What is a cat colony?
A cat colony is a group of cats living together outside in the same area. A cat colony can be anywhere from a small handful of cats, to a large group of more than 100 cats. These free living cats are often persecuted by residents or councils, when in fact they are in desperate need of our help.
Are cats from cat colonies able to be rehomed as pets?
The short answer is no. Cats born on the street quickly develop the skills they need to survive. The main skill they need is a fear of humans. Kittens living in cat colonies can be rehomed if they can be caught before they reach 8 weeks of age in order to socialise them (for a helpful guide to socialising kittens please click here). Any older and they will be well on their way to developing an ingrained fear of humans which they may never overcome.
Adult cats trapped from cat colonies are almost always timid and socialising them to the degree required for rehoming is virtually impossible, except for over a long period of time. For this reason it is impractical, and often cruel to attempt to rehome them.
Instead we must regard cats living in colonies as already having a home. We must stop projecting our feelings onto them, and we must accept that they do not need or want the same things as domestic cats. They do not want to be handled, they don’t want to cuddle you, and they do not want to sleep in a human made bed. They are free living animals.
Accepting this does not make abandoning animals the right thing to do retrospectively, nor does it mean that we should encourage these cats to breed. But we know from decades of animal management experience that trap and kill programmes do not work, and it is certainly not humane. The only method proven to work is to implement desex and return programmes.
Where did they come from?
Cat colonies usually form in areas where people have abandoned undesexed cats who then congregate to breed, find food and shelter. Alternatively colonies can be created from an abandoned litter of kittens or a single undesexed female who will attract entire male cats when she goes on heat.
Female kittens can reach sexually maturity as young as 4 months of age and siblings will readily breed with each other. Without intervention an un-desexed female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 cats in only seven years. Of course, this is only in ‘ideal circumstances’. In a state of nature not all kittens will survive long enough to reach breeding age, nor does the environment have enough resources to support an unlimited number of individuals. But it is important to realise that what may start with a handful of cats may quickly become a colony of 30 if they are not desexed.
One of the best ways to prevent a cat colony from forming is to desex our pets. Undesexed cats are more prone to wandering, and readily mate with other cats in their neighbourhood. People living with male cats who are not desexed are more than likely contributing to the population of cat colonies.
What is the solution?
There is no perfect solution when it comes to colony or ‘free living’ cats, especially as these cats carry such a stigma and as a society we tend to react emotionally towards them. We either actively despise them, dispassionately regard them as vermin, or pity them but believe nothing can be done to help them.
The few who want to intervene are unfairly labelled as ‘cat ladies’ and seen by some agencies as misguided and bothersome. And although they are alleviating the immediate suffering of these cats, rarely do people who feed colonies consider ways to prevent the cats from breeding – mainly due to lack of resources and finances. However, we believe that instead of trying to discourage kind souls from feeding stray cats, that the community should consider instead how they can help to trap, desex and return these cats so they are no longer breeding. And also to remember, that the cats were there before the feeders – so they will survive and breed whether being actively fed or not. The only question remains…can you help them to survive, but not breed, and to lead happier, healthier lives?
In a never ending cycle of cruelty animal management, animal welfare and pest control services believe that the only solution to cat colonies is to round them up so they can be killed. However this never truly works, and every year the same colonies re-emerge and the killing starts all over again.
So, is there a solution? One that will not only prevent the cats from breeding, set their population into decline, satisfy animal management, and improve the quality of life for each individual animal? Trap, desex and return (TDR) programmes have been proven to do all these things, and it is the only known long term solution to cat colonies.
TDR is not just for ‘animal lovers’; in fact many people who care for the welfare of animals have to first be shown it is the only humane option. TDR is also about animal management and reducing populations of cat colonies. Trap and kill programmes do not work for two reasons. Firstly, because one or two cats usually escape being caught (something which rarely happens in community managed TDR programmes) who then repopulate the colony back to its original numbers.
Secondly, colonies form in areas where there is shelter and a food source independent of someone feeding them – the food had to have been there to sustain the colony prior to being discovered and supported by a human. If this area suddenly becomes vacant undesexed cats from surrounding areas will quickly move in. Each environment can sustain a certain animal population, which will always breed to this capacity.
