The Mainstreaming of a Feral Cat – Part One

Imagine if you would, waking up from the only home you ever knew. Your bed is gone, all your treasured photos and mementos in your house have vanished, your trusted food source has changed and you no longer know where you are. Would you be scared, disoriented, frightened and try to find your way back home? If you are a feral cat who is being re-located from the only home you ever knew, of course you would.

Gracie - this cat has a name and a face. She also had a safe and secure home at the Loews Portofino Hotel...

And that is exactly what is about to happen to the feral cats residing on the once pet-friendly Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando if we cannot convince management that relocating these cats from their property is not a safe and viable solution. These cats that were once part of a very successful and managed Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program were ordered in a reversal of decision by David Bartek, Director of Operations, at the end of 2011 to trap them from the premises and bring them to a shelter for a most certain death. The reason cited – they were a liability.

This decision of relocation caused me much speculation and food for thought. I am a devoted, caring, and compassionate individual who has had and loved cats her whole life. I consider myself highly educated and extremely devoted to the well-being of these creatures, but it was then I realized, I didn’t know cats at all. Or at least not feral cats, to the extent that I could claim any authority or knowledge of their ultimate well-being. If the cats were not being brought to a shelter, why was relocation bad? And were they really a liability?

Christine Michaels of Riverfront Cats is many things. She is the one that broke the controversial Loews story, she is the one that spearheaded the floodgate of support for these cats via a massive social networking campaign so that they were not brought to shelters, and she has been successfully managing a colony of  feral cats since 2009. She is an authority and I realized it was time for me to pay her a visit so that I could arm myself firsthand with what feral really meant and why this decision was so dangerous.

Christine and I meeting for the first time. We are also joined by Johnny Walker, one of Christine's rescue cats that she is fostering until she can find him a good home.

I met Christine last year through cat blogging and found out she only lived about an hour away from me. We developed a friendship via emails and had always planned on getting together. Our dream has been to educate people about cats so that adoption rates in shelters increased, while the number of cats on the streets decreased. The momentum was in place. The time was now. But, if me, a devoted cat person did not fully understand the concept of feral cats, how could mainstream America possibly know much better?

In the first episode of a three part video series, our immediate task at hand was to put together an informative segment that really discussed the essence of the Loews story and basic feral cat knowledge so that when people do respond to a call to action to help feral cats, they understand how and why they are doing it. Knowledge is power and what a better way to educate people, than a one-on-one video.

In the second and third episode, to be posted at a later date, we actually visit Christine’s Riverfront Cats and interact with the environment firsthand so that I could accurately portray to people what a day in the life of a caretaker was like and to dispel the misconceptions that are pervasive to this creature. This was a very unique opportunity to really get into the mind of these creatures and I felt so invigorated after I met all her cats and saw that just like Gracie at Loews, they all have names, faces, and very distinct and unique personalities.  These cats are REAL and the videos really help to visualize with a raw honesty what a feral cat is, rather just reading about it or looking at a picture.

Now that you have seen the video, there are some basic points I would like to reiterate:

1. Feral cats are not dangerous and do not attack people. While they may become familiar with a caretaker, these cats tend to avoid humans and usually only come out at night.

2. It is not cruel for a feral cat to live outdoors. Because they are not socialized to humans or indoor settings, they are unable to cope and do not adjust to the confinement or human contact. In fact, it can actually be detrimental to the cat to try to tame and socialize it. A feral cat may exhibit adverse behavioral problems in an indoor setting that are insurmountable to change, which often results in the cat being unfairly brought to a shelter where they are labeled “unadoptable” and possibly euthanized.

3. Feral cats are not responsible for the depletion of wildlife. In reality that is caused by urbanization, global warming, pollution, and construction. A managed feral colony is actually well fed and does not have a need to excessively hunt for food.

4. TNR works. Trap-Neuter-Return is the safest and most beneficial program available to both the feral cat and the community. The colony’s population decreases (and stabilizes) and the negative behaviors associated with cats such as spraying and noises from mating and aggressive fighting is significantly reduced.

5. Feral cats are not a filthy and disease ridden creature. In actuality, feral cats have a low rate of diseases and live a long and healthy life. This is particularly true because the feral cats that have been spayed or neutered are also vaccinated.

6. Cats can reproduce at an alarming rate. An unspayed/neutered cat pair leads up to 5,000 cats in 7 years. While it is a proven fact that TNR works, only about 2% of feral cats are are sterilized, so there is still an enormous need to institute proper TNR programs within a community. And some of the overpopulation is caused by human negligence – many cats are cruelly dumped on the streets that are not spayed and neutered. Human beings have the education and wherewithal to make a difference and to act responsibly. Most communities offer low cost or free spaying and neutering programs, so expense should not be an excuse to be irresponsible.

