Feral Cats

Throughout the world there are conflicting views on feral cats, and although they are mostly considered to be a nuisance, there are some places where they are seen as an asset because of their ability to control vermin. Regardless of how we view them, feral cats are a reality in many urban and rural areas and will continue to exist as long as we humans "renege on our contract with the cat".

Did you know? A feral cat is a domestic cat that has either been born in the wild of feral parents or has reverted to a feral or wild state in order to survive. If the cat is a stray that has been lost or abandoned, it can be re-domesticated and placed in a home. However, if s/he has been born in the wild, the chances of doing this are greatly reduced.

Many institutions and businesses such as universities, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and holiday resorts experience an ongoing problem with unwanted populations of feral cats. Feral cats also occupy factory sites, dockyards, public parks and shopping centres. These cats are often regarded as a nuisance because of noisy courting, territorial behaviour, prolific breeding, and urine spraying by toms. Their ubiquitous existence is a result of the current pet population crisis, which is the root of the problem - everything else is symptomatic.

Marion Island is often cited as an example of a "successful" feral cat removal programme. However, what is not often mentioned is that it took almost twenty long years of using cruel and brutal methods (from deliberately infecting the cats with feline enteritis, to using terrier dogs to flush them out, to exterminating by hunting and eventually poisoning) to finally eliminate the approximately 2500 cats that inhabited this small and extremely isolated island. The problem is when the cats are removed, rodents (who feast on birds and their eggs) thrive and it is far more difficult to eliminate them using methods like the ones mentioned above.

More recently, the feral cats living on Robben Island were targeted for removal by conservation authorities and ornithologists from UCT. The Domestic Animal Rescue Group (DARG), a local animal group persuaded the authorities to allow them to trap the cats and relocate the majority to the organisation's "Cat Park" in Hout Bay. A colony of twelve cats were then to be sterilised and released back onto the island in order to prevent a rodent infestation.

Why should we do anything about feral cats?

Although the extermination of feral cat colonies is generally done for human convenience, there are times when individual trappers and animal welfare societies may undertake such a task to prevent suffering. Any attempts to solve the problem by trapping and removing the cats are mostly unsuccessful, largely because their presence in an area indicates an ecological niche for that specific number of cats. As long as the food source that attracted them in the first place remains, it is virtually impossible to prevent newcomers from arriving. The permanent removal of all the cats thus only serves to create a vacuum that will soon be filled by migrating and abandoned (mostly unsterilised) cats. The repeated influx of new, breeding cats into a colony increases territorial and hierarchical fighting - the very behavioural patterns for which feral cats are labelled a nuisance. Conversely, if population numbers could be stabilised (by having them sterilised and by feeding them), the influx of new cats can be
reduced and territorial behaviour within a colony would actually discourage migration into the colony from outside. The result is quieter, healthier cats, who are more acceptable to humans.

Any programme aimed at managing feral cats also needs to monitor the dumping of cats in the area.

Did you know? According to Animal Rescue Organisation (ARO) one unspayed cat can produce 80 000 offspring in a five year period!

The bottom line is that as long as the food source remains, new cats will continue to arrive. Removing food sources such as edible refuse, prey species and handouts from cat lovers is mostly impractical and impossible to do. There is only one solution that is both effective and humane, but it does require serious commitment. By sterilising and maintaining a colony of feral cats on a given site, you will not only ensure that numbers are kept down and the cats die off naturally, they will also earn their keep by ensuring that the area remains rat free.

Trap-Sterilise-Release or TSR (also known as Trap-Neuter-Return or TNS) methods have been successfully used in many countries for decades including England, Denmark, the USA and South Africa. These programmes are aimed at reducing the number of cats on site in order to create a smaller, stable and controlled population. Inevitably a colony will contain cats that
are terminally ill, injured or very old and are thus unable to cope and for these cats, euthansia is the kindest option. Without intervention, feral cats will not only breed prolifically adding to the overwhelming pet overpopulation problem that is facing this country, but they will lead lives filled with danger, disease, discomfort, hunger and fear. Suffering can only be countered
with action.

Some solutions to the feral cat problem:

The decision to become involved in establishing a humane management programme for feral cats is not one to be taken lightly. There are many far-reaching implications that need to be considered, including the viability and feasibility of such an initiative. The landowner should ideally support, or at least tolerate the presence of cats and the proposed TNR project. Another important consideration is the resources (time and money) needed to ensure its efficacy. It is also not something you can start off doing and then lose interest in as it is morally and legally wrong and effectively constitutes mass abandonment!

If you are serious about getting involved with caring for feral cats, there are a few options available, for example, you could start off by simply volunteering to help as a feeder or foster home for an existing individual or group caring for feral cats in your area. You could also assist with adoptions, fundraising, publicity, educational or other activities in order to learn more about running an animal welfare programme.

