Cat Project Update

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1992:

Our feral cat rescue project in northern
Fairfield County, Connecticut, concluded on
July 12 after handling 320 cats in seven
months. All the cats were vaccinated against
rabies; all who were old enough were spayed
or neutered. Two hundred thirty seven cats
were returned to their original caretakers.
Thirty-nine cats, who were either kittens
when picked up or were apparent abandoned
pets, were adopted out. Another six cats in
this category were adopted by volunteers who
helped run the program.

Nineteen cats, including 10 kittens, died
or were euthanized due to life-threatening dis-
ability and/or illness. This category included
eight of the 11 cats who developed serious
respiratory infections with related eye dam-
age; one of the five cats who arrived with a
missing or severely injured eye; all four cats
who had serious urinary tract blockage; and
all three distemper cases. Although the cat
rescue project took place amid a raccoon
rabies epidemic, no rabid cats were encoun-
tered, nor any cases of either feline leukemia
(FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus
(FIV). Ten cats, all believed to have been
abandoned pets, arrived suffering from severe
malnutrition. Nine of them survived and were
adopted. In total, only 43 of the 320 cats
exhibited significant health problems.
These findings contrast sharply with
records kept by veterinarian Donna Bishop,
who has managed a similar project in inner
Boston for over eight years. In particular,
Bishop has seen the incidence of FeLV rise
from zero to 14% since 1985, while the inci-
dence of FIV ranged from 27% to 31% in
1990-1991. It is possible that these diseases
rise to a peak, wipe out the most vulnerable
part of the cat population in an epidemic, then
subside until the vulnerable population has
again reached a high enough level to permit
ready transmission of the responsible viruses.
The project ended with 21 cats left in cus-
tody, including one kitten, one former pet,
and 19 ferals who were removed from hostile
habitat and had nowhere else to go. A N I-
MAL PEOPLE took these 21, along with
our 10 personal cats, to our present location,
a 10-acre wildlife sanctuary along the rugged,
sparsely populated New York/Vermont bor-
der. Here, 16 of the 21 were allowed free
access to the outdoors and to indoor shelter
with bedding and an always full food dish.
Five of the 21 were brought into the house;
two were allowed to go out as they wished.
Also allowed outdoors were and are six of
our original pets, five of whom were strays
or ferals when we took them in, some time
before the beginning of the cat project.
As well as being a humane course of last
resort short of euthanasia, the relocation was
an experiment in several respects. We hoped
to find out whether the colony would remain
integral; how our feral and domestic popula-
tions interact; and how the sudden arrival of
31 cats would impact the local wildlife,
including both prey species and rival preda-
tors. It was not an experiment lightly under-
taken. We were well aware of the risks
involved and the suffering that might result.
Kim in particular had also become much more
affectionate toward the ferals than most of
them ever were toward her. At the same time,
we reasoned, if one accepts that animals have
any right to choose their own ways of living,
and if a cat chooses to remain wild despite
having received up to six months of indoor
socializing, one must accept that decision.
One also must, at times, accept the risk of
trying something that might not work in the
ongoing search for whatever does work.
Ten weeks later, all 10 of our original pets
are thriving, as are the kitten, the relocated
former pet, and two of the three ferals we
brought into the household. The feral colony
retained close integrity for about a month, but
over the past six weeks, seven of the 19
relocated ferals have disappeared.
Paradoxically, given the choice of coming or
going, three of the remainder have become
almost tame, often spending nights in the
house. Despite the anticipated feline depreda-
tions, rabbits are the only prey species who
have markedly declined in the immediate vicin-
ity of the house—but as is normal in wild habi-
tat, they are also markedly scarcer elsewhere,
due to the cumulative effects of predation by
coyotes, foxes, hawks, eagles, and owls. In
addition, we have only twice observed our cats
preying upon rabbits.
We had expected native predators to become
scarcer around the house due to both our own
presence and competition for food from the
cats. This has apparently not been the case.
We continue to find coyote and fox scats within
50 feet of the house. We suspect most or all of
the missing cats have been victims of predation,
though the only evidence of this to date was the
discovery of one apparent feline hip bone,
which could also have been a rabbit bone. We
have not found any evidence in the scats we
have found and examined that the coyotes or
foxes are actually eating cats; on the contrary,
the scats near the house consist mainly of berry
pits–no surprise, as wild blackberries and wild
grapes are abundant.
Although the missing ferals were also
exposed to predation in their Connecticut habi-
tat (as well as to heavy traffic and human
abuse), they were all several years younger than
the former ferals among our personal cats, who
in each instance had lived for some time in very
close proximity to fox and coyote dens. We
therefore surmise that the missing cats made
mistakes our personal cats have avoided, if in
fact predation is to blame.
It is still possible that some of the missing
have simply wandered off during good weather,
and will return with the onset of winter. We’ll
continue to hope, to keep records, and to pro-
vide follow-up reports for the benefit of other
cat rescuers who would like to know what
becomes of colonies after neutering, vaccina-
tion, and release.
The most problematic cat in our project is Leland, a huge neutered orange tom who
was neither a stray nor a feral; we took him in after his guardian died and her hus-
band threatened to dump him. Affectionate with people, unperturbed by dogs, he
turns homicidal around other cats, male or female, and desperately needs a home
where he can be the only cat. Please call us if you can adopt him.
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