Today is National Feral Cat Day. One of the many risks that cats face from shelters is the risk of being determined feral. In too many shelters, this is an automatic death sentence. Truly feral cats should not be impounded by animal control unless it is for neuter and vaccination with the intention of prompt return of the cat to the area where he was trapped.
One of the numerous problems associated with the impound of trapped cats is that the shelter takes on the responsibility of categorizing the cat for disposition (feral, semi-feral, friendly). There are no nationally accepted standards for making this determination and practices vary from evaluation by shelter staff after an adjustment period to immediate disposition decisions made in the field by the officer on call while the cat is still in the trap.
From a 2010 paper entitled “A survey of the methods used in shelter and rescue programs to identify feral and frightened pet cats” and published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery:
When any cat enters an unfamiliar environment such as an animal shelter or other welfare agency, however, it is prone to displaying fearful behavior. Even well-socialized pet cats can become fearfully aggressive or motivated to withdraw or escape. As a result, it can initially be very difficult to accurately determine which cats are feral and which cats have the potential to be reclaimed or adopted as a pet. There are currently no validated methods of differentiating the various categories of cats upon intake to animal sheltering or other welfare agencies.
While fearful pet cats can, upon shelter intake, experience high stress levels and, therefore, appear behaviorally similar to feral cats, they may begin to display more characteristic behavior after several days or weeks in the shelter when their stress levels begin to subside.
Of the 288 respondents [of the roughly 500 total] who indicated that a cat they previously thought to be feral was subsequently found not to be feral, this discovery was most frequently cited as due to: the cat’s behavior changing after it had time to settle in or acclimate (mentioned by 144 or 50% of respondents), the cat began to display tolerant, social or affiliative behavior in response to human contact or handling (65 or 23%), the cat began to offer social behavior when humans were nearby (vocalization, blinking, solicitation, approach) (56 or 19%), and the cat’s behavior was different when it was assessed in a quieter, less stressful or more familiar environment (40 or 14%).
The problem with a policy of death for all feral cats at a shelter is that it violates the cat’s most basic right: the right to live. The problem is compounded when friendly cats are incorrectly identified as feral when they are behaving normally in response to the stress of being trapped and impounded.
Cat ID #09122012-256 was trapped and impounded by animal control in Columbus, GA on September 12. While the pound claims to follow the 5 day stray holding period law, it was determined within 24 hours that this trapped cat was too aggressive to live, despite a volunteer describing him as “easy to pet”. He was killed on September 13 for exhibiting typical behavior seen in trapped cats.
Two months ago in South Dakota, an owned cat named Poobs was trapped by a cat hating neighbor. She was healthy and current on her vaccinations. But she was understandably upset in the trap. The officer who picked her up from the cat hating neighbor determined on the spot that she was too aggressive to live. He shot her to death in the trap.
Last month, a municipality in PA hired an ACO to trap feral cats for killing. Area cat owners began noticing their pets going missing. Apparently the ACO was killing all cats caught in traps, including residents’ pets. Outraged owners attended the Borough Council meeting for answers but the ACO was a no show, which was fine with community leaders:
“I had asked him to come and he declined his appearance,” said Christine Cardinale, the North Charleroi Borough attorney. “He’s not here tonight.”
Instead of discussing the fact that both feral cats and owned pets have the right to live, the council appeared defiant when faced with angry cat owners:
“If you were so interested, you would have found out about why we’re starting to trap,” said one council member.
As a compromise, the council said it will pass an ordinance giving owners 10 days to reclaim their pets. But that does not address the fact that feral cats have a right to live nor does it address the ACO’s apparent lack of interest in even attempting to determine whether the cats he’s trapped are feral or owned pets.
Cats deserve better. Any cat brought to a shelter in this country should be afforded basic protections – including protection of the right to live. Decisions on whether to designate an impounded cat for TNR or adoption should be made only after the animal has had sufficient time to adjust to the shelter environment. Not every cat in a trap is feral but every cat deserves to live.
(Thank you Clarice for sending me links, as always, to Stefani for alerting me to the cat killed at the Columbus pound and to Vox Felina for the study on identifying feral cats in shelters.)