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Feral Cat Expert Louise Holton Talks About TNR, Adoption, and the Myth of Eradication

We ask her about her new book, "Alley Cat Rescue's Guide to Managing Community Cats."

Keith Bowers  |  Feb 19th 2016


Feral cats are misunderstood. That’s hard to dispute, regardless of what you know about them or your feelings toward them. Stray cats, ones who’ve been socialized to interact with humans but are nonetheless homeless, suffer from similar problems of perception. Only in recent decades have populations of ferals and strays — so-called “community cats” — been better understood, with trap-neuter-return and, when appropriate, adoption slowly taking the place of “pest control” as ways to manage them.

But manage them people do. It can be a daunting assignment, with difficulties coming from humans, terrain, weather, local governments, shelters, and the cats themselves. Louise Holton, founder of Alley Cat Rescue in 1997, has two decades of experience with feral cats. She recently published a book, Alley Cat Rescue’s Guide to Managing Community Cats. Below are excerpts from an email exchange I had with her on the subject.

What led you to found Alley Cat Rescue? Why feral and stray cats?

They are much-maligned animals. Treated by many as “pests.” Once a label of pest is given, this seems to allow anyone to throw away any ethical standards. The cats are poisoned, trapped to be killed, dogs are sent after them, they get shot, and almost anything goes. This is no way to treat any animal, let alone feral cats who are often the offspring of our beloved domestic cat.

What distinguishes a feral cat from a stray cat who was socialized and then lost or abandoned?

Once trapped in a colony management program, one can almost immediately tell which cat is feral and which one is a domestic stray. The ferals will try to hide, they will spit and hiss and even lash out at anyone approaching the trap or the cage they may be put in. It can sometime be a gray area, however, and we have written about this in the book. Many domestic strays have been euthanized because they were classified as feral when in fact they were pet cats, rounded up with the ferals, and terrified in the shelter. Any cats, domestic or feral, will defend themselves if cornered or scared.

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Who is the book aimed at? A lay audience, or a readership experienced in cat rescue and perhaps veterinary care?

All of the above. A novice caretaker can benefit from the information. Someone who is experienced may need more information on cat predation, or zoonotic diseases. And the veterinary community can benefit as there are still many in that community who have not had any experience dealing with feral cats. I set out to help them with this, having dealt with around 40,000 feral cats in the past 20 years or so. I want veterinarians to feel that their staff can be safe if they deal with feral cats in a special way.

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Louise Holton with feline pal Dennis

What are adoption options for adult feral cats? Why would a person adopt an adult feral cat rather than returning or relocating?

Stories vary. My daughter recently adopted a feral cat because she was moving to another house and the cat was a solitary cat hanging out in the neighborhood, and she was the only one feeding the cat. She could not leave the cat alone to starve, as he showed no signs of being able to hunt. She took him with her, and after confining him to her bedroom for two weeks, he fitted in nicely with her household of two other cats and a couple of dogs. He is still somewhat feral, especially when new people visit. But he is obsessed with her and sleeps right next to her at night. But some people have come to talk to me at conferences and told me the feral cat they took in lives under the bed and only comes out at night when everyone is sleeping. So you have to be careful. No cat lover wants to keep a cat who is going to be miserable living indoors.

What are some reasons feral colonies form that might be less obvious? You mention a couple in the book that surprised me.

I guess the more obvious ones are cats finding a trash container in an alley with human food it in. Or finding the container behind a fast food place, or a hospital or college campus cafeteria. These are pretty common. Hotels all over the world usually have cats living behind the kitchens. In fact many, in Africa especially, have cat cafes set up somewhere so that vacationers can feed the cats.

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Photo by Cara Frye

Then we have the case of scientists taking cats to islands to control the imported rat population. It always amazes me that scientists would take cats to islands and not neuter them first. Like on Marion Island. The scientists left the island, left behind their five cats, and then seemed surprised to find years later that the cats had multiplied to 2,500. Then of course they embarked on their supposedly famous cat eradication project. Even though it took 19 years and various control methods to kill just a few thousand cats. Methods were used such as introducing the feline distemper virus to the island, and when that did not wipe out all the cats, spending the next dozen years using poisons, intensive hunting, trapping, and hunting dogs. Marion Island is a small, 12-by-8-mile island southeast of South Africa, where rain or snow falls more than 300 days per year.

