knowing that’s difficult, and my imagination is very vivid, so I tend to imagine all sorts of horrible ends, which is not much fun. So many cats have come and gone from my backyard. My (*sshole) landlord won’t allow me to put shelters out for the cats and it’s hard on them over the winter, but he steals the shelters if I put them out. Once my husband and I find a house I plan to move all the outdoor cats with me and will provide them with shelter. My group of cats is mixed — some are feral, and other are just strays. I will write about the strays another time, and more about feral cats, because this is far from a comprehensive guide.