7. *There is a distinct difference between stray and feral cats that can often be confusing. A feral cat is not adoptable and should be returned to its outdoor home after it has been spayed or neutered. A stray cat found on the street at one point in its life had social contact with a human and can usually be adopted. A stray cat who is frightened might act like a feral cat when trapped and might mistakenly be brought to a kill shelter. The cats need several days of observation after being trapped to determine what type of cat they are.

8. You can identify a cat that has already been part of the TNR program by the universal practice of clipping the tip of the left ear of the cat.

9. Feral kittens can be socialized and adopted into a home if they are accustomed to people at an early age.

Geisha - one of Christine's cats that she found as a feral kitten that she was able to socialize and adopt for her own.

10. If feral cats are relocated, they will try to return to the only home they know. This is very dangerous to the cats and means a very high probability of death (more times than not, they are hit by a car).  The only time a relocation of a colony should be attempted, is if a building they are seeking shelter in, is going to be demolished.

11. Feral cats are considered a domestic animal and are protected by anti-cruelty laws. Any crime against a cat should be reported to the proper officials.

12. FERAL CATS CAN SAFELY AND PEACEFULLY CO-EXIST IN A COMMUNITY.

While I still cannot claim I am an expert on feral cats, I can say that I have learned a lot and truly understand now why the decision to re-locate the Loews cats is so uninformed and detrimental. These cats pose no liability that I can see and it is abundantly obvious through what I witnessed with Christine’s feral cats firsthand, that they consider where they live as home. They do not have the capacity that humans do to be told that if they are patient, all will be well and that starting over can be a fresh chance for a new and exciting life. It is instinctual for them to return to the only roots they know.  I hope that we can continue to rally and make a difference for these cats, but if not, I can assure you that people such as Christine and myself will remain diligent in our efforts to educate people about feral cats and why they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity to co-exist within a community.

To learn more about Christine and her feral cats, please visit her site at www.riverfrontcats.com. To learn how you can help stop the Loews cats from being relocated, please reference this excellent post for the most updated information.

*The subject of distinguishing a feral cat and a stray cat in an outdoor setting is often extremely difficult to determine and there are several guidelines to follow to ensure the proper classification of these cats. Unfortunately, these are not hard and fast rules. To learn more about this subject, the nonprofit organization, Alley Cat Allies, offers several extensive and informative articles on this subject. Please click the link Feral and Stray Cats – An Important Difference and Faux Ferals: How to Soothe a Scared Stray to Increase Her Chances of Adoption for more details.

A special thank you to A Tonk’s Tail for the comment they left me the other day about a photo I posted of Oreo, one of the Loews cats. They commented that this story now has a name and a face and because of that, we were so inspired that the music montage at the beginning of the video is a result of this sentiment.

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  1. Deb, so happy to be first to congratulate you on a job well done about a sad situation. This can and must be resolved.

    • Deb says:

      Layla – it seems somewhat fitting in the synchronicity of life – you were the first one to review my book, now you are the first one to congratulate me on what I hope will be a new direction in my life!! I appreciate your support and will remain vigilant in my efforts to help these cats.

  2. Carolyn says:

    I couldn’t get onto this page earlier today, but am glad to have made it now. It looks like you have a new vocation, Deb. I hope that your highlighting this will help bring a happy solution for all the kitties.

    The video is brilliantly done (as you would expect) and very informative. xox

    • Deb says:

      Thank you Carolyn – Dan did a brilliant job with the video (despite that I was terrified in front of the camera). Christine is a natural and her enthusiasm is just invigorating! I do feel this is a calling for me and truly hope it will help these cats in some way. I can’t wait to share the actual videos where we interact with the cats – it is an informal setup, so I don’t look like a deer in headlights!! Xoxo P.S. The post accidently went up last night before it was supposed to – I had to pull it, but facebook had already grabbed it as up!!

  3. Vicki Cook says:

    Deb – thank you for sharing the information about TNR, feral cats and the situation at Loews Universal Orlando. Animal lovers must continue to put pressure on the Loews management and help them to understand that relocation is not a viable open.

    • Deb says:

      You are very welcome Vicki. I truly hope this will help open people’s eyes up as to why the relocation plan is so inhumane in the long run.

  4. thank you for this post Deb…reiterating the misconceptions about feral cats are important reminders for all of us.
    I know of instances where feral colonies have been wrongfully broken up due to a few that believe these gross misconceptions.

    Great job!

    • Deb says:

      Thank you Caren. I know that ignorance can often be the greatest battle to fight and can only hope the more people that understand the misconceptions, the better off we are. I realize there is already a wealth of information available on ferals, but to actually witness a colony firsthand was an experience I will never forget.

