California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Should Feral Cats be Euthanized

By Rhonda Lucas Donald

[Adapted from the May 1992 issue of Shelter Sense/The Humane Society of the United States by Department of Fish & Game]

Ever stalking and just out of reach, the feral cat lives on the outskirts--the outskirts of our vision, of our homes, of our care. These cats gone wild look so familiar, so seemingly close. But they have a wary look that most companion cats seldom express, and they consistently maintain their lonely peripheral existence.

Exactly what is a feral cat? The term fosters quite a debate. A feral cat is, essentially, a domestic cat. He is a companion animal who no longer is, nor ever has been, under the care of people. He lives outside and by his own wits, finding food and water, breeding, and surviving as best he can. He lives much like a wild animal, but he isn't altogether wild.

In her book, Maverick Cats, Ellen Perry Berkeley quotes Roy Robinson, a specialist in cat genetics, who explains how we have domesticated the cat over thousands of years and why the cat has become dependent on humans. First, he points out, cats retain juvenile characteristics that encourage dependency into adulthood. Second, they have a reduced adrenal response that requires them to be protected. Third, cats have undergone a reduction in brain size. "These changes are the changes of many generations and are not undone overnight," Berkeley says. "We may say that the feral cat has 'gone wild' or 'returned to the wild,' but this is not the same as being a wild animal."

The question of responsibility is at the heart of the feral cat issue.

Not completely wild then, the feral cat, in fact, seeks out humans to aid in survival. Unlike most wild animals, feral cats locate themselves close to people.

Feral cats do benefit from humans. Many people feed feral cats and some even go so far as to neuter them and provide veterinary care when needed. Even so, these cats are largely unapproachable. They must be trapped in order to be handled, and once trapped, often will not go near a trap again.

Some scientists argue that because feral cats live fairly successfully in the wild, they should be considered wild animals and treated accordingly. Dr. Andrew Rowan, director of the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, says, "A cat that's never been handled by a human is not a pet." This leads him to the question that is at the heart of the debate over the fate of feral cats: "Are these animals really our responsibility?"

The neuter-and-release method is considered by some to be the solution to the feral cat problem. But what does this method mean for the cats?

For the most part, people have treated feral cats as if we are responsible for them. Sometimes this sense of responsibility comes as a result of the problems the cats can cause. Some people attempt to stop the nuisance by eradicating the cats. Others feel obliged to feed these fringe cats and ease their struggles somewhat. Still others see the often miserable lives of these animals as tragic, and they do what they can to end the suffering by trying to tame the cats and put them in homes or by humanely ending the animals' lives.

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The UFAW Method

In the early 1970s, the Universities Federation of Animal Welfare (UFAW), a group based in England, was one of the first to attempt neutering entire colonies of feral cats and then maintaining the colonies by providing a constant supply of food. In their booklet, "The Fate of Controlled Feral Cat Colonies," UFAW lists no fewer than 14 reasons why feral cats need to be controlled, including the "sheer abundance of cats; the unpleasant sight of cat corpses, or of individuals in poor condition; annoying caterwauling; fighting; the foul sight and smell of cat urine and feces; and the disturbing of rubbish bins and scattering litter," among other things. The neuter-and-release method was devised to combat these problems.

UFAW reported on eight maintained colonies, tracking the individual animals in them over a three-year period. Each of the colonies had a human feeder, although some of the feeders were more dedicated than others. Their conclusion is that "the 'neutering and returning' programme is now the most humane, cost-efficient, and effective means of population control available."

" ...the struggles of life on the streets. One cat's left eye has been blinded. Gun pellets are embedded in her nose and near her right eye, which is nearly blind also. Alley Animals doesn't advocate neuter and release."

From the standpoint of some people who are working to solve the feral cat problem, the neuter-and-release method seems to be an acceptable way of handling these animals. But is this method the best for the cats?

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What About the Cats?

In theory, the sterilization of feral cat populations could be acceptable under the right circumstances. But finding the right circumstances can be problematic. Ingrid Newkirk, national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says this method is acceptable as long as the cats are 1) isolated from roads, people, and other animals who could harm them; 2) constantly attended to by people who not only feed them but care for their medical needs; and 3) lodged in an area where the weather is constantly temperate. As Newkirk says, "I don't think this kind of place exists in America."

Newkirk worked in animal control for 16 years. In that time, she saw a lot of feral cats. "The ones I picked up always had something wrong with them--they just can't get along in a concrete society." Newkirk is not an advocate of the neuter-and-release method. She believes, as does The HSUS, that euthanasia, although unpopular, is the best solution to the problem.

"The usual responsibility we have for pet cats is suspended when it comes to ferals. It's not responsible to leave a child on the railroad tracks and walk away. It's not responsible to essentially do the same thing to cats by re-releasing them to the streets, even if they're neutered. You have to play God whether you neuter and release or euthanize. It's a matter of responsibility."

The solution to the feral cat problem lies in taking responsibility for these animals. Responsibility means rescuing the cats and either taming them and placing them in homes, or humanely ending their lives, but nothing short of either.

Newkirk believes that part of the reason why those who neuter and release are so vehement that their methods are preferable is because they don't see what eventually happens to their charges. The feeders see the cats at feeding time. If one or more doesn't show up, they may miss the animal, but they don't see what has happened to him or her. "They are operating in a bit of a vacuum," she says. "The caretakers don't realize that if the cats aren't there, something bad happened to them. They're not on holiday in the Bahamas."

Because animal control officers often do see what happens to these cats, they know what their fates are. The animal control officer [ACO] picks up the cats after they've been hit by cars, ingested poison, succumbed to illness, or suffered a terrible injury. Newkirk advises ACOs not to "ignore the many experiences they've had--the many bad endings that these animals meet." She wants to encourage those in shelters who must deal with this problem: "You are doing the right thing. And a lot of people think you are. I wouldn't have believed that life for cats is as hard as it is if I hadn't seen it for myself. Life is more than food."