Although it is not often supported by councils or animal welfare organisations, TDR is practiced by forward thinking and caring people all around Australia. It is also practiced around the world, especially in the US, where it is widely regarded as the number one form of stray cat management.
Why does Trap, Desex, Return work?
When you begin desexing cats in a colony you will be instantly amazed. Firstly, by the improvement of the individual animal’s health, the elimination of antisocial behaviours such as spraying and fighting, and the change in the community’s attitude towards them. Secondly, you will witness the results of a long term and effective strategy for reducing the population of stray animals. No new animals will be born into the colony and the numbers will naturally decline. All the while the territory will be maintained so no new un-desexed cats will move in.
Trap, desex and return is an animal management programme implemented all over the world, particularly in the US and throughout Europe. Although it is not officially recognised in Australia, many individuals and organisations practice it, not just because it is a humane alternative to killing animals, but because it is the only tried and true way of managing and reducing stray populations.
TDR works primarily because cats are territorial animals and stray cats congregate in areas where there is a source of food and shelter. The food source is usually bins, rubbish left on the street and rats, and not the bowls of cat food left out by kind hearted individuals. Areas that have both food and shelter are hard to find and cats will compete for this territory, so as soon as they are trapped and removed, new cats from the area will quickly move in. A council ranger could spend a life time trapping and killing cats in a colony but will never successfully rid the area of cats. All the while they will continue to breed, so more animals are added to the population on top of those being abandoned. Cats who are desexed will continue to maintain their territory, so by trapping, desexing and returning them you will effectively controlling the population.
In addition to this, undesexed cats display a host of antisocial behaviours such as spraying, fighting and excessive vocalisation. Many people who complain about cat colonies do so because of this, and understandably so. Pet cats can be attacked by undesexed males, the noise at night can make sleeping difficult, and cars and yards are often sprayed because they fall into a colony’s territory. Fortunately all these problems can be remedied through desexing as they are all caused by the flood of hormones which occurs once a cat reaches sexual maturity. Desexed colony cats behave much like domestic pets (aside from their fear of humans) and their health will also greatly improve.
Aside from the animal management perspective, TDR also addresses animal welfare concerns. Cats who live in colonies often have health issues related to fighting and breeding. The stress of continuous breeding is very pronounced and will reduce an animal’s immune system making it hard for them to cope with any other illnesses that an otherwise healthy adult cat would be able cope with. When you desex and return a cat into a colony the change in their physical condition is remarkable.
Some people do express concern about colony cats living an outdoor existence. It is true that their chances of being hit by cars is greatly increased compared to a cat living in a domestic environment. But we must accept that TDR is a far lesser of two evils; and that in exchange for freedom and an improved quality of life the associated risks, on balance, are to be preferred. Cats born on the street are also generally ‘street smart’ and have learnt to minimise such threats.
Colony Management: What does it involve?
As well as implementing a trap, desex and return programme, colony management involves a number of other aspects. This primarily involves feeding the cats and monitoring their health and environment.
Many people mistakenly believe that by feeding a cat colony you are just encouraging them to remain in the area. This is simply not true. The cats are already there and they have nowhere else to go. No one, least of all the colony manager or volunteers wants them to be there, but they are and this has to be dealt with in the best way possible. By feeding the cats you are stopping them from scavenging and limiting their interest in hunting (although the vast majority of colonies exist in built up areas, shopping centre and fast food car parks, and train stations where very few other animals live). It also ensures that they have a regular and healthy, balanced diet which they cannot get from rubbish scraps and fast food.
Properly managed cat colonies are the best solution for cat lovers and cat haters alike as desexed and regularly fed cat colonies are rarely seen by anyone other than the feeders. Free living cats are frightened of humans, and are only visible when they are starving or have kittens.
Aside from monitoring the health of the colony it is also very important to monitor the health of the environment. Don’t leave plastic plates lying around or bowls of green water. The accumulation of litter makes the cats more visible and they will be held responsible for the untidy appearance of the area. Additionally, rotting food scraps and left over plates will attract rats (or give the appearance of doing so, which is enough for some people) and promote sickness. Always bring a plastic bag with you and do a quick clean up at feeding time.
