Monday, June 11, 2012

Do You Have Feral Cats Where You Live?

Believe it or not, cats are not native to all parts of the world and in many parts of the world, feral cats are the descendants of domestic cats that have been left behind or simply abandoned by travelers and visitors to a particular country. As a result, these feral cats can and probably do cause harm to foreign environments by preying on local species in the same way as they do in our back yards. This may be especially true on isolated islands where ferals have sometimes had a substantial and deleterious effect on the local fauna such as damaging trees and other plants that the native species use.
a clowder of feral cats
A clowder of feral cats and kittens
"Feral" is the word we use to refer to an animal that is not friendly when approached by us but it can also be applied to any domesticated animal that has been without human contact for anywhere from a long period of time to its lifetime. Hissing and growling are their self-defensive behaviors which, over time may change as the animal, whether "feral" or "stray", begins their journey towards a mutual trust between the humans that choose to provide food, water and care and the feral cat(s). 

Feral cats and strays differ only slightly in their behaviors especially if the stray cat has not been completely cut off from human interaction. Feral cats, born and living outdoors without any contact or care by people have been tamed to the point of being adoptable provided they are completely removed from their wild environment before their truly feral behaviors have been established and set into their personalities. Such behaviors are set while the kittens are still being raised by their mother as she teaches them to avoid human contact and that people are something to fear.

feral cat displaying defensive behavior

Feral cats display defensive behaviors and postures towards any person who ventures to come too close to them, then they run and hide.
feral kitten eating a rabbit
Feral kitten eating a rabbit
Lifespans of ferals are difficult to determine with any kind of accuracy. One study states a median age of 4.7 years with a possible range somewhere between 0 to 8.3 years; yet other sources claim a mean lifespan of a meager 2 to 8 years before death, rarely from natural causes. For contrast a people raised cat, at birth, has an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years for a male indoor cat with females living usually, a year maybe two longer. Some domesticated cats have lived until the grand old age of 25 years being well cared for by their human companions.
feral cat killing a native Australian cockatoo
Ferals take their toll on native Australian Cockatoos
Throughout the Age of Discovery passing ships released a few rabbits onto islands with the idea of a future food source for other travelers that stopped there. Very generous but ill conceived as over time they multiplied out of control by eating through their habitats so cats were introduced to keep their numbers down along with the mice and rats. The cats tended to favor local species over the rabbits; they were both ecologically naive to the islands and much easier to hunt. Then their numbers began to increase dramatically and they colonized the islands themselves; the very people who introduced both rabbit and cat saw them as pests to be exterminated. A completely human caused problem with the animals losing on all sides! Do we not have the sense not to create situations like this? Or to resolve them without the usual cruelty that we inflict.

Our historical records date the arrival of ferals in Australia to be somewhere around 1824. In spite of this its been suggested that they have been in Australia long before the Europeans settled it; they may have arrived as a result of Dutch shipwrecks back in the 17 hundreds or years before that arriving from present day Indonesia on Macassan fisher ships and trepangers who frequented Australia's shores during the past century. However they arrived, anywhere in the world, feral cats have not lead a charmed life. Rather, its been a very difficult life with nothing but hardships and unkindness from their environments and, most often from human contact. 
pair of feral cat sitting on a rock

They deserve better and its up to us, who claim we care, to rescue and tame them, to provide medical care and a safe home for these 'lost' cats to live out what is left of their lives in relative safety and comfort. Even the wildest feral can be tamed with enough time and commitment - I have managed, these years since, to tame a few; some of the barn cats on the farms and diaries I have lived on had feral cats that eventually came around to my gentle care of them. I have even managed to find homes for a few that finally realized they could have the life of a domesticated cat. Its worth pondering on the next time you see a cat in need, whether a feral, a stray or just lost and frightened. Remember, the responsibility is yours.
feral eating bird in grass
This feral won't go hungry today but what about tomorrow?

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