What we’ve learned from feral cats

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1993:

PLE headquarters were the space station in Star Trek: Deep
Space Nine, old Bull the former feral cat would be
Constable Odo. Battle-scarred as a pirate, he lived most of
his life in a wrecked car in the slum district of a struggling
Connecticut mill town. He hates and fears humanity. And
he’s the walking refutation of almost everything anyone has
ever believed about tough tomcats.
As ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett
puts it, “Bull would be moral by human standards.” Despite
his piratical appearance, he observes rules of conduct gen-
erally believed to be beyond feline comprehension. From
our first introduction to Bull, we’ve been repeatedly con-
founded by his altruism, his rigid respect for law and order,
and his courage in what could only be described as moral

Bull doesn’t steal. Ponder that. Most cats (and
dogs) delight in stealing. It’s a trick that enhanced the odds
their wild ancestors would survive. But even when he could
steal, Bull does not, waiting his turn for food and never
hogging the dish when eating among others.
And that’s only the beginning. If Bull needs to
throw up a hair ball, he walks to the litter box. Nobody
taught Bull to be fastidious; nobody can get near him. He
just is.
We discovered Bull a little over a year ago while
coordinating a cat rescue project in Connecticut, when
someone reported that a big orange feral tom cat had
brought two kittens to be fed at her doorstep.
“You mean a feral mother,” Kim corrected. Tom
cats may be tolerant of their young, and might even play
with them, contrary to the stereotype of the infanticidal
tom––though there are also some of those around. But the
notion of a nurturing feral tom seemed too far-fetched to be
possible, especially given the harsh circumstances of these
Yet the story checked out. Old Bull, ferocious as
any tom who ever lived, had indeed helped a couple of kit-
tens to survive the bitter winter. They appeared to be his
own offspring––the male was practically a Bull clone––but
this was still an extraordinary case.
And of course we didn’t really believe it, at first.
When two of our volunteers brought old Bull in to be
neutered and socialized, if possible, we anticipated unholy
chaos in the cat room––which was occupied at any given
time by as many as 40 ferals, coming and going from neu-
tering. Those who were to be returned to their habitat as
part of a neuter/release project were kept caged, but up to
30 in various stages of socialization for adoption ran loose.
Among them were always a number who fancied them-
selves dominant toms. Because Bull could not be returned
to his plainly unsuitable habitat, we let him loose in the
room with trepidation, hoping the hierarchy would be
established without anyone getting maimed. To our sur-
prise, however, he didn’t even threaten anyone––just made
a beeline for cover in a closet, and hid there.
Was he not a dominant tom?
We got our answer the following morning, when
we arrived to find the closet packed with as many cats as
could cram themselves in, all eager to get next to Bully
boy. Wherever Bull went, the wildest of the wild and most
feral of the feral followed, in particular, but even the
tamest and friendliest cats also joined his entourage. We
have no idea how he projects his charisma, yet he is truly a
cat without feline enemies. None of the would-be dominant
toms ever challenged him. Most of them, though, took
turns sleeping beside him.
For a human to approach Bull, however, was to
risk amputation of a limb. Bull wouldn’t go beyond growl-
ing at our son Wolf, then 18 months old and now nearly
three. He’d retreat at the prospect of a closer encounter,
and still does. He’ll also retreat from an adult, if there’s a
way, but if he’s cornered, I’d rather shower with a couple
of bobcats than try to pat his head.
When the time came to close down the
Connecticut project and relocate to upstate New York to
found ANIMAL PEOPLE, Bull was among the 21
unadoptable cats we were obliged to bring with us, along
with our 10 personal pets. Because of Bull’s age, estimated
by our veterinarians at eight to 10 years, and because since
being captured he had shown little interest in getting back
outside, we decided he would have to be integrated into our
household colony, including our pets and several of the
more socialized ferals, plus Leland, an immense orange
tom, a former pet, whom one of our volunteers rescued
from a man who threatened to abandoned him.
Unlike the cat rescue project colony, which was
inherently unstable because cats were constantly being
brought in and adopted out, our household colony had a
long-established order. The undisputed dominant tom is
Voltaire, Kim’s first cat, a 22-pound adoptee from a now-
defunct shelter in Houston, Texas, who projects the per-
sonality and philosophy of Buddha. One by one, Voltaire
has accepted dozens of other cats into his home, rarely with
any conflict, including numerous toms with dominant
traits. Among them have been my own Catapuss, now 17,
who if he could have named himself would probably be
called “Dog-slayer,” for his quick assertions of dominance
over anyone canine; Isaiah, a fiesty runt with a heart con-
dition, also a dog-slayer, whom Voltaire treats as a
favored son; and Alfred, who if a character on Star Trek:
Deep Space Nine would be a Ferengi, whose buffoonery
belies keen survival skills. One by one, Voltaire befriends
them all.
Bull had no trouble recognizing the hierarchy and
slipping right into it. He soon made fast friends of the other
cats, including Voltaire, whom he follows much as other
cats follow him.
