Propagation is a Big Fancy Word

Feral Cats

Feral Cats on the Big Island of Hawaii

Sometimes it’s easy to look at a topic like Spay and Neuter and think that if you have taken care of your own animals then you have done your part.  And yes, you have done the responsible thing for your own pets (for their health, behavior and the potential of bringing unwanted pets into the world) and you have provided an example for others to follow.

As pet parents, we have the right and obligation to make those sorts of decisions for our pets. What you may not be aware of is the enormous number of animals that seem to be companion animals but who are no one’s responsibility.  I am referring to the feral cat colonies that can be found in almost any big city and many small ones. They live in alley ways, condemned and abandoned buildings and parks.  Because they look like domestic cats, most assume that they belong to people in the neighborhood.  You may even shake your head and mutter to yourself something about people that keep their cats outside or how nice it is that everyone’s cats just get along.  You’ll likely wrinkle your nose at the acrid scent of urine and you’ll probably then wander on your merry way, home to your own Sheba, queen of the cat palace, give her a gentle pat on the head, fill her bowl with clean water from the tap, toss her a little salmon nibbly treat and maybe even consider getting her a friend.

Feral Cats in Arrow Rock, Missouri

Feral Cats in Arrow Rock, Missouri

Consider this, these cats you’ve seen have no one responsible for them and many are multiple generations back from being a domesticated cat, now wary and even hostile to humans.  These are feral cat colonies.  It is estimated that the number of feral cats in America number is in the 10s of millions!  They live off of what they can hunt and stay with their colony because it is safer than being alone.   They do sometimes provide the benefit of keeping an urban rodent problem at bay so they aren’t entirely a parasitic blight on their communities, but they still aren’t generally managed or cared for in the way that owned pets might be.  Cats in colonies that don’t have humane groups taking responsibility for their care and feeding, typically have only a 2 year life expectancy. Even with a caretaker, they generally live no longer than 10 years in the wild.  Consider that our indoor house cats often live to 15 and even 20 years of age.  Mostly these felines are left to their own devices for food and shelter and propagation.

Propagation is a big fancy word for the crux of the problem with these colonies.  Left on their own, a single cat in a colony such as this can produce litters of 6-12 kittens twice a year. Unfortunately half of these kittens will die before they are a year old.  Remember your lessons on survival of the fittest in elementary school?  Feral cat colonies exemplify this.  Cats can begin having litters as young as 6 months old so, as momma is having her second litter of the year, the surviving female kittens are all starting their own cycle of litters.  So, at six months mom has another litter of 12 kittens and each of the possibly four surviving girls from her first litter also have a litter of 12 kittens.  Now one momma is potentially responsible for creating 60 lives in 6 months and countless more in a year.  And that’s only one momma when there are perhaps hundreds of females in a single colony, all on regular kitten cycles.  The math boggles the mind.  Some have estimated that a pair of breeding cats can be responsible for producing a pyramid of up to 400,000 cats in a period of just 7 years.

There have been many “solutions” that people have attempted in the efforts to control this epidemic – many of those inhumane and unpalatable for polite society.  The only proven and humane method endorsed by the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) is TNR (Trap Neuter Return).  TNR is the method of humanely trapping feral cats, having them spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies and then returning them to their colony to live out their lives. TNR programs do not try to “rehabilitate” feral cats to become domesticated as this most often is simply not possible.  TNR programs usually involve the assignation of a colony caretaker who provides food, adequate shelter and monitors the cats’ health. TNR has been shown to be the least costly as well as the most efficient and humane way of stabilizing feral cat populations.

In Hawaii, the problem is decisively worse, as there is no where for the colonies to expand as there is on the continental United States.  It is estimated that there are up to a million feral cats currently living on the Big Island alone. According to Rainbow Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kurtistown, Hawaii, this explosion is attributable to many things but notably “The warm, subtropical weather promotes year round cat reproduction and a food source such as rats and mongoose to sustain the feral population.  With the sheer number of cats, the effort is daunting.

At one home where the residents have set themselves up as caretakers of a colony, there are 200 cats (all now spayed and neutered thanks to Rainbow Friends) who live around the home.  It takes 20 pounds of food each day to feed this large of a colony and the residents are thankful that the colony will not increase.  The family at this home started out as Good Samaritans, feeding a few wild cats that wandered onto their property.  They soon became overrun with wave after wave of newcomers.  Unfortunately this situation is not uncommon as kind people do what they can to help out and quickly become overwhelmed.

Over 100 feral cats waiting to be spayed/neutered on a single day at the Rainbow Friends clinic

Over 100 feral cats waiting to be spayed/neutered on a single day at the Rainbow Friends clinic

The volunteer veterinarians who work in clinics to work with these feral cats can spay/neuter between 100 and 200 cats per day, also including required vaccinations, microchips and check ups.  Often the limitation is having enough humane traps to catch cats in need of the procedure.  Even then, consider the enormous task of getting millions of cats spayed and neutered while the ones that haven’t been addressed are still adding to the kitten population daily.

If you look, we can guarantee you that your town or city has a feral cat colony somewhere that needs your help.  There are groups in every part of the country that work with this.   Won’t you consider finding out who they are in your community and donating just $10 to help them spay a single feral female? Just that one donation can mean that perhaps hundreds of unwanted kittens won’t enter the world just to suffer and die young.  You CAN make a difference!

(originally posted by me on – 07/30/10)
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