Bringing up baby: Can feral cats ever go home again?
It’s a tough subject; one you might be surprised to hear gets plenty of play among those of us who spay and neuter lots of cats. Because while these specimens might be rough-looking and impressively aggressive, feral felines are not always the devil-cats they appear to be.
There they are in their plastic carriers and traps, hissing and spitting, ensuring that we scrub-clad veterinary types keep our distance. Most are lean and rangy. They seem like animals better suited to a zoo environment than to the suburban lifestyle they’ve learned to survive in. Little though they may resemble them, they’re genetically identical to the overfed housecats we humans have cultivated as pets.
Feral cats, we call them. They’re the common felids who have lived far enough outside human society to have reverted back to their non-domesticated ways. In fact, according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, feral means, "having escaped from domestication and become wild."
In other words, feral is a term that, strictly speaking, applies only to those species that have once enjoyed a close proximity to humans. Feral raccoons, deer, and skunks, for example, do not exist. Cats, dogs, sheep, goats, and cows, even, can go feral. A cockatoo, however ... not so much. (The occasional individual cockatoo's ability to live well among humans notwithstanding, most will be forever willing to bite the s--- out of your finger before deigning to accept any human affection.)
Not so for the few species that have spent the last 10,000 or so years living symbiotically with humanity. To be sure, agriculture species top the charts. But dogs and cats play a mighty role, increasingly so over the past millennium or two, during which both canine and feline hunting abilities have been exploited for human gain, and only recently for the tenuously tangible purpose we’ve come to call "companionship."
Cats and dogs, in particular, were originally domesticated for their pest-nabbing, small-game fetching ways. Yet it was their fuzzy cuddle-ability that earned them passage into the living room, where they now reign.
For cats, it was their fierce independence and low stress/low expense keep-ability that earned them the status as most populous pet in America. After all, nothing beats a cat for easy, inexpensive keeping, and their intensely affectionate upside potential.
The margin between domesticated and feral, however, is slim enough for those of us who treat cats like family members to admit (if we’re being honest with ourselves) to having a tough time distinguishing between the cat that scurries away from us on our morning walk and the one whose fur coats our furniture, floors and clothing.
In part, that’s why every few weekends, veterinarian like me spend hours spaying and neutering these cats. Not only do we recognize that these are just like the animals that we treat as beloved family members, these are also the ones we’ve wronged by allowing them to stray outside the fold. So we make it up to them by controlling their numbers. Because we know population stability means a better life.
Still, we wonder, is it not better to bring them indoors? Is that not the holy grail of catdom?
I’d argue it’s not only what’s best for most cats but what best meets the needs of the local wildlife, too. Yet what’s ideal and what’s feasible are two very far apart things in the case of our ferals. Because once a cat has gone feral ... it’s tough to come back.
Over the past weekend I’ve had cause to consider this issue in more depth than usual. Not only did I have Friday’s discussion on the No Kill shelter model to consider (and the feral cat conundrum therein), but also the presence of one super-cute creature to take into account.
He goes by many names. Linus was his first (after his blanket love). Lazaro was the next moniker; inspired by his post adverse anesthetic "resurrection." That's the one that stuck, so we call him Laz. And he’s a cool character. In spite of his near-death event, he’s almost normal. But he’s still a fraidy feral cat that is currently living in the flue of my non-functional Florida chimney. (How he found that spot — and how he gets up there — is wholly beyond me since I never catch him going up there).
Sure, he comes out every once in a while to eat and pee and poo. And sure, I’m working hard on bringing him back into the land of normal cat–ness. But do I think he’ll make a great pet? In this case, yes. I do think he's capable of making a good "recovery" as he’s integrated into normal human society — with some help from me. But, I do not believe the average feral cat can be so "rehabilitated."
Not that it's never worth trying. My attempts should be proof enough that I believe it's doable. Yet I strongly believe that the average feral cat belongs where he or she currently resides: outside the immediate company of humanity. This is why I’m so big on TNR ("trap-neuter-release"): Because there’s not much we can do for most feral individuals in traditional shelters — in general, they’re no longer pets once they’ve gone feral. And because our dollars are best spent elsewhere. (Excoriate me for this take though you might.)
No, once they’ve "gone over to the other side," as it were, it’s tough to bring ‘em back. Yes, it’s feasible, but not supportable as a widespread policy. In fact, only in the event of 1) fundamental behavioral amenability (from the cat), and 2) extreme human dedication, does it ever come to pass.
Yet I’m still working on Laz, because I’m thinking he’s one cat I can rehabilitate. He's got a better than average disposition, and he's got a dedicated crew looking after him. After all, I brought him "back to life," so maybe — just maybe — I can bring him back into humanity’s fold, too. In spite of myself, the only question that remains is ... should I?
Dr. Patty Khuly
PS: As usual, Christie Keith posted on this same topic over the weekend while I was writing up my own version of feral cat musings. I have no idea how she and I manage the same kinds of posts at roughly the same time, but here you have her interesting take on feral vs. afraid.
Pic of the day: "Little Laz" by Me