Sunday, November 6, 2011

I believe we need to stop claiming that territoriality will keep new cats away

Repeatedly, I see pro-TNR articles that state: "if you fix feral cats, they'll keep new cats away."

When fixing feral cats doesn't keep new cats away, this is cited by anti-TNR folk as proof that TNR does not work, and that cat advocates don't know what they are talking about. "See, look, new cats!"

Cats do in fact have territories, and in many cases they do protect them. However, unlike wild populations, cats do not necessarily move from Point A to Point B by themselves.

Most commonly, they are abandoned.

If you take a tame pregnant cats, or a batch of kittens, and dump them at a city park where there are altered ferals, those cats aren't going to move very far. They have been transported violently from the territory they knew to a territory they don't. They will latch onto the nearest source of food and shelter they can find, which is the food and shelter put out for them by caretakers. If kittens or a tame cat are dumped at a house or barn, they aren't going to set off across the fields looking for some mystical "better" place just because the resident cats beat up on them. They are going to try to stay out of the way, snatch some food when they can, suffer from wounds, catch illnesses, and become a problem.

Animal control professionals and cat rescuers are often called out for kittens dumped in some remote location. Those kittens will often sit just off the side of the road for days. Their little brains don't process that "wow, we are in trouble, we need to go look for help." Instead their genes are telling them "Sit here and wait for mom. Maybe yell really loud." Unless someone hears those yells, they die. They don't know there is a farmhouse a quarter mile down the road where someone might help them. They sit where they are put.

Male cats have it built in their behavior to move when things get overcrowded. But even friendly male cats are more likely to stay where there is a big house ("I know what a house is!") and humans coming and going, and food on a back porch.

Some cats will in fact keep other cats away. But what does that mean? Now there is a unaltered cats running around outside the colony, perhaps destined to start a new colony.

I strongly believe we need to promote the Caretaker as the reason TNR will work. When cats are fed daily, and traps are set to give cats rabies boosters, or catch injured cats, new cats will also be captured. Friendly cats and kittens can be removed, maintaining the status quo. New ferals can be altered before they spike numbers by adding new kittens to the mix.

Where there is no caretaker watching for new cats, any form of cat control will fail. Lack of a caretaker is why removal so often fails. No one wants to be the local cat killer who notes the arrival of two orange kittens under the cars in the state park parking lot, spends three hard days catching them, and then hauls them off to the local overcrowded shelter where they are killed. Average people might grit their teeth and do it the first time or two, but after awhile they get tired of putting out so much work (and paying a surrender fee), only to be known as that heartless person who kills all the cats everyone else cares about. The "cat killer" may in fact be the only one putting any effort at all into the cats...and yet they are being demonized.

This is why there are so few dedicated private "cat killers" in the world, and removal projects fail. A landlord gets tired of cats at his apartment complex, sets traps for a week or so, hauls them off to the shelter, but doesn't bother to enforce an "indoor altered cats only" requirement or monitor for new cats. So he waits until there are another 30 cats running around before trapping again. Sooner or later, the shelter says "Sorry, we are going no-kill" and he as no place to take those cats legally. So he either ignores them, employs "shoot, shovel, and shut up" (which is illegal and therefore can't be promoted as a public policy) or turns to TNR.

So let's move "territoriality" back to the minor role it deserves. I believe we set ourselves up for failure when we pull that out as a major benefit of TNR. It is a benefit only when you have territorial cats, in an area that experiences little or no abandonment. If you have that lucky mix, you are fortunate indeed.


  1. I'm with you on this. I agree with your assessment & have another point to add to this. Over the years I've had caretakers tell me that after they've trapped/fixed & returned all or most of their cats, they see new ones. I believe first that there are varying degrees of feral. Those who are the most wild may rarely venture into sight of the caretaker. They are there waiting for the others to feed & the caretaker to leave. There are also those who are hiding because they are often attacked by the intact or dominant cats in the colony. After being fixed, those aggressive tendencies can diminish, allowing the less dominant cats to feel more comfortable eating along with the rest of the cats.

  2. Your observation about kittens just sitting there until they die makes my heart drop.

    My newest cat(all grown up and going to get spayed this month!) made it to my house at about 5 weeks old. I suspect it was my oldest cat's yowling that got her there. And once she was under the house she hollered. But knowing how close I came to missing her is horrible.

  3. Hey rheather, I would guess you are right. Someone probably dropped that kitten down by the road/street and she probably smelled or saw your cat, or knew that "house" = safety. She was lucky you were there for her. Some anti-cat people would have said you should have just not fed her and she would have "gone away."

    To get an idea of how many kittens are purposefully dumped, people should just watch craigslist for a week during kitten season. 5 -8 week old kittens don't just "wander away" from their homes. While it's possible someone could get a new kitten and have it get confused or lost if she gets outside, if someone has a resident kitten (born there) it's going to stay put. So when a strange kitten just "shows up" somewhere, it's because someone put her there. Chances are pretty good, she's not lost, although found kittens should always be advertised, just in case.

  4. You're right Susan. Cats rarely just "show up." That's why I avoid the use of the word stray. When cats get out they rarely go far & simply hide nearby. Dogs on the other hand take off running, exploring & once they stop they look around & wonder "where am I & how did I get here?" Stray cat puts the blame on the cat instead of the real perp - the person who drove the cat far away and dumped him/her. We need a derogatory word to describe these "dumpers" to shame & blame them for their heartless deeds.

  5. I suspect mom-cat had either been dumped or moved from a really bad situation at least several weeks before the kitten showed. I had seen unknown cat eyes one morning weeks before kitten-I just figured it was a tom passing through. And I'm really, really far from the nearest road or house. But there's an active coyote population that I'm afraid got the mom.

    I also suspect kitten had been living rough because the second night with me she pounced on and ate a june bug that just barely fit in her mouth. And didn't throw it back up later on the bed. But then she's very tame/social. My oldest cat-who was snagged along with his brothers from a feral colony at 4 weeks-was hissy for weeks and still has a more cautious approach to life.

    Sorry about the rambling on, but Zelda kitten is such a mystery. And as for not feeding animals so they 'go away', well, staving to death is definitely 'gone away' for good.