Shelters’ Feral Cat Policies are Indicative of Their Commitment to Lifesaving

A shelter policy which requires workers to determine whether a cat is feral upon impound is inconsistent with best practices. A cat impounded by a shelter is often going to behave in a fearful and defensive manner, to varying degrees, which doesn’t mean he is a wild cat but rather that he is behaving normally for his species under the circumstances. And many, many owned cats are not microchipped so the lack of a chip in no way suggests a cat is feral. Further, when a shelter takes the stance that cats deemed feral are deserving of nothing except death, there is needless killing – sometimes of feral cats, other times of owned pets who have been misidentified by staff.

Today is National Feral Cat Day and while the outlook remains gloomy in regressive killing facilities and communities which harass colony caregivers, there are signs of hope for feral cats, sometimes in unlikely places.

  • Lake Norman Realty in NC has a TNR program for local community cats and is hosting a fundraiser to benefit its Lucky Cat program today.
Photo from the UPAWS Barn Buddies webpage.
Photo from the UPAWS Barn Buddies webpage.

It’s great to see the general public supporting feral cats and their right to live. What would be even better is to see more shelters doing their jobs and protecting dogs and cats, including ferals.  Shelters such as UPAWS in Michigan not only provide humane care for feral cats brought to the shelter, they adopt them out via their “Barn Buddies” program.  The neutered and vaccinated cats are placed as outdoor “rodent control technicians” for a $10 fee.

Is your local shelter or anyone in your community doing anything special for free-living cats on National Feral Cat Day? Tragically, my local shelter is just doing the usual: killing. Or to put it more accurately, killing and trying their best to hide their actions from the public. If only shelters such as this put as much effort into saving lives as they do into ending them and hiding the evidence, we might truly be able to celebrate feral cats today instead of having to beg for their right to live.

Shelter directors should consider protecting feral cats as part of their jobs – specifically:

  • Allowing newly impounded cats a quiet period of adjustment before assessing their status
  • Neutering, vaccinating and returning truly feral cats to their outdoor lives
  • Taming kittens born to feral mothers and offering them for adoption
  • Partnering with the community in order to provide foster care and to maintain feral cat colonies

If directors refuse to do their jobs, they should be replaced by compassionate people who will.  In the interim they should not be allowed to accept any cat they are determined to kill and instead be required to direct concerned citizens to animal groups willing to provide humane care.   In too many cases, shelter directors’ policy on feral cats results in a violent and permanent betrayal of the animals the facility is supposed to be protecting.

We have a long way to go in terms of shelter reform. How shelters treat feral cats is indicative of their commitment to lifesaving. These are animals who pose unique challenges in handling and care, who are unlikely to generate much, if any, adoption revenue and who some people consider to be nuisance wildlife. When an animal shelter isn’t fighting to protect these cats from harm, it reflects a fundamental mission failure.


20 thoughts on “Shelters’ Feral Cat Policies are Indicative of Their Commitment to Lifesaving

  1. I have some qualms about the feral cat. . .
    I live in northern alberta. We too have a “barn buddies” program. However, this program is geared towards saving “un-adoptable” cats – cats who are pets but have demonstrated an inability to house-train. These cats are often free to anyone who promises to provide a heated shelter, veterinary care if necessary, and food regardless of whether the cat catches his own dinner or not. Most of these ex-house cats turn to mousing readily, and even those that are poor mousers often deter rodents with their presence (those marking behaviors that got them kicked out of the house, actually are beneficial here).
    True ferals are often euthanized before they even reach the shelter.
    I want them to live. I would like it if we as a whole could stop killing cats.
    But what are our options here in the Cold North? TNR is cruel here, I’ve seen that firsthand in a feral cat colony who had no human care-takers. While the cats were active and healthy all summer long, they died a miserable protracted death in the winter where -20 temps are common. Most developed frostbite, some even suffered gangrene. Roughly one in four cats survived the winter. Later, when they were trapped and removed from the property, the oldest cat proved to be only four years old. There had been a colony at that location for /years/, but because all the cats were too wild to approach, and predominately orange, too difficult to tell apart, people assumed the colony was healthy. Without the ability to reproduce, this cat colony would never have existed – TNR would only have ensured that all the cats eventually died of exposure.
    I have been thinking about petitioning the shelter to extend the “barn buddies” program to include feral cats, which are not specifically “forbidden” but more “unofficially screened out”. But the success of this program depends on the experiences of the adopters, who mostly receive friendly, affectionate cats who can be picked up, petted, and carted to the vet for yearly vaccines. Most adopters are not looking for a feral cat, and do not have the commitment or the resources necessary to tame one.
    The shelter is trying hard to convince people that rescuing a cat in need is preferable to picking up that free kitten off of kijiji, and that there are all kinds of benefits to adoption, even if you’re only looking for a good mouser to keep the mice out of the garage.
    Feral cats are a tough sell.

    1. Agree with db – sounds like an issue of colony maintenance (regarding shelters). My ferals get two inch thick insulated boxes inside their shelter in the winter along with a thick layer of straw to help with insulation/tracked in snow. Just feeding/watering isn’t properly maintaining a colony in any weather conditions – shelter and vet care is part of the package.