You write that communities can benefit from adequately managed feral cat colonies. What are some of those ways?

First, the fact that cats keep down the rat population. They don’t eliminate rats, but I have heard from many people that when their neighborhood had outdoor cats, the rat population was lower. I have heard that when cats were removed, the rat population increased tremendously. I have often found dead rats in alleys where I fed feral cats. Colony caretakers get great joy out of feeding and caring for their colonies. Many elderly folks, men and women, often have no indoor cats, as they are not allowed to have cats in their apartments, and get a great deal of satisfaction caring for a colony. I have helped them trap and fix the cats.

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Carla Matthews and her friend Laurie, shown here in 2013, cared for a feral colony they discovered near their workplace parking lot in Delaware, Ohio.

One woman I helped with her colony eventually moved out of her house after her colony was trapped by the authorities and dumped at a local shelter. She said she could not bear to live there any longer after the cats she had been caring for for over a decade were taken. I am shocked that no one addresses the issue of loss that colony caretakers have to cope with when their cats are killed. We all now know the health benefits that caring for animals give us.

I also know of little groups getting together to care for cats. People who would not normally get together. Arranging bake sales to buy cat food and that sort of thing.

Is there a bad time to trap feral cats?

In extreme weather. Especially in the middle of a heat wave. The cats can easily become dehydrated and suffer from heat stroke. And of course kitten season is a bad time, during early spring. They will have given birth already and may have neonatal kittens who will die if the mothers are not there to take care of them.

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These kittens were trapped at a proper time. Photo by Judy M. Zukoski

The issue of cats killing birds is a complex and emotionally charged one. Can you summarize, simply, the fault you see with studies that many people accept as fact?

Most cat predation studies have been done on islands. One cannot apply this data for continents as birds have not evolved with predators on most islands. On continents cats have often taken over the role of predator from other predators such as wolves and larger felines. Scientists blame cats for bird declines, yet birds in urban and suburban areas are thriving. This is where most of the feral cat population lives as well. So obviously cats are not killing off city birds.

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Feral cat photo by Brocken Inaglory

The 2013 State of the Birds report says the primary cause of declining bird populations is habitat loss. Wildlife biologist Roger Tabor has said many times that you cannot take a small study such as the Churcher study or the Wisconsin study, which is really a survey, and extrapolate the numbers across a state then across the whole continent. Yet anti-TNR people do this all the time.

The Australian government plans to poison feral cats to save native species in rural areas. What are your feelings on this very difficult situation? Does eradication have a chance of working there?

No, it will not work, in the long-term. They cannot eliminate every single cat. And the cat is a fast-breeding animal. As niches become available, other cats will move in and repopulate the areas. It looks good as a “quick fix.” The government is trying to do something. Even if this does not work in the long run, or costs millions, most people seem to be very short-sighted when it comes to their biases against the cat.

And it is not just me saying that. We have Australians saying that it will not work.

Environmentalist and Australian Frankie Seymour had this to say:

“[E]veryone – governments and their pet scientists, farmers, ‘pest’ controllers – all now seem to agree that, once a species is naturalised on the Australian mainland, it is impossible to eradicate it – the best you can do is exercise ‘sustained control’ (for which read ‘mass murder in perpetuity’). This is because the species that are likely to become naturalised tend to be fast-breeding species, quickly spreading to fill all available niches.”

Australian biologist Tim Low points out that to many scientists “biological control is often touted as the magic-bullet solution to all our pest problems,” and that countless biological control agents are used despite concluding test results that the agents are harmful to native wildlife. Countries spend billions of dollars on species eradication and very little on prevention measures.

Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to add?

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A clipped ear indicates that a community cat has been spayed or neutered. Photo by Maggie Funkhouser

I think we actually all want the same thing: far fewer cats living on our streets and in alleyways. We want to see them live without suffering, and that is what TNR does for them. They no longer have to roam in search of mates, or get in fights, which leaves them with wounds and perhaps contracting feline diseases.

Mother cats no longer endure the endless cycle of giving birth to litter after litter, and struggling to find enough food to feed herself and her kittens.

We want to manage the colonies using nonlethal control. The opposition wants to resort to killing, which really does not work.

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To learn more, visit Alley Cat Rescue’s website or its Facebook page.

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.