Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A feral cat is a cat which has been separated from domestication, whether through abandonment, loss, or running away, and become wild. The term also refers to descendants of such cats, but not to Wild Cats, whose ancestors were never domesticated. Feral cats usually cannot be re-socialized. Feral kittens, however, can be socialized to live with humans if they are taken from a feral colony before they are about twelve weeks old.
Feral cats may live alone, but are usually found in large groups called feral colonies with communal nurseries, depending on resource availability. Many abandoned pet cats join these colonies out of desperation; these cats can usually be readopted into a new home. The average lifespan of a feral cat that survives beyond kittenhood is usually less than two years while a domestic housecat lives an average of sixteen years or more.
In the United States
Cityscapes and North America are not native environments for the cat; the domestic cat comes from temperate or hot, often dry, climates and was distributed throughout the world by humans. Although cats are somewhat adaptable, feral felines are unable to survive in extreme cold and heat, and with a need for a diet of 90% protein, few cats find adequate nutrition on their own. In addition, they have no defense against or understanding of such predators as dogs, coyotes and even automobiles.
The current thinking in the United States is that "trap, spay or neuter, and release" is the most humane way to deal with a feral cat population estimated to be twenty to forty million. Thousands of volunteers and organizations try to help these felines, who evoke the concearn and pity of animal lovers. Inoculation against rabies and feline leukemia virus and application of long-lasting flea treatments before release is common. Sometimes, the attending veterinarian nips the tip off one ear to mark the feral as spayed/neutered and inoculated, as these cats will more than likely find themselves trapped again. Volunteers often continue to feed and give care to these cats throughout their lives. Many would like to do more, but most fully feral cats are unadoptable.
The "trap, spay/neuter, release" program is considered the most efficent way to deal with the problem for several reasons. From the perspective of the cat, they get better quality and more food both from food provided by humans and reduced competition for natural sources, and are protected from the most devastating diseases. From the human perspective, the problem is gradually eliminated because the cats cannot reproduce. Behavior and nuisance problems due to competition for food and mating activities are immediately reduced.
Re-release is an essential part of the program because cats are territorial. If the feral colony is extinguished, other feral cats will move in to replace them and the problem continues. If the colony is re-released, they will guard their territory and prevent other colonies from moving into the area.
There is no doubt feral cats harm other species. While control of rats, mice, and other rodents is a cat activity humans support, feral cats kill songbirds and other birds. Some estimate the bird loss at over two hundred million a year. And as an introduced (nonnative) species, feral cats compete with raptors and other species for food, disrupting the natural balance. Some people have suggested feral cats should be hunted to immediately reduce the feral cat problem. 
October 16 is National Feral Cat Day in the United States.
Feral cats have been present in Australia since European settlement, and may have arrived with Dutch shipwrecks in the 17th century. Intentional releases were made in the late 19th century in the hope that cats would control mice, rabbits and rats.
The feral cat has been an ecological disaster in Australia, inhabiting most ecosystems except dense rainforest, and being implicated in the extinction of several marsupial and placental mammal species. (Cats are not believed to have been a factor in the extinction of the only mainland bird species to be lost since European settlement, the Paradise Parrot; their role in the loss of rare species on Australasian islands, however, has been significant.)
Control programs are difficult to devise due to the nocturnal and solitary nature of the cat, broad distribution in the landscape and continuous additions to the population from abandoned domestic cats. Due to the danger posed to human handling the animal, captured feral cats are almost always terminated. No program for spaying and neutering, akin to that in the United States exists in Australia.
Rome, Italy is perhaps the place with most feral cats, the total number being estimated between 250,000 and 350,000, organized in about 2,000 colonies, some of them living in famous ancient places such as the Colosseum.
Feral cats and island restoration
Feral cats introduced to islands with ecologically naive fauna (that is, species that have not evolved or have lost predator responses for dealing with cats) have had a devastating impact on these islands' biodiversity. They have been implicated in the extinction of several species and local extinctions, such as the huitas from the Caribbean and the Guadalupe Storm-petrel from Pacific Mexico. Moors and Atkinson wrote, in 1984, "No other alien predator has had such a universally damaging effect." Given the damage they do, many conservationists working in the field of island restoration (literally restoring damaged islands through removal of introduced species and replanting and reintroducing native species) have worked to remove feral cats. As of 2004, 48 islands have had their feral cat populations removed, including New Zealand's network of offshore island bird reserves (Nogales et al, 2004). Larger projects are also being planned, including their removal from Ascension Island.
Unlike novelty pets which are often discarded upon reaching adulthood, most feral cats are discarded as kittens. This is because cats breed rapidly and have large litters, and often their owners do not have the capacity or desire to care for a large number of cats.
Feral cats live in horrible conditions, living short, dangerous, unhealthy, desperate lives. Like any uninoculated mammal species, there is a risk they will develop rabies and pose a threat to human health.
Because of the dangers to humans, other species, and the cats themselves, and out of compassion toward the animals, many people, including celebrities such as Bob Barker, campaign to encourage people to spay and neuter their pets and support the humane control of feral cats.
- Moors, P.J.; Atkinson, I.A.E. (1984). Predation on seabirds by introduced animals, and factors affecting its severity.. In Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. Cambridge: ICBP. ISBN 0-946888-03-5.
- Nogales, Manuel et al (2004). A review of feral cat eradication on islands. Conservation Biology. 18 (2), 310-319. 
- Defenders of Wildlife. Plight of the Vanishing Songbirds
- Australian Department of Environment and Heritage fact sheet on feral cats
- Australian Department of Environment and Heritage: Overview of the impact of feral cats on native fauna (pdf)
- Wisconsin State Journal: Proposal would make feral cats fair game
- Ascension Island Government: Ascension Island Restoration
- lovethatcat.com: List of US spay & neuter programs
- Alley Cat Allies Feral Cat Resource - provides information about how to deal with feral cats humanely.
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