      If the good people of Spartanburg Animal Control can help educate locals and local business owners about the benefits of maintained ferals, I’ll bet you can, too. Sure, shelter needs in Alberta are different from shelter needs in South Carolina, but with changes made for the winter, it can be done.

      1. Just thought I’d add, there are a lot of resources on-line for build-your-own cat shelters, from ones that require some carpentry experience to ones made of two nested foam boxes, glued together and filled with straw. Just search around; the search terms I used were ‘how to make insulated shelter for feral cats’.

    2. A fellow Canadian here concerned about this and related issues – There is good info about TNR: Please see Mike Fry’s video about doing TNR, even in cold, remote locations – TNR for Community Cats & More –

      Feral cats are now often referred to as community cats and there are grants available for TNR for them (see PetSmart Charities Canada, but try and speak with those who’ve received successful grants before because only proposals with a good chance at success will likely win a grant. You will need to work with an established group OR a municipality to receive funds. An equipment grant is also available.)

      TNR’d feral/community cats are healthier than intact cats, and make better use of their food resources, so the condition of the intact cats you heard of is not surprising but should not be used to judge what a managed colony will be like. If your local SPCA does not do TNR, they are not an expert on it.

      A growing number of cities, animal control and groups are doing TNR, including areas that have cold winters. MEOW Foundation in Calgary does some TNR as well as adopting out feral cats (rated for degree of feralness), though I think that would be a tough sell in many places and compete with more adoptable cats.

      You can connect with Canadian groups in the Facebook group – Canada’s TNR Network – for TNR groups and colony caretakers –

      See Files section in above group for reference info on TNR.

      Second Chance Pet Network in Dryden in Northern Ontario does TNR – (my parents used to live and work near Dryden and can confirm it’s very cold there in winter) –

      Because animals do not behave normally in shelter settings, even experts have a difficult time telling if a cat is feral at first.

      If we want everyone in our community to value their pets and community cats, we must get our cities, animal control and SPCAs to demonstrate leadership and stop treating animals like they are disposible. The Nova Scotia SPCA is on board and following this set of progressive programs and services that is proving to create no-kill communities –

      Hope this helps. Best wishes.

  2. Feral cats are a tough sell, for many reasons. But, as the caregiver of a small colony, they give me great pleasure and I keep them safe, as healthy as possible and well-fed. They are deserving of life as much as any other being.
    With that said, the problem you talk about with the cats freezing to death in the winter, seems to be more a problem of caregiving than anything else. If these ferals were provided shelter and a regular source of food and water and ear-tipped to ensure that they were vetted and neutered, they would have a much better chance of living than if they were simply put back out to make it on their own.
    My heart breaks for all the cats who are killed in supposed “shelters” and “humane” societies. Thanks for bringing this to light on this day, especially.
    Community cats have value!

    As an aside, I read yesterday on a facebook page of a Detroit rescue that, in one of the tougher parts of the city, there were folks who were baiting cats with poison food and then beating them to death when they came to eat. And Michigan Humane Society refused to do anything about it. That tells me a whole lot about MHS. Another big money organization that really doesn’t care about the animals they are supposed to serve.

    1. This colony had “shelter”, in the form of abandoned buildings that were at least insulated, and myself and others often brought them food & water, but it gets COLD here. Really, really, frickin’ cold. There are weeks I barely poke my head out the door, and days where I have to come in and warm up while shoveling my walk despite the fact all my gear is rated for at least -25. I guess, after seeing that colony, I no longer believe that feral cats can survive Canadian winters like the other wildlife. And if they cannot, does their right to live include the right to freeze to death in the winter?

      IMHO, feral cats are ignored, glossed over, and marginalized by rescue societies in Canada, because most, like me, believe that feral cats are not capable of surviving a Canadian winter with any quality of life. Some of the softer ones try to blur the line between a non-affectionate, shy cat and a semi-tame feral cat, the harsher ones weed them out ruthlessly because they are “feral” and can’t be “rescued” anyway. Most do not even publicly acknowledge that feral cats exist, any cat without an owner or identification is a “stray”. “Strays” with behavior problems? Un-adoptable and check.

      How would you go setting up a program to “save” feral cats, when providing a heated space for the cats is an absolute necessity? In my case, this cat colony was “off-the-grid” and rural enough that the cost of providing heating for these cats was economically not feasible, even without delving into things like the ownership of the property.

      1. “How would you go setting up a program to “save” feral cats, when providing a heated space for the cats is an absolute necessity? ”

        The buildings you describe are great for keeping out wind/rain and really fantastic to have, but not so good for holding in heat. It’s like trying to warm yourself with a candle in a walk-in freezer…

        What you need in a situation like that is “heat boxes” – made of styrofoam at least 2 inches thick (thicker, if you can manage it – also with mylar blankets lining the interior), large enough for several cats to gather together to share body heat and about 2 feet high on the interior. Entries/exits are at floor level and inside is filled with about 14 inches of clean straw. Because the entries are low, the heat is trapped above, so even cats coming and going will not take much heat with them. The straw helps insulate and dry out feet/bellies because cold is deadly, cold and wet is deadly fast. Cats that can get both warm AND dry have a much better chance of survival.

