Very often we receive enquiries from the public asking us help to “rescue some feral cats”. This is also a phrase quite often used by animal welfare organisations. What do they mean by “rescuing feral cats”? Most of the time, what prompts their demand is the fact that the cats do not live according to their standards. They are concerned because the cats do not have the same comfortable lives as their own pet cats. However, we are talking here about feral cats, not domestic cats. Feral cats do not need rescuing, they need their lives to be improved and this can be done by having them neutered and offering them care (a better diet, suitable shelter and medical treatment when needed).
Feral cats are different from domestic cats. The majority of them are born outside and may be the descendants of many generations of feral cats who have learnt to survive in their environment. Cats are clever and know where they can be safe, find food and shelter. They have learnt to avoid the daily dangers their environment throws at them. For instance, urban feral cats will tend to hide during the day or find safe gardens where they feel protected; rarely will they run in the middle of the traffic. Farm cats will find a safe place to hide their kittens from the fox or the resident dog. In fact feral cats have more chances of survival in their own environment than elsewhere. Their lives can be greatly improved by having them neutered and by making small changes in their environment, for instance by placing warm shelters in a safe location.
However, rescuing feral cats may be more detrimental to the cats than beneficial. What happens once the cat has been “rescued”. More than likely, it will be placed in foster care in a cage or room with the aim of socialising them. A cat who has lived free in an outdoor environment will obviously be extremely distressed by such a situation. To increase their stress, they will be forced to interact with a human they have never seen before, so that they can become tame. Feral cats have learnt to be wary of humans in order to protect themselves. Although they may trust their carer, as this is the person giving them food, other humans will be seen as potential danger. Attempting to tame a feral cat is therefore seen by the cat as a form of aggression. You will often hear from “rescuer” that the cat is doing fine but that s/he is nervous, in fact the cat is probably terrified by the interaction forced upon them. I am not claiming that a feral cat can never become tame, or at least friendlier, what I am saying is that this is not usually achieved by removing them from their environment and forcing them to become socialised. Many people involved in animal welfare would be opposed to keeping wild animals behind bars in zoo, so why do the same to feral cats? What may happened then is that the cat starts to lose its spirit. It is as if they have lost their will to live. Some may interpret the fact that a feral cat stops hissing as a sign of becoming tame. In fact, hissing is a healthy reaction in a feral cat as it shows that the cat is protecting himself.
What happens when people try to rescue feral cats is that they are trying to fulfil their aptitude at taming them, but often ignore the welfare of the cat in the equation. Of course, their intentions are good, but this is not necessarily the best route to take. With kitten season being in full swing, appeals for foster homes for pregnant feral mothers or mothers and their kittens are not a rare occurrence. These appeals come out of a genuine desire to raise the kittens in a safer place; a desire which is in itself quite understandable. However, the mother is often forgotten about. The kittens may be socialised, but what about the stress the mother has to endure during this long period of time? First of all, she may reject her kittens because of the stress of confinement. Then, what happens to her once her kittens have been rehomed? It is impossible to return her to her colony after this length of time as she will not belong to it anymore. Her nervousness will make her unrehomable as who would want to adopt a nervous cat when there are already so many friendly cats not able to find homes. Instead of trying to rescue this feral mother, would it not be better to spay her or try to improve the conditions in which she has had her kittens by assisting and educating the carer?
We all have our own experiences when it comes to cats and each of them is different because each cat is different. However, it is not because feral cats can occasionally be socialised that the lives of so many feral cats should be jeopardised in the expectancy that another socialisation might be successful. More successes would be achieved if people adopted a more rational approach to dealing with feral cats and took into consideration the actual welfare of the cat instead of their emotional instinct of saving cats according to their own standards rather than those of the cats.