Cats in the shadows

27th Mar, 2017

Written by Jenni Davies and photography by Strike a Pose Photography

You’re just leaving the shopping mall when you glimpse a graceful feline form slinking between the parked cars towards some dumpsters. You stop and see a small cat crouched in the shadows, watching you with huge, wild-looking eyes. Wanting a closer look, you approach but, with a flick of its elegant tail, the feral cat is gone before you can even blink.

What is a feral cat?

The word ‘feral’ refers to any domesticated animal which has become or was born and raised in the wild. Monique Friedland of Animal Allies explains that, “Feral, stray, and pet cats are all… the same species. But [they] are also different in a very important way: their relationship to and interactions with people...”

Feral cats are born to feral or pet/stray cats and have had little to no contact with humans. They live outdoors in colonies (anything from a handful to over 30 cats) wherever there’s food, shelter and hiding places, such as parks, shopping mall grounds, farms, and university campuses – and are highly territorial. They’re afraid of and actively avoid people – they’ll run away from you and won’t allow themselves to be petted – and are usually quiet (i.e. no meowing). If seen, it’s rarely during the day.

Conversely, strays are used to humans; they’ve become separated from people either by getting lost or being abandoned. They’re more likely to be seen during the day, allow themselves to be petted or even seek out people, meow and purr, and tend not to live in colonies initially.

Before ten weeks of age, wild-born kittens can be socialised; the older they get, the lower the likelihood that they’ll become pets. Semi-ferals are cats which are less people shy. Most are strays which ‘went wild’ to survive (some even join colonies), but some are born wild and, for no obvious reason, are just less feral. These can usually be rehabilitated and made part of a normal household.

Kitties at risk

Unfortunately, as successful as these beautiful animals are at living wild, they’re also at risk of sickness, injury, abuse, and early death. They breed very fast – cats can have kittens from the age of five months, at two to three litters per year.

The average lifespan in unmanaged colonies is around two years, although, with a dedicated caretaker, they can live much longer.

The main dangers are dog attacks; cars; humans who target them for abuse or try to kill them; illnesses like FeLV, FIV, Feline herpes and toxoplasmosis; and parasite infestations like worms, ticks, fleas and mites. All of these make life uncomfortable and downright dangerous for these small animals which have made the world outside their home.


It’s tempting to pity ferals and want to take them off the streets, but, in reality, this is impractical, ineffective and even unkind. While kittens and semi-ferals can be adopted, older ferals struggle. These cats grow up afraid of people and are used to being outdoors. Shutting them inside a house or animal shelter is unimaginably stressful for them – like putting a lion into a zoo. Euthanising (not something any animal lover wants to do) or trying to relocate the entire colony is ineffective in the long run. Once you remove the cats, new ones will soon come in – and the problem begins again.

So, what can we do? Currently, the best option is TNR – Trap-Neuter-Release/Return. This starts with a feeding programme to make it easier to catch them. The cats are then trapped, sterilised (simultaneously having their health checked and receiving vaccinations) and then returned to their colony once recovered from surgery. The colony’s caretakers continue looking after them; they get to know the cats in their area and notice if one is ill or disappears. The overall health of the cats improves and, over time, the colony slowly reduces in size as the breeding has been stopped. Smaller colonies equal better health for the cats in that colony.

One of the main complaints that people have about feral cats is that they make a noise, fight with pet cats, and cause the area to stink. However, all these issues can be resolved by sterilising them, especially the males. Ferals are quiet by necessity – it is only during mating season that they yowl and scream. Fighting may still occur sometimes, but is greatly reduced because the males no longer have to fight over mates. Furthermore, neutering reduces testosterone production and it is this hormone that causes the cats’ urine to smell strongly; the cats will also be less likely to ‘mark’ territory.

We humans have created the feral cat problem by allowing unrestrained breeding and providing environments for them to live in. It is our responsibility to help combat the problem – and to care for and provide the best lives possible for these secretive, beautiful animals.

Did you know?

When feral cats are sterilised, the tip of one ear is usually surgically clipped – known as ‘ear tipping’. This minor procedure allows people working with them to identify sterilised cats and avoid trapping the same cat twice (which is immensely stressful to them and wastes overloaded welfare resources).

