Understanding feral or community cats.
A “feral” is a cat who is not socialized and exhibits some degree of wild behavior. Ferals tend to be fearful of people and keep their distance unless it is someone they have come to know and trust. This often makes them difficult to handle and place in adoptive homes. They may be lost or abandoned pets who once had a home but over time have reverted to a wild state or they may be the offspring of former pets, sometimes many generations removed.
In contrast, a “stray” is a former pet who, though now without a home, is still socialized. When re-introduced to a domestic setting, a stray will usually quickly display his tame nature. In recent years, cats who live outside typical household situations and are not considered anyone’s pet, have come to be referred to as “free-roaming cats” or “community cats.” These terms are useful because they focus on the circumstances in which the cats live rather than on individual characteristics like feral vs. stray. In the case of “community cats,” the term also implies there is a collective responsibility for their care. Most free-roaming or community cats form groups called “colonies.”
Most of the cats will tend to be feral, although the mixture of ferals and strays can vary widely. The cats in a colony share the same territory and a common food source. Often they are related, but not always. Colonies can form anywhere there is adequate food and shelter. In urban or suburban areas, they can be found in alleyways, vacant lots, abandoned buildings, warehouses, factories, parks, shopping centers and backyards, to name a few. In rural settings, colonies are often found in barns as well as the back streets of small towns. The vast majority of ferals in these colonies are not completely wild because they rely on people for their food source, whether it’s a dumpster behind a restaurant or a kind neighbor who comes by once a day. Relatively few subsist by hunting alone.
“Feral” is not a biological trait, but a behavioral one. As a result, the same cat can be feral at one point in her life and tame at another. A socialized pet cat, abandoned and left to fend for herself outdoors, may become feral. Likewise, a feral cat, given enough time and attention, may grow tame. Because “feral” describes behavior and socialization, it is not an all or nothing characteristic, but is present in different degrees in different cats.
What is Trap-Neuter-Return?
Trap-Neuter-Return, commonly known as TNR, is a method for humanely and effectively managing cat colonies and reducing free roaming cat populations. The process involves trapping the cats in a colony, having them spayed and neutered, eartipped for identification and, where appropriate, vaccinated for rabies, then releasing them back into their territory.
Whenever possible, friendly adults and kittens young enough to be easily socialized are removed and placed for adoption. A designated caretaker provides regular food and shelter to the returned cats, monitors the colony for newcomers, and mediates any conflicts between the cats and the surrounding community.
TNR offers a number of benefits on both the colony and community levels. As a TNR activist, it’s wise to become knowledgeable about these advantages and be able to articulate them whenever necessary.
TNR is still a relatively new concept and many people don’t understand why it’s a good idea to put the cats back where you found them. So let them know!