Strays and feral cats need herding

Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Every kitten is born with the potential to become either a feral cat or a pet. It all depends on whether the kitten is handled by humans in its first 12 weeks of life. Kittens who are petted will become sociable, tame and people-friendly cats. Those who are not handled will grow up to be wild, wary of people the rest of their lives.

In Juneau, we spot feral cats darting into the woods, stalking voles in vacant lots, and taking shelter beneath the tarp covering the boat. They live in family groups called colonies. A colony starts when one female feral stakes her claim on a piece of land big enough to support her and a litter of kittens. When the kittens arrive and grow up, each daughter settles on land next door to her mother or sister. Female ferals take turns foraging for food and baby sitting one another's young.

The colony remains home base for the male offspring, who are born to be traveling men. Each male develops a regular route, encompassing about 10 times as much terrain as a female's territory. He regularly travels his circuit, returning home and then heading out again. Along the way, he mates with any females who are in heat.

Stray cats (tame ones who have been abandoned or otherwise lost their homes) may be absorbed into feral colonies. Most of the strays won't survive a year because they are not prepared to make it outdoors on their own. But they interbreed with the ferals and usually contribute a litter or two to the colony.

There is no record of feral cats being a problem in Juneau. They have been here since gold-rush days and will be here as long as some people abandon unwanted cats. There's no excuse for doing that in Juneau, as the local animal shelter will take them in.

However, in the past couple of years, the number of friendly, adoptable cats has been increasing faster than the number of homes for them. When Lucy Lapcat goes into heat, she isn't fussy about her suitor's pedigree. Likewise, when a gentleman cat spots that enchanting bit of feral fluff on the woodpile, he can't resist a walk on the wild side. Cats of all kinds fraternize, and the result is more cats.

To rein in the number of homeless pets, the Gastineau Humane Society is planning to try a method that's been used with great success in the Lower 48. It involves spaying and neutering feral cats. You don't have to round up and "fix" them all; just a half-dozen or so makes a difference. Because, theoretically, each cat can have 420,000 offspring within seven years (according to the Humane Society of the United States), think of the potential impact of spaying or neutering just one.

Spaying and neutering works better than exterminating feral cats. As soon as one colony is removed, another expands to fill the void. The feral birth rate balloons and within two years, you have more ferals than you did when you started out.

The goal in Juneau is not to wipe out feral cats, but to reduce the collective birth rate to a point where supply and demand balance out. Sounds simple, but have you ever tried to catch a feral cat?

How to do just that will be demonstrated at a free educational forum at the Gastineau Humane Society. It starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, October 16, National Feral Cat Day. The forum is for anyone interested in learning more about feral cats.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She volunteers at the Gastineau Humane Society.

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