As well as regular feeding, colony management also involves liaising with local residents and/or businesses to explain what you are doing and the benefits to the community. People who see you regularly feeding or trapping will begin to wonder what is happening and may approach you out of curiosity. From experience, the overwhelming majority of people are overjoyed to have someone taking care of the situation (CatRescue has countless stories of this), and some may even be willing to help. Most people living or working near a colony don’t resent the cats but simply do not understand what can be done. They have probably trained themselves to ‘look the other way’ because it saddens them and they worry that the only course of action is to ring council and have the animals destroyed. Something not many people are willing to be involved with.
But when you present these people with a humane and sustainable solution, they are often too happy to be involved, or at the very least endorse what you are doing. It is incredibly heart warming to hear people dressed in suits on their way home from work regale you with stories about their own rescue cat or the stray cat they are feeding at home. Remember that the cat colony needs you to represent them, so always approach people politely and professionally. If you stumble across the rare person who disagrees don’t react defensively, instead listen to their point of view and try to make a case not from an animal welfare perspective but from population control.
If the colony is either wholly or partly on private property (such as an industrial estate), you will also need to obtain the permission of the property owner or manager to be allowed to conduct a TDR initiative as well as to feed. From experience, most businesses and individuals are happy to have someone helping the cats. Before approaching anyone prepare what you are going to say in your mind. Also, be willing to leave them with a phone number or email address is case they need to contact you.
What is and who is a Colony Manager or Carer?
Colony managers and carers are individuals who have implemented (or are beginning to) a TDR programme and have also committed to providing the cats they return with food and ongoing support. Other colony carers have not desexed the cats in their colony and are simply feeding them. They would like to desex the cats but are on their own and sadly don’t know how to access the resources they need to do so.
A colony manager or carer is a hero. But they are also you and me. There are no groups in Australia dedicated to helping cat colonies and their carers, and unfortunately TDR is not yet officially recognised or supported by animal management authorities. Some rescue groups help here and there as they can, but as things stand, there are too few people with the willingness and resourcefulness to pitch in. All this can change with you. TDR is a grass roots movement of people who care about the animals in their community and want to stop the seemingly endless cycle of breeding and killing. If everyone played a small part in this movement the problem would quickly be overcome.
How can you help?
Anyone caring for a colony on their own desperately needs help. Even if it’s just help with feeding one day a week, or when the primary carer is sick or away. For other colonies, they may require a small group to help with trapping the cats for desex and return.
There a number of ways you can help an individual who is attempting to implement a TDR programme. If you are unable to assist with trapping, perhaps you could offer to drive the cat to and from a local vet. Or perhaps you could contact different rescue groups to secure help with covering the cost of desexing the cats, or to recruit volunteers to join a feeding roster. Ideally each colony should have a small group of feeders who could each feed one day a week (or every second day).
If you would like to help, but are unable to physically do so, you could donate a cat trap (you can buy them quite cheaply on eBay), or donate cat food. Depending on their size, cat colonies can require large amounts of cat food. You could even spend $50 or $100 on cat food and have it delivered via online shopping to an address provided by one of the colony carers.
If you would like to help with a local colony, please send an email to email@example.com with the subject Cat Colony – Offer to Help. And please state the areas you would be willing to help with, what type of help you would like to offer, and of course your contact details. If we know of a Colony Carer in the area you have mentioned, we will pass on your details so they can get in direct contact with you.
If you are a colony carer and would like help, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Cat Colony – Help Needed. And please include your contact details, and the suburb of the colony. And then if we have anyone contact us offering to help in your area, we will send you’re their contact details so you can get in direct contact with them. Please be advised that unfortunately we do receive a lot more requests for help that offers of help. But we will do our best to put people offering help in touch with people needing help.
For more information how Colony Management and how to conduct a Trap, Desex, Return project, we recommend the following guide form a US Based advocacy group Alley Cat Allies: http://www.alleycat.org/page.