But the former pet, Leland, proved an exception.
He didn’t bother Bull, but he challenged Voltaire’s domi-
nance increasingly overtly––not that Voltaire responded.
For several weeks the relationship between Leland and
Voltaire simmered like the relationship between George
Kennedy, the chain gang lifer, and Paul Newman, the
smart-assed newcomer, in Cool Hand Luke. Time and
again Leland––who had already fought his way out of one
adoptive home by mangling the adoptee’s other
cats––would avoid Voltaire while terrorizing the rest of the
household. Voltaire, meanwhile, refrained from attacking
Leland, but didn’t yield an inch, either.
The situation exploded one evening when Leland
thought he had Voltaire maneuvered into a place where he’d
have to fight or else––in the middle of the dining room
floor, with almost all the rest of the cats in the household
watching anxiously from doorways. Alerted by the prelimi-
nary growling, we arrived just in time to see Bull streak
from the bed where he’d been sleeping, align himself side-
by-side with Voltaire, and address Leland in quiet but
unmistakeable terms: “You @#$% with Voltaire and you’ll
get hell from both of us.”
Leland retreated. Bull acquired a new job. Now
Voltaire’s constable in earnest, he made a point of appear-
ing whenever Leland threatened anyone else. Half Leland’s
size, he never fought. He just gave Leland a hard Odo-like
look and Leland slunk away.
I’ve known other constable cats, including
Catapuss, who was never actually a dominant tom, but
who similarly took on the barnyard bullies when he was
young, and similarly kept track of other cats, alerting me
when others were in distress. Catapuss, however, is and
always was a loner. He thrashed the barnyard bullies for his
own reasons. He’s also a distinctly abnormal cat, who not
only doesn’t hunt but becomes extremely upset if other cats
injure prey within his presence. Never a feral, he joined my
household at five weeks of age, after being rejected by his
mother at four weeks, and could well have received a sub-
stantial personality imprint from human beings.
I’ve also seen other cats fighting as allies. Once
Catapuss and Alfred stood side-by-side in my doorway and
duked it out with my neighbor Leo’s cats Tom and Minnie
just like Joe Start and Shane versus the cowboys in the
movie Shane.
Bull’s behavior thus is not wholly unprecedented.
It’s just a confirmation that the social structure of cats is a
lot more complex and a lot more like our own, even among
ferals, than most scientific observers imagine. There’s a
widespread theory among animal behaviorists that every-
thing domestic cats do is an adapatation of the usually soli-
tary behavior of wild cousins. The idea that domestic cats
may have evolved to prefer a social life still has little scien-
tific following. Feral cat colonies, the theory goes, are an
artifact of proximity to human-provided food sources.
Extended social behavior is supposedly an aberation result-
ing from that circumstance.
But how many generations of feral cats have lived
in our dumps and back alleys, anyhow? And how many
thousands of years did it take us to invent civilization? Is it
really beyond comprehension to imagine that animals as
intelligent as cats could get as far as developing social orga-
nization in the time since our civilizations began providing
them with habitat conducive to social living?
Migration & mortality
Of the 21 cats from the rescue project we brought
with us, only 10 remain here 10 months later. Leland did
eventually find another adoptive home, through the efforts
of the Bennington County Humane Society, where he’s a
beloved only cat. A former feral was taken back by one of
our Connecticut volunteers. Bull and three others (besides
Leland) were kept indoors for various reasons. The remain-
der were allowed to choose their own way of life. Their
options were joining the household colony, as four did, two
right away and two later; living a feral life with free access
to a heated basement where food and blankets are plentifully
provided; or wandering off. Only one wandered off imme-
diately––Christmas, a spooky black-and-white whom I res-
cued from under a dumpster on Christmas night, 1991.
Just a kitten then, Christmas didn’t venture out in broad
daylight for seven weeks after that, and never did let him-
self be petted or handled.
All the other former ferals seemed to maintain a
tight-knit family until the end of summer, when a sudden
string of disappearances coincided with sightings of a coy-
ote with an injured paw in the creek bed the cats frequented.
Probably inhibited from hunting as he normally would have,
the coyote had apparently resorted to ambushing rabbits in
unusually close proximity to human residences. Cats, we
speculated, had become targets of convenience, though we
only once found something that might have been a cat bone
in a coyote scat.
Whatever the case, nine cats vanished before the
coyote left the neighborhood. We ascribed their loss to pre-
dation, as even if that coyote wasn’t responsible, there are
also other coyotes, foxes, bears, bobcats, great horned
owls, both bald eagles and golden eagles, red-tailed hawks,
Cooper’s hawks, and marsh hawks in the vicinity.
Predators rarely hunt other predators, at least on purpose,
but any of them might kill a cat in a sudden accidental con-
frontation––say over a mouse or young rabbit.
Significantly, the remaining cats tended to be the wariest
and/or those with known previous experience around coy-
otes and foxes.