If you have found a colony that no one is caring for and you are sure you want to get involved, then the fate of the cats must be determined before trapping begins. Their safety and welfare is the main consideration. If you decide to go the TSR route, then it is best to negotiate with the SPCA or another welfare society, who may be able to help with advice, trapping, transportation and veterinary treatments at possibly reduced rates.

Another way is to find a sympathetic vet to help you by providing cheaper sterilisation appointments. There are some excellent information packages available for feeders and colony caretakers and these should be consulted before embarking on any intervention programme.  Perform an internet search to find information or consult an organisation dedicated to feral cat welfare.

It must be emphasised that feeding feral cats without simultaneously embarking on a sterilisation drive is irresponsible and will only aggravate the situation. Similarly, studies have revealed that supplemental food must be provided after sterilising and when releasing the cats back on site.

Since not all cats live indoors anyway, and many people's lifestyles are not conducive to keeping pets inside, it is possible to provide a home for one or two feral cats. Many people living in rural areas are plagued by rats and moles and in such instances feral cats could be used as an alternative to environmentally unfriendly and inhumane options like poisoning.

Although feral cats will hunt, they must be fed to supplement their diet and keep them healthy. Certain prey like moles are not palatable to cats.  Feral cats can also be used as "working cats" to deter rodents on farms and at hospitals, hotels, factories, restaurants etc. Institutions such as old age and children's homes could also benefit from keeping a small group of sterilised feral cats, which would also provide interest and interaction for residents. In instances where this has been done, it has been
found to be good for people's mental and physical health.

The famous Coliseum cats in Rome who live among the ruins in Torre Argentina, are a huge tourist attraction and the Italians consider them to be an important part of the Roman "bio-cultural heritage". These feral cats are featured in many coffee table books and on postcards, and tourists travelling to Italy always expect to see them when visiting the Coliseum. For more on this take a look at their website - www.romancats.com

Similarly, the free roaming cats of the Greek islands of Mykonos, Paros and Naxos have also been the subject of picture books. Local fishermen are known to share the damaged bits from catches with the cats, who in turn keep the rats away.

Relocating feral cats is generally not a good idea, but in exceptional circumstances, this can be done. For example, many of the so-called "racetrack cats" in the USA provide a necessary and valuable service by reducing the rodent population in the stables and thereby eliminating the need for exterminators and dangerous chemicals. The cats perform a dual function and also provide company for the racehorses who are by nature, nervous and highly strung. At some of these racing stables workers report that the horses all have their favourite cat or cats and that some even allow “their cat” to "ride" them!

Tips for adopting feral cats

  • Don't attempt this if you lack patience and remember these cats will never tame completely.
  • Always ensure that you get expert advice and consider the best interests of the cat/s at all times.
  • It is better to get two ferals so they can keep each other company and thus adjust easier.
  • Select cats from the same site, or they may fight over territory.
  • Keep the cats in an enclosed area / safe run with adequate shelter, for at least two weeks before setting them free to survey the land and familiarise themselves with the area.
  • Whilst in the run, place their food and water at the end, furthest away from the house or factory etc.
  • Feral cats are very shy of humans and will avoid the house. It is necessary to place their food well away from the house itself - stables or outbuildings are a good option as they offer shelter as well.
  • When you first let the cats out, leave food and water out daily, even if it is not eaten at first.
  • Leave a trail of food leading back to their feeding area, preferably smelly food like tinned pilchards in tomato sauce, as this will encourage them to return.
  • If your cats display signs of illness due to stress or changes in the weather, i.e., runny eyes and nose, a dose of the homeopathic remedy Aconite should help.
Advantages for feral cats
  • The cats can enjoy all the freedom of their wild ancestors, and have food, water, shelter and care on hand when needed.
Advantages for humans
  • The cats provide natural pest control.
  • Their largely natural existence tends to render them tough, strong and healthy and generally they require minimal effort to look after.
  • For stable owners they offer company and therapeutic benefits because of their ability to calm horses.
  • You can help alleviate the pet overpopulation crisis by giving homeless animals a safe home.
What about birds?
  • Bear in mind that not all cats are able to catch birds and these very opportunistic creatures prefer reptiles, rodents and insects which are far easier to catch.
  • To prevent cats from killing birds, fit them with proper elasticated collars with bells attached.
  • Ensure that bird feeders are erected in the middle of your lawn or any flat area away from flowerbeds and shrubs, where the cats are highly visible to birds and they cannot be camouflaged.
  • Place your feeder on a tall metal pole, which can be greased to stop cats from climbing up.
  • Place the rest boxes in areas that are hard for cats to reach and position bird tables in the open, so that the cats are unable to ambush them while they are feeding.
  • Keep your cats fed on top quality food so that they become docile and sedentary and unable to catch birds.
Note: Helping feral cats is time consuming and can be frustrating, emotionally draining and very expensive. It can also be extremely rewarding though, and each situation presents new learning experiences. It is through people's love and active involvement that further suffering and unwanted litters being born are prevented. In this way the quality of life for one of the most maligned and abused creatures on earth can be greatly improved.