Feral cats dos and don’ts

You’ve come across a feral cat colony. What Now? First find out if anyone is already looking after this colony. They may have a feeding and sterilisation programme going and offer your help; unwittingly interfering could cause setbacks. If nobody’s working on it already:

  • DO start a regular, consistent feeding programme but…
  • DON’T start feeding if you aren’t going to sterilise; the population grows according to food availability.
  • DO start trapping and sterilising ASAP (having a proper feeding programme in place will help in catching them). Contact animal welfares or chat to your local vets about the possibility of welfare rates.
  • DO speak politely and clearly to people living or working nearby so that they understand what you’re doing and why, and won’t interfere or try to remove the cats.
  • DON’T try to catch them by drugging their food; drugged cats could end up wandering off, half-asleep, and be hurt or killed.
  • DON’T just remove kittens without attempting to find and spay the mother.
  • DO ask for help, support, or advice from other groups (bearing in mind that their funds may be thin and all they can offer is advice), and rope in people in the vicinity.

Testimonial Story

The Bandit

Written by Jane Askew

Two years ago we had a series of break-ins. Let me describe the first one for you...

3.30 am. Pitch dark. I was awoken from a deep and glorious sleep by a sound that lifted the hairs on my arms. There was someone in the house, probably in the dining area, so quiet I could not hear the footfalls. But whoever it was had made a telltale sound on the table and must have knocked the cat’s food bowl. I was terrified to my core. Omigodomigodomigod. Think. Think. Exit strategies. Play dead in my bed so I won’t be killed? Climb onto the top of the cupboard? Yes. No. Maybe. Instead, I chose to surprise the intruder. Tiptoed down the passage. Turned on the light…

And there he was. Black as night. A snarl slashed across his cruel mouth. Caught in the act. At the cat bowl. Stealing a meal. He saw me, flowed off the table like water and vaulted out of the nearest window. 

A cat burglar indeed – but a furry one. Phew! We all lived to see another day. But he broke in again, as regularly as clockwork. All muscle, but terribly thin. And looking as if he’d been through the wars. Was that mange? Clearly very male, though. Very! He could have fathered a furry feral nation.

Time passed. We became used to his arrivals. Prepared his own bowl and left water. Bovril the Rottie even got involved. She was often found, as a co-conspirator, wagging her tail nearby. Until we arrived on the scene and Bovvie gave a few half-hearted woofs, at which the cat gapped it.

More time passed. We saw him in the garden more often. Settling in. Relaxed, but cautious. Filling out. Not so desperately thin. Coat shinier.

Then, some interesting new action out in the garden. A momma cat and three kittens… all with the same tip-tilted nose as our cat burglar. By this time, we were about to start packing to move to our new house. There was only one thing for it. We knew we had to take the family with us.

As it happened, our darling Maine Coon, Paddle (now playing in peace), was desperately ill at that time. The worst possible time. We were about to move, and he was battling with kidney cancer and a brain inflammation. We were at the Bryanston Vet Hospital, and met a very kind woman in reception. Turned out she and her partner are animal rescuers. Next thing, they’d brought their traps to the house, and we sat and watched until dadda, momma and three little kittens were caught. 

It was a difficult time: Paddle went to heaven and we moved house. Kind Ann and Gerard were feral kitty caretakers for us, ensuring that the newcomers were all sterilised, ear-clipped and comfortable.

When she brought them home to us, Ann assured us that the family was flourishing: “They’re all doing well. Kittens quite scared and sticking to momma, who is a true African wild cat. But your daddy cat is a complete pushover.” 

That wild-eyed, snarling burglar had calmed down into the gentlest, mildest, most trusting and loving little chap.

It has taken a good while, and the passing of a good few seasons, but love and patience have prevailed.

All but one of his ‘brood’ - previously spitting, snarling balls of feral fury - are tame and trusting. (Even the fierce African wildcat momma, now the fiercely loving Shanti.)

Bandy’s daughter, Missy, is still skittish, rebellious and wayward. She won't allow us to touch her. She comes home every night with a cut on her face or a small tear on her ear. But we take comfort in the fact that she comes home every night and sleeps on the couch.

Chapter two will be the calming of Missy. A story for another time.