Though none were among the ferals from the res-
cue project, our outdoor-venturing cats Alfred, Keeter, and
Gidget are all cases in point. Alfred was apparently taken
into the woods in Quebec as a half-grown kitten to be used
as live bait by a coyote trapper. Somehow he got away, and
eventually followed me home from one of my trap-busting
missions as volunteer assistant to the local deputy game war-
den. Before that, Alfred apparently lived for weeks by him-
self within a few hundred yards of both coyote runs and an
inhabited fox den. Keeter, a feral who has taken six years
to become almost tame, lived for five years within a quarter
mile of both fox and coyote dens in Connecticut, as did
Gidget, a former housecat who abandoned her home in
favor of a barn and has only recently become a semi-house-
cat again. All three frequented the same areas as the cats
who disappeared, and sometimes managed to stay out all
night despite our best efforts to bring them in. Unless one
counts the recent night when Alfred was apparently chased
into a rainsoaked heap of litter box compost by a creature
unknown, none seem to have suffered any distress from fel-
low predators.
Some time after the string of disappearances
ended, Christmas reappeared. Since then, I’ve three times
sighted cats in the woods who may have been some of our
missing ferals, thriving alone in new territory––or they
might have been other ferals, from other places. They were
too sleek and healthy-looking to be abandonees. We’ve
picked up a couple of abandonees here: Dolores, a sick
longhaired grey female, who leaped into my arms one night
after I’d mistaken her for a neighbor’s cat for months, and
Vincent, who arrived in the last stages of starvation but
miraculously recovered with aid of antibiotics, warmth, and
Kim’s loving care.
Our only confirmed fatality was Daisy, a feline
leukemia victim, whom we captured for diagnosis and
euthanasia only after she became too weak to run out of the
basement at the first sound of feet on the stairs.
Bull too has a chronic degenerative illness, feline
AIDS, but he has not been euthanized because he still
seems to enjoy life and is not likely to infect any of our other
cats now, if they haven’t been infected already. So far, all
the others who have been tested have been negative.
We intended to keep detailed records on the relo-
cated feral cats by way of increasing the data base on the
efficacy of neuter/release. Our continued observations were
to supplement the thorough population and health statistics
we kept during the seven months of the Connecticut cat res-
cue project. Though it handled 326 cats, that project was
modest compared to many. Juliet Streett of New Jersey, for
instance, has rescued approximately 4,500 cats in a
neuter/release project begun in August 1987. Our
Connecticut project did, however, produce more docu-
mented information about feral cats than any of the others,
simply because we did keep good records. The project
records and the national survey of cat rescuers A N I M A L
PEOPLE undertook in mid-1992 with the support of Carter
Luke of the Massachusetts SPCA virtually are the existing
data base on many aspects of feral cat life and death.
But good intentions have gone awry. If we’ve
learned one thing about feral cats in nearly 18 months of
attempting to seriously study them, it’s that seeking objec-
tive data is for the most part as elusive a goal as world
peace. For the most part, one sees only what the cats are
willing to have seen. Because different cats have different
personalities, one tends to see a lot more of some, like
Bull, than of others like Christmas––and the biggest ques-
tions of course concern the most elusive cats, the ones who
come and go by night, whose very presence is often more a
hunch than a verifiable fact.
The inherent conflict between feline nature and
statistical quantification is such that when it comes to feral
cats in their own environment, even such renowned animal
behaviorists as Desmond Morris and Gerald Durrell have
been reduced to extrapolating from limited evidence––in
short, to presenting anecdotes instead of hard data.
We’ve had no better luck. We know a great deal
about our own feral cat colony. We think much of what
we’ve learned will apply to other colonies, but we can’t
prove it. We’ve learned, essentially, quite a bit about a few
particular cats, a little bit about some others, and virtually
nothing about those who disappeared. Thus we have from
our efforts just a handful of statistics and a whole lot of
anecdotes. Many researchers, including Morris, would dis-
qualify the anecdotes as anthropomorphic projection.
Certainly our observations may be colored by our own
frame of reference.
But again, investigators of animal intelligence are
increasingly reappraising past dismissals of “anthropomor-
phic” observation, and discovering that animals do often
think and feel much as we do.
“The bottom line,” Michael D. Lemonick wrote in
the March 22, 1993 issue of Time, in a sidebar to a cover
story on animal thinking, is that “anthropomorphism has
been proclaimed okay. Your cat may well be grinning at
you. Your dog may really be in a depression.”
And old Bull may really be the constable of this
particular colony, recognized as such by the other cats even
if he doesn’t have a badge and gun.
Whatever the case, his behavior on New Year’s
Eve will further confound anyone trying to assign mechanis-
tic, instinct-driven motives to all his actions. Exactly at
midnight, for the first and only time, he sidled up to Kim
and let her pet him. Then he went back to await his turn in
line at a bowl of milk beneath a table.
––Merritt Clifton
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