Q: What's feral cat?
A: Feral cats in urban areas are usually the offspring of domestic cats that have grown up with limited human contact. They revert to their wild instinctive ways. Ferals are different from strays, which are domesticated cats, often someone’s pet, that have lost their way but still respond easily to humans.
There’s a window in which human contact is necessary (up to about 12 weeks) for a cat to have some ability to trust and respond to people. After this time, they may regard humans from a distance, but you can’t touch them or domesticate them. Campus cats fall on a wide continuum from those quickly hide at the sight of a human to those who will let you pet them and even rub up against you. Alley Cat Rescue prefers to call urban ferals community cats.
Q: How did all these cats get here?
A: Feral cats are common in areas with transient populations, such as apartment complexes and universities. Feral cats are the generational offspring of local unsterilized family pets abandoned and left to reproduce. The ecosystem of a university environment supports their proliferation: lots of food trash = rodents = cats. Plus, students and others will often feed scraps to the cats. This is why you can’t just remove all of them and solve the problem. There will always be more
Cats that move in. This is called the “vacuum effect.”
Q: Why don't you just call the SPCA to come and get these cats?
A: The SPCA and rescue organizations deal with adoptable, socialized animals. Feral cats are not house cats; they usually grow up wild or semi-wild. They do not tolerate being in enclosed environments, and many do not tolerate the proximity of humans. One time with the best of intentions, we attempted to trap and socialize our blind feral, Frankie. He would have none of it and ultimately was returned to his colony, where he continues to live out his days. These cats are not candidates for SPCA or rescue adoption programs.
Q: I've seen some pretty friendly ones. What about them?
A: Some of the campus cats have lived around students so long, they do become “socialized ferals.” The ones we evaluate as being adoptable, we try to place into homes. But we make that judgment very carefully, as the operative word is always “feral.” Some may be friendly in the campus courtyard, but ultimately not appropriate for house dwelling. That said, we have been successful with many kitten adoptions.
Q: Why don't you just exterminate them?
A: Extermination has been attempted by other campuses and at apartment complexes. It never proves to be a cost-effective, long-term solution. At one area college where this was tried, it created a public relations nightmare. Not only is it inhumane, but extermination creates the “vacuum effect.” Once you remove the managed and sterilized animals, unsterilized animals will move in to fill the gap ‒ after all, the first ones found it to be an attractive location ‒ and the process will start all over again. A TNR program* in a feral cat colony halts that process. It is also important to note that it is illegal to harm a cat ‒ any outside cat. Rodent control is a plus with a feral population. Texas A&M University Feral Cat Alliance of Texas is one of the nation’s best feral cat programs if you’d like to learn more about successful programs.
Q: Do they all really have names?
A: Yes, the vast majority of the cats have names and their own unique personalities. But it’s not that we think of them as pets ‒ they’re certainly not. The volunteers need to be able to distinguish one cat from another in conversation and documentation, and a name is easier than saying, “The tabby with the white tip on its tail.” We use names like Nala and Simba, Snowshoe, Gray Ghost and Tiffany.
Q: How many cats do we have on campus?
A: The woman who singlehandedly began the TNR process on campus before the formal program began vetted over 100 cats. Since the organized volunteer program took over in January 2005 and continued TNR, we have had a steady decline in numbers. We stand now at about 50 cats. Our goal is to manage the numbers through natural attrition and maintain as healthy an ecosystem as possible.
Q: Who takes care of them?
A: SMU has a team of volunteers ‒ the Feral Cat Group at SMU ‒ who feed, water, monitor and provide shelter and veterinary care for the campus cats, 365 days a year.
Q: How can I become a volunteer?
A: Email the Feral Cat Group at firstname.lastname@example.org - and read more about volunteer opportunities on our Volunteer page. The most effective volunteers are ones who live close to campus and who, for the most part, remain in the SMU area during holidays and breaks. But we have volunteers who live as far away as Fort Worth. So where you live doesn’t preclude volunteering.
*"TNR” = Trap-Neuter-Return (sometimes Trap-Neuter-Release). A universally recognized program of feral colony management that enables cats to remain in their chosen locations without reproducing. Texas A&M University Feral Cat Alliance of Texas is one of the nation’s best campus cat programs.