Successful non-lethal feral cat management programmes:

There are many examples globally of successful TSR programmes, as well as many instances and situations in which cats and other wildlife can coexist. The island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, is a good example of a successful TSR programme. Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, USA is also a good example of how bird populations, including ground nesting species, can increase despite the presence of feral cats. The feral cats that are resident in the Company  Gardens in Cape Town, live alongside several species of bird and squirrels, and their presence has not impacted on the population size of either.

Case Study: University of the Western Cape (UWC) Feral Cat Project, Cape Town, South Africa

Background Information

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is situated on a vast, 160-hectare property in Bellville South, on the Cape Flats. The campus is home to 15 well-established colonies of feral cats, totalling about 120. A TSR and feeding programme was started in 1997, and continues despite many setbacks. These included the tragic death of the university official who sanctioned the project, as well as major opposition from the adjacent Cape Flats Nature Reserve, which is inhabited by 82 bird species, the Cape chameleon and the rare brown spotted mouse.

We trap and feed the cats and a very kind, very generous, private vet sterilises the cats for us at a vastly reduced rate. UWC covers the costs of these sterilisations and we fundraise to cover other expenses or (mostly) pay for them ourselves. None of this would be possible without the support we have received from Hill’s Pet Nutrition who have been a major supporter of the Project from the outset. Feeding such quality food keeps the cats healthy, happy and most of all out of the Nature Reserve!

Project Aims and Objectives

The overall aim and objective of the project is to change commonly held, negative perceptions about cats through education and research. Our immediate goal though, is to control population numbers and provide care for all the resident feral cats.

The UWC Feral Cat project thus aims to accomplish the following:
  • Zero population growth within colonies and the continuation of a well organised monitoring and feeding programme once this has been achieved.
  • Educate UWC students, staff and the public about the important and often supportive roles played by cats in human societies throughout history.
  • Counter misinformation about cats in general and feral cats in particular.
  • Demonstrate the efficiency of feral cats as rodent catchers.
  • Develop resource materials so that this information can be shared and made available to the public.
  • Fundraise in order to support the project and to cover the costs of training a student to conduct research and educational activities on campus.
NOTE: Part of the proceeds of The South African Pet-friendly Directory go towards the care and maintenance of these UWC feral cat colonies.

On behalf of the UWC feral cats, we would like to thank the following:
  • Hill’s Pet Nutrition for the generous donations of cat food, and for their support from the outset.
  • Dr Lesley I'Ons and staff at Southfield Veterinary Hospital - we can never thank you enough for all that you do and for your unbelievable generosity!
  • June Woodman and the professional staff at the Animal Welfare Society (AWS) in Sachs Circle who are always willing to help with emergencies, rescues and sick animals.
  • Blaauwberg Animal Trust (BAT), particularly Joachim Fassmann for donations of cat food generously donated wherever possible.
  • Marilyn Hoole and TEARS for helping us to get dumped animals adopted whenever possible.
  • Western Province Cat Club for advice, food donations and offers of veterinary assistance.
  • We also sincerely have to thank the powers-that-be at UWC for considering the "humane option" and for their financial contribution to the costs of sterilising the cats that live on the campus.
  • We also need to thank the UWC campus community in general who have for the most part been understanding and empathic.
  • Then there are the many individual staff members who have responded to various appeals for cat food etc.
  • Thanks also to the cleaners who feed cats (sometimes from their own lunches!), to the gardeners who are our "eyes and ears" and the small but dedicated team of students who help wherever possible.
Wish List:

To continue with the project and to ultimately ensure its success, help is urgently needed.

We need people to foster or adopt tame cats and most importantly help us to fundraise and secure donations of food.

People are sometimes needed to offer a home on their property / farm / stable / factory to an unwanted feral or two.

We sell second magazines and books to the students to raise funds and any donations of unwanted items will be greatly appreciated.

If you want to know more or can help in any way, please contact Sharyn or Janine on Tel: 021 715 1125 or e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Pollsmoor Prison
We were very proud to find out that Pollsmoor Prison has decided to follow UWC and adopt  the "trap-sterilise-release" (TSR) model to deal with their feral cat problem. Rita Brock and PUPP South, the animal welfare group that developed the proposal that ultimately convinced them to follow this path, used the experience of the UWC Feral Cat Project to convince the authorities of the viability of such a project. We commend Pollsmoor for this enlightened and brave stance! It is increasingly necessary in the light of the growing body of evidence that links inter-personal violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour to animal cruelty
and abuse. Pollsmoor have previously initiated a successful and unique bird project as part of the rehabilitation of certain violent offenders.

E-mail us if you manage a feral cat colony, we'd love to hear about your experiences, observations and findings.
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