  5. George Beach says:

    Deb,
    Great info! Agree with it all and will now consider them as “wildlife” in line with what I trained in. One question: you know how cold it gets in northern climes. What would her advice be regarding ferals in that situation?

    • Deb says:

      George – thank you for taking the time to drop by! That is an excellent question, and one that I actually plan on posting about in the next week or so. I know someone who has a colony in a colder climate and am going to do a guest post interview with her. In the meantime, I will reach out and try to get you the answer so that you don’t have to wait that long! You could also contact the Alley Cat Allies – they can find the answer to anything feral!

      • Deb says:

        George – upon further research, both Christine and another caretaker I know of (Marg of Marg’s Pets) recommends that you can make them little shelters out of those plastic storage tubs and put insulation on the inside and cut doors in it and either put a nice fuzzy bed in there or some straw or hay so they have something to snuggle in. Just anything so that they can get out of the rain, wind, ice and snow. Here is a link for details: http://www.pacthumanesociety.org/core/WinterShelter.htm These are relatively inexpensive and these storage bins go on sale quite frequently at places like Home Depot or Wal-Mart.

  6. Mr Puddy says:

    Wow ! I like this idea !!! just give feral a chance and no kill !
    I hope they have this kind of though around the world
    Thank you, Deb
    xoxo

  7. Connie says:

    Very informative, and so nicely done from a “I need to learn more” perspective. Very thoughtful and hopefully will help open people’s eyes to such situations. I completely agree with you that a well established feral colony does not need to be removed. This is their home, they do have care takers, they will not suffer the ravages of not enough food or from injury.

    I do want to nit pick a bit, and I hope you don’t mind. I have a huge problem with people calling open admission shelters “kill shelters” If they are just there to kill animals, they aren’t a shelter. Open admission shelters while having the horrid (and sadly sometimes rightly deserved) reputation of being a “kill shelter” they do serve a very necessary function in today’s society. If all shelters were “no kill” aka closed admission shelters then there would be no place for those companion animals that have no home to go. Society would be over run with the unadoptable, the sick, the unsocialized animals, not to mention the huge number of completely wonderful and loving adoptable animals out there that sadly there is no place for. Until we finally get it through our skulls that neutering these animals is the only way to keep the population under control and from suffering we are going to have to continue to kill them. Thousands and thousands of animals are put down each day. Imagine what would happen if they were all suddenly not killed. There is not enough resources available in this country to take care of them all.

    Feral cats taken to a shelter will be put down. Closed admission shelters generally can not take them (there are a few who can, but they limit what they can take, and rightly so) and open admission shelters do not have the resources to do anything else but. Their money is better spent (as appalling as that sounds) on animals that they can get into homes. With out unlimited funds, decisions have to be made. The same is said of feral colonies being well managed as well. If a feral comes to the group that is injured, those that maintain the colony must decide if the money is best spent on fixing that one cat or buying weeks or months worth of food.

    Anyway, that’s just my feeling on it. I volunteer for an open admission shelter. They have to take in any animal from several cities that it has contracts with, no matter how dangerous, sick, injured or cute it is. They have limited funds (granted they are better off then a lot of open admission shelters and can do wonderful things) and sometimes painful decisions need to be made. It just pains me when people get upset over the good a “kill shelter” does do, despite the fact they are doing it by killing cats and dogs and kittens and puppies. It is hard to remember that when you see it happening and you don’t see the ills of extreme over population – which is what brought the shelter system into being in the first place
    http://www.animalshelter.org/pet-tips/129/History_of__dog_rescue_and_welfare.html
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/30/where-they-used-to-drown-the-dogs/

    until there is enough public outcry over the overpopulation and there is enough money given over to the issue, there will be a need to euthanize companion animals.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you Connie for your very thoughtful response. I consider this an open forum about the subject and do not object at all to your “nit picking.” In part two of my series, I will address that very issue. While I have a respect and increased knowledge about the feral cat subject, it is by no means a subject that can be glamorized. We have a LONG, LONG way to go in educating the public. I thank you for sharing and for taking the time to volunteer at a shelter.

  8. Carolyn says:

    Hi Deb, I popped back to tell you, I’ve given you an award over at CATachreis. But if you are award free that’s fine :) )

  9. Suzanne says:

    What is the optiom if the neighborhood feral colony trapper won’t stop and if they are taken back with ear notches he just traps them again and sends to be euthanized at animal control? I feel I don’t have any other choice but to give them a chance together in a new colony together with the cats they know. What are some other options as he will not listen to reason.