  3. I was pleasantly surprised to find an article up on the county ACC’s website about community cats and TNR, and how their policy is now to facilitate spay/neuter and return them.

    Last I’d heard was this summer, when the local community cat organization pulled all the cats from the ‘feral room’ at the shelter. They finally posted about it on their website:

    Here’s hoping this turnaround sticks.

  4. It’s horrible for a cat to suffer and die in such cold weather. It breaks my heart. I would rather see them humanely PTS if no warm barn with a caretaker is available. I don’t live in a town where I feed a colony of 4, brothers and sisters, another cat here, 2 there, another there, and if I ever see a new kid on the block, try to feed it and establish a feeding area for it like for the 1 I have at work where i work part-time. If I come across a kitten i will try to catch regardless of how long it takes which could take hours and it goes to the local no kill if possible shelter. It will get tested then go to a foster if available. Not enough homes, barns or fosters. I am only 1 person and I’m not rich. Right now the money in the bank needs to last until Friday. I do this by myself, my time, my money. I can’t even take care of myself. I can’t stand to see a cat dumpster diving or looking for morsels in parking lots and during hot and cold times worry about fresh water for them. There is a TNR program but I could die tomorrow or be hospitalized then who would take care of the cats that I have been feeding for years? A woman said there’s mice and birds. Are you serious? The 4 I have been feeding since they were in their mommas belly. Then new mouths to feed after TNR. I would rather see a no doubt feral be humanely PTS than to be hungry, get trapped in a dumpster and get dumped in a garbage truck, get injured and suffer and possibly die on the streets and then there’s the people who don’t want them around. The solid black siblings and momma to the 4 have been missing for years. Then there’s the wildlife I and the cats have to fight so the cats can eat. To me there is nothing positive about TNR unless there is a safe haven, caretaker and, 1 for a backup. The shelter offers me nothing and it is not a poor shelter.

    1. Sheila, sounds like the shelter is of no use to you, then.

      I would reach out to local rescue groups – they usually know who is trapping and TNRing in the area. It would be great if you could find someone as a back up for your colony. And they may be able to help you with resources, too. I know that when I happened upon a SPECTACULAR deal on cat food (Wellness dry, all varieties for $1.50 a BAG for no apparent reason one day at PetCo – all more than a year from expiration, not recalled, nothing, they were just trying to move out stock for a label change or something), I contacted a local rescue group to find if anyone doing TNR needed food. They hooked me up with a responsible colony caretaker who was VERY grateful for the donation of so many bags of food. I’ve also built shelters for people who had cats they feared for in the winter…

      Doing it alone without support can get overwhelming. Reach out. Ask rescue groups. Ask on freecycle (folks in need ask for cat/dog food regularly on mine). There are discussion groups like that can offer ideas/support. But don’t go it all alone. You don’t have to.

  5. Mikken, thank you ! There are 2 women volunteers and the director at this shelter know of my situation. The shelter does have an animal control officer/vet asst that can see any of my street cats for medical if needed but for serious issues the vet is only there on Tuesdays. Those 2 women are the TNRers. Sometimes I trap too. It’s hard when I sleep in the day and work evenings but that’s when the cats are out and it works for me sort of but they have come through a few times for me. I know the wal-mart and Kroger gives them damaged bags but they feed a TNR colony there at the shelter and what a nice area it is too. I’ll check with the petco and others in that town to find out about damaged food and clearance. I will mix with the food I feed to last longer and not tear up cats systems. The raccoons drive me nuts ! I recently met a woman who has a colony. I’ll try to get with her to find out if she supports out of her own pocket too. Yes, I do get overwhelmed at times, mostly tired. My job causes a lot of stress and other things but my life is these cats and the 1’s at home. Guess I’ll be known eventually as the old lady with all the cats. Lol Thanks again !

  6. We have made shelters for a colony of cats, 20 plus cats. Bales of straw, inside is padded with straw. boards on top of strawbales, then tarp the shelter.It keeps the elements out and the cats do buddy up to keep warm. We have also made shelteres out of cedar. Got business to approve us putting them on their property and filled with straw.

  7. Cats are amazing creatures and find shelter and food. Ive seen them build dens. They have their own society amongst a colony. They will help each other survive. We cannot protect them against predators either and i have watched a kitten from a litter i was trapping taken by a hawk not more than 10 feet from me. Ive even seen a small dog taken from our feet at a BBQ by an owl 40 ft up into a tree. But one day of life is better than none forever. The best we can do is to keep future generations from being born homeless. TNR works.

  8. Rodent control technician…I will use that along with community cats. Thank you – no comments on the side anymore?

    1. Another reader noticed the same thing about the disappearance of the comments on the sidebar yesterday. I didn’t see it myself (b/c I was offline) but it looks ok to me now. Does it to you?

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