Wednesday 23 October 2019

Feral cat colonies – a big problem that won't go away

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CATS IN Ireland have a tough time compared to their canine cousins. In the past, cats were farmyard animals, barely one rung on the ladder higher than vermin like rats and mice.

More recently, cats have become popular pets; their independent nature suits the busy lifestyles of many humans in modern Ireland. Yet many people still dislike cats, preferring them to stay out of sight and out of mind.

Cats are virtual nonentities as far as the State is concerned. Irish law regulates dog ownership, but cats get no such attention: they are not specifically mentioned in the statute books. Local authorities run dog pounds, but there's no such thing as "cat pounds". Cats are only protected under general welfare legislation, despite their popularity as pets.

While pet cats are often cared for reasonably well, there's a sector of the cat population that's seriously neglected: feral cats. This week, 15th - 22nd October, is National Feral Cat Awareness Week in Ireland, so it's an appropriate time to discuss their plight.

The three cats in this week's photo are feral. I took the photo with a zoom lens, and even then, you can see that they are wary of me. If I'd taken one step closer, the three of them would have bolted.

Feral cats are wild creatures, and they don't appreciate the company of humans. There are no official statistics about the number of feral cats in Ireland but their numbers have been guesstimated as somewhere between hundreds of thousands to over a million.

Many people dislike feral cats: they're seen as a nuisance. They cluster around bins, creating a mess. They're like tiny, annoying beggars. It's easy to forget that the cats didn't choose to be in the situation they find themselves in. In fact, feral cats only exist because of human failings.

Somebody didn't get their pet cat spayed - she had kittens - the kittens were allowed to go wild - and soon the kittens had formed a feral cat colony.

A small, stable feral cat colony is not necessarily a bad thing, doing a good job at controlling pests like wild rat populations. Some establishments - like waste recycling centres and hotels - even encourage and appreciate their resident feral cats.

The big problem happens when feral cat colonies expand uncontrollably. Female cats have kittens, then these kittens grow up and have kittens themselves. Before much time has passed, there may be forty or fifty hungry cats stalking around a neighbourhood.

What's the answer? The instinct of many onlookers is often just to "get rid of them", but unfortunately a radical "eradication" approach does not work well.

If the feral cats are trapped and removed, they leave a cat-friendly niche behind them, with territory, shelter and a food supply. In due course, another batch of feral cats will move in, and the feral cat "problem" will be back again.

So what's the best way to deal with feral cat colonies that are out of control? The most enlightened approach is something known as a " Trap-Neuter-Release" programme. All of the cats are caught in humane cat traps, one by one. They are taken to the local vet, and checked to make sure that they are healthy. If all is well, they are neutered, and marked to ensure that they are not trapped again (often an ear tip is removed while they are being neutered).

They are then returned to their home base. If there are too many cats in the area, some may need to be rehomed to another place where there's an appropriate niche.

Neutered feral cats tend to form stable, harmless colonies that can remain as static populations for a decade or more. The main problem with feral cat colonies is the overproduction of kittens - so that the colony gets bigger and bigger as the years go by.

Once the cats are neutered, the low number of cats can often fit in very well with the local human community. As long as there is a cat friendly human resident to keep half an eye on them, the cats don't bother anyone, and they live contented lives, helping the balance of nature by controlling local rodent populations.

Trap-Neuter-Release programmes are highly effective, but there are two challenges in getting them established: firstly, who's going to do it, and secondly, who's going to pay for it?

The cats need to be trapped, one by one, ferried to the local vet, then collected and returned to the area. This takes time and energy, and somebody has to be prepared to be focussed on this job.

There may be a local cat welfare group to help and there are now national organizations who have volunteers who are prepared to travel to give a hand.

The neutering operations obviously cost money, and whilst many vets are prepared to do this type of work at a discount, there are some hard costs that must be met. I have seen cases where residents' associations have helped, asking each household for a tenner, and using the pooled resources to pay for the operations.

At other times, animal welfare groups have contributed to the costs. Many would like the state to contribute funds: isn't the government meant to help us all to live in a safe, stable, pleasant environment?

By the way, the feral cat problem wouldn't happen at all if all owners had their own cats spayed. Don't blame the cats - it isn't their fault.

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