Everyone is familiar with stray cats -- former pets who have wandered or been "thrown away." Many strays long for human contact, and are easy to catch, handle, and fall in love with. Others are very frightened, but settle in nicely when food, shelter, and love are offered. Feral cats, however, are an entirely different story. A feral cat is wild. Many of them were born to former pets, but were never handled by humans, and have become just as wild as any other animal we think of as wildlife. Others are descended from generations of cats who are born, live, and die with little or no human contact. When you begin dealing with a stray cat -- whether you are just feeding it or trying to catch it -- it may be difficult at first to tell the difference between a very wild feral cat and an ordinary frightened stray. The outcome of your "relationship", however, may be very different.
The real problem with feral cats is that they lead short, dangerous, and difficult lives. Without human care or intervention they fall prey to disease, parasites, traffic, and all the other perils which befall wild animals. Even worse, they reproduce unchecked until people begin to see them as a "nuisance" and decide to destroy them. At least that's the action taken in many parts of the world, including most parts of the United States. Unfortunately, when a colony of cats is destroyed, more cats will simply move into the same area, and the problem begins again.
In other parts of the world, Britain in particular, feral cats are trapped and spayed or neutered, vaccinated and released again into the same area. Studies have shown that the established colony will keep other cats out, and since they themselves cannot reproduce, the number of cats in the area remains stable or declines. The cats are fed by property owners or volunteers. In some programs they are trapped again each year for vaccinations. They more than earn their keep by keeping rodent populations under control, and "strange" cats out. This program is gaining acceptance in many communities throughout the U.S., and is seen by most feral cat rescue groups as the best possible option for a very difficult cat population.
KittyCorner has used this method successfully with two colonies of feral cats. We begin by trapping them in humane traps. Each cat is then put into a large cage furnished with a litter box, food and water bowls and a cat carrier with the door tied open. Since these are wild animals, we make every effort not to touch them, and we have found that they will usually run into the carrier to hide. Most of them "live" in the carrier and come out only to eat and use the litter box when nobody is around. That tendency comes in handy when it's time for their vet appointment. We just close the door to the carrier and lift it out of the cage. Alternately, you might find a vet who is used to working with ferals, and is willing to allow you to bring them in as soon as you catch them -- still in the trap. One of our vets will anesthetize them right in the trap, do the surgery, and put them in a carrier while they wake up.
At the vet, the first order of business is to test for Feline Leukemia and FIV (Feline A.I.D.S.). Since both of these diseases are contagious and fatal, cats who test positive are euthanized. Though we hate to do it, there just isn't any other option for a cat destined to live outside where it can pass the illness on to the rest of the colony and to outdoor pets. If the cat tests negative for both diseases, we have it vaccinated and altered. After a few days of "cage rest", the cat is returned to it's old neighborhood where volunteer caretakers provide fresh food and water daily.
To learn more about feral cats please visit Alley Cat Allies