Here on this mountain top whoa-oh / I got some wild wild life
–Talking Heads

My garden is always hosting roaming cats. Some seasons there there are more than others, and until a couple of years ago I was never bothered by it. I’d send one of my border collies (who are generally eager to chase and herd anything that moves) rip-roaring out of the house and down the driveway. Cat gone. Me satisfied.

But last winter, after a several nights of being kept awake by the ear-splitting sounds of cat mating in our neighbor’s yard, sending my dog after a cat the next day didn’t have the same sense of satisfaction. I’d always thought these cats belonged to someone. They were were simply “outdoor cats,” and they needed to go back to where they belonged. Yet I couldn’t understand why there would be so many “outdoor cats” to begin with, and they had no intentions of getting anywhere near me, not like my cuddly neighbor’s cat.

It suddenly dawned on me that these were wild cats, owned by no one. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought this before. After a bit of research, I discovered that feral cats (as they are known) are a national epidemic especially in cities like ours, in neighborhoods like ours. They are all descendants of domestic pet cats; their friendly forebears had been lost, run away or abandoned or were simply a loved cat that never got fixed and reproduced.

I started to put out food daily and a cat or two would show up, and then I ignored situation for awhile. Months later, while I was happily cutting the last of my larkspur from my late spring garden, one of the dogs discovered a litter of kittens underneath a pallet of stone a few feet from me. They disappeared as rapidly as we found them. A few months after that I happened on a litter, barely 3 weeks old, in my garden shed. While pulling out some garden netting, a tiny kitten was firmly attached to it. I was frightened by seeing something move and instinctually dropped the netting–only to discover a teeny tabby paralyzed in fear. A fierce mothering instinct was born that day. I decided it was time to take more lasting action.

"Titian", the mother cat who started it all.

I tried to keep the mother–whom we call Titian–fed and interested in sticking around so we could rescue her kittens but within a week she moved her litter under a neighbor’s house. This is very common for feral females. They are pretty scared and defensive with their kittens and one has the feeling that they’d jump in front of a semi truck to keep them from being seen or touched.

In the meantime, I discovered that another neighbor was feeding many of the same cats. I starting counting and writing down all the different ones I saw. I stalked cats down our alley regularly to see where they tended to hide. I spoke to a few neighbors asking if they had seen kittens, and many were sympathetic but believed that cats wouldn’t possibly hide kittens near their house (“we have dogs!”). But I was surprised how many kittens I spied over the next months–scrambling under holes, behind sheds and under upturned boxes–any small crevice, even within feet of dog runs. If you have even a 10-inch hole, a cat will make its home under it. They have nowhere else to go!

Even abandoned cats that were previously owned have a slightly domesticated air and will get close to you but none of these cats are like that. They’ll reliably come if you feed them but will run if you get too close. They’re more numerous than we think–they’re hiding under your truck, fighting in the back yard, strolling down your street. We just don’t notice them because they live in the wildlife world of raccoons and possums and squirrels.

Unlike the squirrels and possums, I believe these cats are more dependent on us and need a restored relationship with humans (I wouldn’t advise trying to pet them, though!). When I started researching the statistics about feral cats, I was alarmed–how frequently they make kittens, how early many of them die from disease or hunger. Once you start feeding one, they will consider it their turf and will come back to you for food again and again. Wild cats are not a different species than domestic cats–they are descendents of domestic cats. They need human attention and care.

There are many resources that can document this better than I can, but the lives of feral cats are not pretty. Males are territorial and fight, regularly injuring themselves. Developed females (queens) are nearly constantly pregnant. (One cat I feed is on her 3rd pregnancy in 6 months!) They are perpetually scared and defensive. Kittens have a short life span; more than 75% die or disappear before six months of age. Recently we witnessed one of the kittens from the shed litter, now about 6 months old, pregnant. It doesn’t take them long! If left unchecked, a cat population can more than triple within 3 years, and it has certainly grown in my neighborhood. The pregnancy rates are far worse than we might suspect.

In the past some have looked to solve the problem by trapping and sending them to a shelter. Nearly all of these cats are euthanized. Studies have shown that eliminating the cats can make the population problem worse, as other cats quickly fill the void wherever there is food.

Thankfully there are a few organizations in Austin that are working to solve both the population and the euthanasia rates, by implementing a program called “Trap/Neuter/Return”. The basic concept behind TNR is a humane trapping of feral cats, spaying or neutering them, and then releasing them to the spot where they were trapped, and continuing to care for them if you were feeding them in the first place.

I have successfully trapped five cats in my yard, but I have counted at least 40 different feral cats within one block of our home. It is difficult to trap so slowly, because the cats start to catch on to what the traps are about, and I would like to see something larger done in our neighborhood.

More information can be found at:
Alley Cat Allies, a national organization
Feral Cat Society of Austin
Austin Humane Society (free spaying/neutering of feral cats)
Animal Trustees of Austin (a low cost spay/neuter clinic)
EmanciPET (low-cost spay/neuter clinic)

Spay Austin Coalition is a volunteer coalition of some of the above organizations. They organize large-scale trappings.

If this has piqued your interest, head on over to a gallery of my cat colony, in which I’ve been posting pictures of frequent feline visitors and those I’ve had trapped and fixed. If you are from Central Austin and interested in helping, there’s a place on my cat page to leave private comments.