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The Malevolent Public

Ellen Kowalski, a Maryland resident, recently wrote to Cat Fancy magazine describing how the feral cats she rescues in Baltimore are used for "target practice" by kids with "BB guns, firearms, and even bows and arrows. The cats in the area are well fed," she says, "but they have eye infections, abscesses, sores, and deformed limbs." Kowalski has very strong opinions regarding the neuter-and-release method: "This practice should be called the neuter-and-abandon method because that's what the advocates are really doing. These people congratulate themselves for neutering feral cats and saving unborn kittens from lives of misery. Then they return the neutered cats to the same lives of misery."

The concerns of the people living near feral cat colonies also need to be addressed. Neutering cats does not keep them from digging up gardens, fighting, getting into garbage, or causing any of the many other problems cats can cause. Additionally, cats need to be protected from people who dislike them and may try to harm them. People may become especially disturbed if, as in most of the cases studied thus far, the numbers of cats in the colony increase.

"We applaud the efforts of people who care for ferals," says Marc Paulhus, HSUS vice president for companion animals. "But they can't stop their caring at stopping reproduction; they need to go on to taming and finding proper homes for these animals."

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The Inevitable Immigrants

Ironically, the clearest picture of why the neuter-and-release method may not be an appropriate solution to the problem of feral cats comes from UFAW's own report on the feral colonies they monitored.

For example, one colony had 19 cats living in "semi-disused garages." During four subsequent inspections, the researchers found that "two entire [unsterilized] immigrants and one kitten" joined the colony and were neutered. "Two dead cats were found and one cat disappeared, thus leaving a colony of 19 neutered cats and one untrappable male. The next inspection . . . revealed that one cat had died in a car accident, and three others had been killed by two uncontrolled stray dogs. The dogs were soon removed from the area. Seven immigrants had taken up residence in the garages: six males and a female who soon produced a litter of four kittens, all of whom were successfully homed [adopted]. One of the males was diseased and was humanely destroyed (as was another of the original old males), but the other six adults were neutered. During 1987, three more entire immigrants joined the colony."

During the time this colony was monitored, nine of the original 19 cats either disappeared or were killed or euthanized because of illness, while 17 new cats entered the territory. This colony grew by eight cats despite the rather hasty deaths of almost half the original colony. In another study colony, the number of feral cats rose from 70-80 to 100 in one year, even though the number of feeders dropped to only one person. During the six and one-half years that this colony was watched, 40 kittens were "homed" and 200 cats neutered. Reports on other colonies tell the same story: large numbers of original members vanish or die and new cats come in on their own or are dumped there by people.

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The Fallacy of Territorial Defense

Many experts agree--and UFAW's report indicates--that cats do not defend their territory to the degree that they prevent new cats from entering it. Dr. Carol Haspel, associate professor at LaGuardia Community College in New York, has studied urban feral cats for years and written many articles on the subject. She says cats occupying a certain area "absolutely do not" keep others out, "particularly if there is a feeder." She describes feral cats as opportunistic consumers who "easily coexist and tolerate others well." In fact, recent studies have shown that rather than living an isolated, independent existence as traditionally thought, feral cats tend to form social groups similar to the way lions do.

One of the main reasons given, then, for maintaining feral cat colonies--to prevent the influx of more cats--is actually a fallacy. Neither does the neuter-and-release method save the cats from injury and disease, or people from the unpleasantries associated with free-roaming cats. Of UFAW's 14 reasons for controlling feral cats, their neuter-and-release method actually seems to eliminate just one: "the profusion of kittens."

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Question of Legality

Under interpretations of some state anti-cruelty laws, neuter-and-release programs can even be considered illegal. In Florida, for example, a person who assumes care of any animal is deemed its legal custodian. Florida Statute 828.13 (3) specifically states: "Any person who . . . has charge or custody of any animal and who abandons any animal in a street, road, or public place without providing for the care, sustenance, protection, and shelter of such animal is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree . . . " In addition to criminal violations, local ordinances may also require those defined as legal caretakers to license, tag, and confine cats.

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Finding the Best Solutions

The most important step to solving the feral cat problem is education. People need to understand that, although it seems the most directly helpful, feeding stray or feral cats--like feeding city pigeons--perpetuates a problem. Where there is a food source, there will be feral cats and the suffering and discomfort that accompanies them. People need to be taught to use humane traps and to know that the most helpful thing they can do is catch feral cats, if they can, and take them to a shelter to be adopted, if possible, or euthanized. Finally, the connection between spaying and neutering and the feral cat problem needs to be emphatically stressed.

Many will argue that life for the cats, no matter how brief, traumatic, or difficult, is preferable to humane death. To this, Ellen Kowalski comments: "Those who believe euthanasia is cruel should consider that the only difference between euthanasia and abandonment [what she calls the neuter-and-release method] is that euthanasia is merciful and quick, and abandonment is slow and painful. The end result is the same--death."

Cats do not belong on the fringe. They belong inside the circle of humans, who have domesticated them. Human companionship and care are as essential to them as food and water. It may be too late for the many feral cats who already lead lives masquerading as wild animals. But it is the responsibility of all involved in community animal protection to help ensure that no others have to endure this tragic life on the outskirts.

This article was originally published in Shelter Sense, Vol. 15, No. 5, pages 3-6. 1992.
Transcribed from Shelter Sense/The Humane Society of the United States, (May 1992), with permission of The Humane Society of the United States.

Animal Sheltering Magazine, formerly Shelter Sense, is published monthly by The National Humane Education Center of The Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20037.

Questions or comments to Kent Smith at the CDFW.