Every town and city has a feral cat colony. Cat lovers immediately think of their own much-loved cats with their cosy quarters and square meals. World-wide, dedicated volunteers have thrown their efforts into helping these domestic cats living wild, assisting with programs ranging from sterilisation to re-homing.
Ferals and strays - what's the difference?
Stray cats are cats that have grown up with humans but because they have wandered or been abandoned are living wild and homeless. At least to some degree, they have usually been socialised to accept humans as benevolent. Feral cats may not have been fully domesticated for generations. They establish colonies where they breed speedily. It is entirely possible for a new generation to be born every six months. These cats are socialised in relation to other cats, but may have little or no experience of humans. In fact, they may have learned from other cats that people are to be feared. Nevertheless, depending on their personality, feral cats can be friendly and trusting - or become so. Others are shy and suspicious and resist handling of any kind, making them more challenging to re-home.
Management of feral cats
Older policies for managing feral cat colonies focussed on simple extermination. Today a more enlightened approach prevails, concentrating on neutering and spaying, vaccination and disease control. With breeding under control and health boosted, colonies remain stable and eventually shrink. Sometimes colonies have to be moved. Feral rescue may involve relocating cats to rural areas where they can live semi-wild around barns or stables. The most difficult option can be re-homing, but it is possible and often very rewarding.
Re-homing feral cats
Cat rescue authorities give varying advice on the issue of adopting feral cats. Under normal circumstances, kittens develop trust in humans early, in the first two or three weeks of life. Some believe that even at six weeks the window for socialising kittens is closing fast. In practice, it depends heavily on the individual cat. Some may resist taming even at a young age, whereas there are many success stories with domesticating older ferals. It is true, however, that the older the cat the longer it may take to become accustomed to people and domestic life.
The viciousness of a tiny ball of fur (and the damage small claws can do) can be truly astonishing, but is a measure of a kitten or cat's fear, not a sign of a malicious disposition. Many ferals are afraid of hands and handling. Hand feeding helps them to develop positive associations. Though it may take years of small steps, rehabilitated ferals can be transformed into loving pets and amiable companions. It's not a task for the novice or the impatient, but when a former tiger insists you provide a scratch and tickle, the hard work all becomes infinitely worthwhile.
Tips for potential adopters
The first task is to make sure your feral has been checked over by a vet, de-wormed, vaccinated and if necessary sterilised.
It may not be a good idea to introduce them into houses with other pets. Though other pets cats may help in their socialising, if you have a bad personality clash you may have to choose between them. This is unfair on the feral cat, especially since they often may bond with a first owner but not with a second.
Don't push the agenda, especially with handling. Persist with attempts to stroke and play with them, but back off if they object. They will trust you in their own time if you deal intelligently with their wariness. Your biggest allies in the process are food, patience and faith that there's a great pet behind the fear.
Louise Gilbert is passionate about saving endangered species, pets, wildlife, nature and the environement. You can view her site at Baby-Mammals.com [http://www.baby-mammals.com/]