Feral Cats

The Ongoing Debate About Wild Kitties' Impact on the Environment

As a child in Detroit, I would often see packs of dogs roaming the streets together. These feral dogs were not friendly and couldn’t be tamed to live as a house pet. In Santa Barbara, it’s rare to see packs of dogs; feral cats, on the other hand, are plentiful.

Feral cats are typically born in the wild and live with relatively no human contact. Feral cats can rarely become house cats unless they are socialized and fostered at a very young age. They usually live in groups, known as colonies, and often have a person who provides daily food, water, and even shelter. Responsible caregivers participate in “Trap-Neuter-Return” programs (TNR). The TNR program involves live trapping the feral cats one-by-one, having them spayed or neutered, monitoring the cats for a day or two and then releasing them back into their colony. The veterinarian will also vaccinate and “ear tip” the cat during this process. Ear tipping involves snipping a small part of the ear when the cat is unconscious. This procedure is performed so that when the caregiver continues to trap feral cats, the person will know immediately if the cat has already been spayed or neutered.

Research shows that TNR programs really work. With this program, fewer kittens are born, resulting in a decrease in the number of animals; and bothersome behaviors associated with breeding (fighting, roaming, spraying, crying, etc.) are minimized.

An alternative to the TNR program with feral cats is the “catch-and-kill” method, which is exactly what it sounds like. This practice is used widely in animal shelters across the United States, typically because the shelters do not have enough resources. According to experts, this method is seldom successful. Feral cats will normally choose an area to live based on the food and shelter source. Once some of the cats are removed from the location, the ones remaining will breed to capacity, or other cats move in to take their place. Essentially, the population never goes down. This phenomenon is called the “vacuum effect.”

Aside from the continual, cruel cycle of trapping and euthanizing cats, I believe there are many so-called “feral” cats that get caught in traps that are actually owned cats that are just out of their element. I worked at a Humane Society for many years where unfortunately, we practiced the catch-and-kill method, euthanizing thousands of feral cats every year. It saddens me to think how many owned cats we euthanized thinking they were feral. When I interviewed pet detective Kat Albrecht, she echoed my sentiments and even suggested that shelter employees receive extensive training on how to distinguish between a feral cat caught in a trap and an extremely frightened house cat caught in a trap. I couldn’t agree more. For more on my interview with Kat Albrecht, see “What to Do When Your Pet Goes Missing.”

The impact of feral cats on the environment is an ongoing debate. Some argue that free-roaming cats are subject to injury and/or death by predators, vehicles, diseases, poisons, etc. Others are concerned about the impact the cats have on area wildlife. Groups that support feral cats and TNR programs argue that feral cats help control rodent populations. They also maintain that if caregivers provide enough food for their feral cat colonies, then cats won’t have to roam in search of food and won’t have as big an effect on wildlife.

This is indeed a hot topic and I sympathize with those who don’t support free-roaming domesticated cats. I do not believe that house cats should be allowed to roam unsupervised outdoors. Just last week in Indiana, an outdoor cat named Brownie was shot in the head with an arrow and wandered for three days before returning home (the pictures of this horrible injury are gut-wrenching). Miraculously, the arrow didn’t penetrate the cat’s skull and he survived. While this is an extreme example of what could happen to a house cat that is allowed to wander, I sure hope the owners decide to keep Brownie indoors going forward.

Although I strongly believe that house cats should not be allowed outdoors unsupervised, I feel much differently when it comes to feral cats. Rather than having a feral cat euthanized, I think it should be allowed to live freely, as long as it has been spayed or neutered and there is a caregiver keeping an eye on the cat.

With all the feral cats in Santa Barbara County, County Animal Services recently issued a press release seeking barn homes for feral cats. They are looking for citizens who can provide safe ranch or barn homes for these feral felines. All the cats are spayed or neutered, up-to-date with their vaccines, and given an overall health check before going home. Animal Services will conduct a yard check and will also provide instructions on acclimating the cats to their new home. They are looking for homes with a barn or shelter, so the cats can be protected from predators as well as the elements. The caretakers must be willing to feed the cats every day and provide them with basic needs. If you are interested in the feral cat adoption program, contact Stacy Silva at 934-6981.

The organization Alley Cat Allies has a wonderful Web site for those looking to care for feral cats. They have advice on how to participate in TNR programs, while keeping your neighbors happy. Alley Cat Allies recommends providing litter box areas to prevent the cats from using neighborhood gardens and they also have a list of humane deterrents to keep cats away from places they aren’t wanted. For more information, visit Alley Cat Allies

Wags and Whiskers Festival

This Sunday, September 13, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. come to the Wags and Whiskers Festival at Tucker’s Grove Park, at Turnpike and Cathedral Oaks. Wags ‘n’ Whiskers Festival will showcase adoptable dogs, cats, and bunnies from shelters and animal rescues across the county. The festival will include dog training demonstrations, an agility show, kids’ activities, and a raffle with pet-oriented prizes. In addition, there will be animal groups such as Santa Barbara Supersonic Flyball Racing Team, Cottage Hospital Therapy Dogs, and American Red Cross, which will be teaching pet first aid and disaster preparedness. The Wags ‘n’ Whiskers Festival was created by CARE4Paws, a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible pet ownership and animal welfare in Santa Barbara by spreading awareness about pet retention, animal homelessness, and shelter adoptions. For more information, visit care4paws.org.

Bunny Festival

Join us for an afternoon of bunnies and bunny lovers. See the Bunny Olympics as trained rabbits run hurdles and play basketball. Enter your bunny in bowling, carrot eating, or an obstacle course. Nail trimming, massage, and grooming are available at the spa. Visit the vet or the animal communicator. Have a portrait of your bunny done at the photo booth. Shop for bunny supplies and gifts at Willa’s Ark, the Bunny Bunch, the Rabbit Shop, and the Flying Hutchman. There will also be a silent auction, snacks, and children’s activities. Visit and pet the Adoptable Rabbits. Sunday, September 27, noon to 4 p.m. in the Sunken Garden, 1100 Anacapa Street. For more information, visit bunssb.org.

Aimee

Adoptable Pet of the Week

Aimee is one of 24 rabbits who was left at BUNS during the Jesusita Fire. She is bright and curious and gets along well with guinea pigs. She lives with her rabbit friends Colin and Betty and plays with Cesar the guinea pig. She would like to go home with a friend. She would also like to be a companion rabbit to your bunny. Aimee is house trained and spayed/neutered.

Bunnies Urgently Needing Shelter (B.U.N.S.) is a volunteer organization that cares for abandoned rabbits. B.U.N.S is located at the Santa Barbara County Animal Shelter, 5473 Overpass Rd. B.U.N.S. works to find bunnies permanent homes, and educates the public on caring for a companion rabbit. For more information, visit bunssb.org.

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