    • Deb says:

      Suzanne – this is an excellent question and quite frustrating to hear. Until I can get a better grasp of the situation, I recommend you reach out to Christine at Riverfront cats – her email is riverfrontcats@yahoo.com or contact Alley Cat Allies. If anyone reading this post has a suggestion, please let me know. I think what I need to do is get together some key people and put together a Feral Cat Forum page on Facebook so that we have a very quick and easy way for an informative Q & A. Thank you for inspiring that thought – I think it could be an invaluable and powerful tool.

  10. Nadbugs says:

    This is such an important post — for our communities and for me personally. Two years ago I took in a little cat — no idea whether he was feral or stray; had no idea there was a difference until your post — on blind ignorance and faith. While my little Bugs and I have some socialization issues (hard to tell sometimes who needs the socializing more, him or me) — how lucky I’ve been, I now see from this wonderful post, that Bugs has become the sweetie he continues to be.

    This is one case where ignorance has been bliss — but on the whole, I would prefer to be educated. THANK YOU. And also I want to thank the very wonderful Jackson Galaxy, another great teacher whose FaceBook post led me here.

    Thanks also to the cat blogosphere, I’m now about to drive 600 miles to adopt another rough-start guy, from Chrystal in Illinois — on the theory that if Bugs gets another calmer cooler cat to play with, all will be even more well than it is.

    All hail our animal-passionate community. It has made a new woman of me who felt so alone in the past. Again: THANK YOU.

    • Deb says:

      Nadbugs – thank you for your honest and heartfelt comment. I hope you will be able to see part two of the series – it really gives and even more useful approach, because it is hands on video footage of the cats. Having the support of Jackson Galaxy is so important to spreading the word about this very misunderstood topic.

      Bless you and all that you do for the kitties of the world!

  11. Kim&Mike says:

    We have been managing 3 small colonies of feral cats and it is such a wonderful feeling. We have also been able to distinguish the difference in a feral can and a stray cat quite well and am happy to say we have adopted and re-homed a total of 12 cats stray cats over the last year. They are such beautiful animals any they all deserve a chance at happiness – whether it be in their natural outdoors environment or if they tell you (through their actions) that they want to be domesticated and loved indoors with a family. These cats should absolutely NOT be removed from what they know as “home”. It is extremely dangerous for them, who knows what new predators may be lingering or whose property they may end up venturing off too. Not to mention new streets and territory to learn. This would be (in my opinion) the same as taking them to a kill shelter. Leave the cats where they are – feed them, manage them and go to bed at night feeling good to know that you are having a positive effect on another life.

    • Deb says:

      What a great story Kim & Mike – thank you so much for stopping by to share such a positive spin on all of this. You have really confirmed firsthand what I saw with my own eyes and you are a perfect example of why the decision to relocate the cats by Loews is so detrimental. I hope you will take a moment to voice your well thought out and heartfelt concerns to them.

  12. [...] and relocated. Michaels has been successfully managing a feral colony in Miami since 2009. Read Deborah’s account of her meeting with Michaels, and what she learned about feral [...]

  13. Bobbi says:

    Wonderful post and video! I’m thrilled at your efforts to educate people about feral cats. I have been caring for a feral cat colony for eight years, and it has brought me great joy. Great heartbreak too, when I lose one. My ferals are very skittish around strangers, and it took me quite a while to get them to trust me and come close (one cat took nearly a year before allowing me close enough to touch her) but after I gained that trust, they became *very* affectionate. Some purr louder than a car motor, some rub up against my legs, Petruce was a master at head-butting that was so forceful he nearly knocked me over on several occasions! Early each morning, I ride my bike down to the area where the cats live; I provide fresh water and dry and canned cat food. My arrival is met by Stripes, a gorgeous tabby with a lovely dark necklace low in her chest fur. She RUNS to me as soon as she sees me, and “heels” very close as we go to the feeding area. As I prepare food and water, she weaves in and out of my legs, purring up a storm. She loves to be petted, and will even allow me to pick her up – for a short time. It’s a marvelous way to start the day!

    If they need medical attention, I call the mobile pet vet and pay for tests, meds, etc.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment Bobbi – you know firsthand how wonderful these creatures really are and I commend you for taking care of your colony. It has been incredible for me to get such postive feedback from people who really understand the message I am trying to convey. I hope you can watch the videos in part two of the series – I give a hands on account of a day in a life of a feral that you will really relate to!

  14. [...] things you need to know about feral cats and suggestions as to how you can help, please visit The Mainstreaming of a Feral Cat on the Zee and Zoey blog. Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook Buzz it up [...]

  15. Rosemary says:

    Excellent website and video. Too bad the decision makers at Loews won’t listen to the facts.

  16. [...] Barnes has a fantastic three-part series about ferals and about the Loews issue on her blog. Part One introduces you to the world of the Loews cats, and feral cats in general; Part Two looks at ferals [...]