How to Start a Feral Cat Program

Most feral cat programs seem to start in a very grass-roots sort of way.  A group of concerned individuals get together and decide they want to help the homeless cats on a campus.  Impromptu feeding begins.  They begin to get a sense of the number of cats involved, and the number of other people interested in this opportunity.

If you want to introduce the idea of establishing an official feral cat program on your campus, you will want to handle your approach as professionally as possible.  Feral cat programs absolutely benefit campus, and education is the key.

I. Gathering data

  • What other groups in your area work with feral cats?  Don't know?  Contact Alley Cat Allies in Washington D.C. for a list of references and resources in your area.    In Texas, contact Feral Friends, Heart of Texas, KittiCo Cat Rescue.
  • Arm yourself with data on the proven effectiveness of Feral Cat Programs on other campuses.
  • Get brochures about TNR programs ready to distribute. (Contact sources above.)  Alley Cats Allies also has a brochure titled "Cats on Campus."
  • What are your "benchmark" or "operational" schools?  Do they have Feral Cat Programs?  "Keeping up with the Joneses" is alive and well among universities.
  • What foundation grants might be willing to fund other academic programs as well as a feral cat program?  They do exist!  In addition to our feral cat program, our foundation has funded both business programs and the history department.
  • What student organizations on campus would most likely support the program?  It depends on what majors your school offers, but in addition to any pre-vet programs, perhaps environmental clubs, faith-based groups, etc.  Does the Office of Student Life have a clearing house for volunteer opportunities.

II.  Prepare yourself

  • Find veterinarians or humane societies in your area willing to work with ferals.  Contact KittiCo Cat Rescue, if in Texas, for references and resources.
  • If your program will be a larger one, over 50 cats, you'll need some financial assistance.  Be prepared to offer your school a donation challenge:  Will the school match whatever funds you are able to raise via donation tables or grants?
  • Who should you initially meet with?  Go-green initiative people, Environmental concerns people, Office of Legal Affairs (in Texas, feral cat colonies are protected by law), Development (as it relates to outside grants)?  Very much depends on the organization structure of your school. 
  • Draft a mission statement.  Have your goals clearly defined in your mind.  What do you want to accomplish?  How do your goals specifically benefit campus?  Start small; let the momentum build.
  • What journalist on the local newspaper has proven to be animal-friendly over the years?  This is a perfect opportunity to educate both the campus and the broader community.  Journalists can be strong public opinion allies.

III.  Meet and Educate

  • Arrange to meet with willing campus administration.
  • Include a variety of job titles, alums, students, and community members, but keep the number of people present to a manageable level.
  • Do not refer to it as a "problem."  It's a situation you're concerned about and you've researched ways of addressing this concern by contacting other campuses.  This is an exciting opportunity for your campus to step forward with a "green" and eco-friendly solution.
  • Bring documentation of the effectiveness of feral cat programs and a list of other universities with programs.  Be creative and professional in your presentation.
  • Discuss the potential for grant revenue.
  • Explain the realities:  The cats will be there whether you have a feral cat program or not; that's just a fact of the ecosystem.  Administration must decide if they want to manage the situation or let it proceed unchecked.
  • Expect official campus support to take some time.  In the meantime, educate the public through the campus newspaper and/or the local newspaper.

IV.  Full steam ahead!

  • We knew when we organized an official university-support volunteer team, much would be expected of us.  It's possible to run a feral cat program on a shoe-string budget or to go all-out.  It's determined by your time, resources, and skills.
  • Talk to a manager of a local pet-food store or Walmart and see if you can get a discount if you buy in bulk.  Or consider getting bags of food that were torn in transit that the store cannot sell.  Be persistent.  Each "no" brings you closer to the "yes."
  • Use rubber tubs to cover food bowls.  Or see if someone has the carpentry skills to build more permanent wood shelters painted to blend in with the environment.
  • Contact a humane organization about purchasing Have-a-Heart humane traps.  Trapping instructions and tips are available on several of the websites linked above.
  • Collect old towels.  Cats in traps should always be covered.
  • An easily accessible storage space for traps, tubs, food, and cats recovering from surgery can be very helpful.  We share storage with Campus Police.  (When you keep cats in there, monitor the temperature closely.)
  • Gather your volunteers and discuss distribution of labor and needed tasks.  For example, we have 7 different volunteers to feed on their assigned night of the week, 1 to purchase and prepare the food in manageable baggies, 1 volunteer as a permanent floating substitute, 1 to gather and handle reimbursement requests, etc.
  • Train volunteers.  We use a webpage for our feeders.
  • Make friends.  Campus police and groundskeepers can be strong allies.  Just as you can be their eyes and ears, they can be yours.
  • Keep in mind that it's trial and error.  You'll learn as you go along.

V.  Spread the word

  • Did you get that article out in the newspapers?
  • We set up a donations and educational materials/awareness table outside our Student Center at least once a year.
  • Ask for university web space to organize, publicize, and educate.
  • Request a dedicated email address.  Ours is cats@smu.edu.
  • Attend feral cat conferences.  Get on email lists.

VI.  Common pitfalls to avoid

  • Even with administrative support, not everyone will be supportive of your efforts.  Try not to be antagonistic.  Feed at times when you are less likely to draw unwanted attention.  Keep cats and feeding stations away from high-traffic areas as much as possible.
  • Label all your supplies so that they're not picked up as trash by groundskeepers. 
  • Never leave traps unattended (crazy people and fire ants are everywhere), and never leave a cat in a trap for more than a few hours before the vet appt.  I usually trap about midnight, leave the trapped cat covered with a towel in the storage room overnight, and head out to the vet about 6 a.m.  Follow trapping guidelines suggested by Alley Cat Allies or KittiCo.
  • Alley Cat Allies recommends limiting feeding amounts to whatever they can consume in 30 minutes.  Leftover food attracts roaches and ants and is unsightly.
  • Know that "relocation" doesn't work.  Cats are very territorial and are usually hurt in efforts to return to their "home."  Moreover, relocation also creates the "vacuum effect":  other, unsterilized cats move in to fill the vacancy.
  • Determine the limits of your program, usually dictated by your skills and experience.  For example, UNT has a powerful adoption program run as stringently as any pet adoption humane society.  At SMU, only one of our volunteers has shelter adoption experience, so because of its many hidden pitfalls, we try to stay out of the adoption business.  Respect your limits.

VII.  Congratulate yourself!

  • It's easy to talk the talk when positing one's values and beliefs; it's much more challenging to actually walk the walk.  Congratulations for wanting to enact your humane philosophy, for embracing "green" initiatives, and for taking the politically correct step of protecting the environment.  Working with nature and the ecosystem is so much easier -- and more effective -- than fighting it.
  • While it's good for the campus, it's also personally beneficial:  It's an act of charity, it's good karma, it's a mitzvah.  Every religious faith values acts of this type.


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