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Pets - Feral Cats

colonies wisconsin tnr proposal

Feral cats are cats that have reverted to a semi-wild state because of lack of human contact and socialization. They avoid humans and often live in large groups called colonies. They may be born into this condition or adjust to it after being stray, lost, or abandoned for a long time. Feral cats are often confused with strays, but there is a difference. Stray cats generally appear scruffy and unclean because they do not groom themselves. They are used to human care and suffer from stress and hunger without it. Feral cats are adjusted to a wild manner of living. If a natural food source is prevalent, they survive fairly well.

The problem is that they also reproduce well. Many animal welfare groups advocate a trap-neuter-return (TNR) management plan for feral colonies. In these programs, feral cats are humanely trapped, vaccinated, sterilized, and returned to their colonies. In most cases, volunteers feed the colonies and conduct TNR activities. Kittens and any particularly tame adult cats go into adoption programs. In general, it is very difficult to turn a truly feral cat into a pet. Where it is possible, it requires a great deal of time and effort. Most welfarists believe that their time is better spent sterilizing the cats than trying to tame them.

Alley Cat Allies was founded in 1990 in Washington, D.C., to provide information on feral and stray cats. Many animal control departments try to control feral cat colonies by capturing and euthanizing the cats. According to Alley Cat Allies, the TNR approach is much more effective and less costly. Colonies of feral cats that are not sterilized and managed will continue to breed and expand, allowing in more cats with which to breed. Unneutered males (toms) spread disease—including feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)—by fighting with each other over females and territory. Feline leukemia is a particularly contagious, fatal disease that feral cats may spread to people's pet cats that go outdoors. Feral cat experts point out, however, that incidences of these diseases are no higher in the feral cat population than in the domestic cat population. By contrast, a feral colony that has been managed through TNR will eventually shrink in number through natural causes of death. Established sterilized colonies will not allow new cats in because they are not needed for breeding, nor will they produce any new kittens.

Feral cats are enormously controversial in the United States. Alley Cat Allies estimates that there were as many as sixty million feral cats in the United States in 2005 (, accessed June 11, 2005). Many people consider them to be a nuisance and blame them for killing birds and other wildlife. Supporters of TNR, however, dispute the numbers of birds killed cited by groups that favor widespread capture and killing of the cats. Additionally, superstitions about cats persist, and many people maintain that they simply "hate cats" and would prefer to kill them than be around them.

The issue sparked a worldwide debate in 2005 when a firefighter in Wisconsin proposed a plan to legalize the hunting of feral (also called free-roaming) cats in that state. (The practice is already legal in South Dakota and Minnesota.) Citing "individual landowner rights" as his reason for believing that people should be allowed to kill feral cats, Mark Smith received death threats after he brought his proposal before Wisconsin's Conservation Congress. The state's governor, Jim Doyle, promised the proposal would never be signed into law and that it was making Wisconsin a "laughingstock" ("Wisconsin Group Drops Cat-Killing Plan,", May 14, 2005). Despite widespread national outrage—and even international outrage, as many European cities have successfully implemented and actively support TNR—many Wisconsin residents supported the proposal, which would include any free-roaming cat unattended outdoors, including housecats ("Wisconsin Residents Back Hunting Feral Cats,", April 14, 2005). In May 2005 the advisory group that was debating the proposal decided to drop it without further review.

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