The great cat debate


Jessica Long and her friend Ginny plod through the grass and palmetto behind Bonnie Wilson's trailer in central Florida. Bonnie is well known in the area for collecting numerous strays and orphaned animals of all types.

Jessica Long and her friend Ginny plod through the grass and palmetto behind Bonnie Wilson's trailer in central Florida. Bonnie is well known in the area for collecting numerous strays and orphaned animals of all types.

Bonnie owns the property in the back all the way to the state park next to her property and has generously allowed the local trap neuter and release group to release cats at the back of her property.

And so the two proceed with blue cat carriers suspended from their arms. Inside the carriers are three recently neutered tomcats and a newly spayed female calico. On the outside suspended from the carrier carrying the calico are some blue plastic bags containing cat food purchased from Wal-Mart. Their excitement intensifies as they approach the colony. Jessica has been here many times before, but this is Ginny's first time. As the grass opens to an area of brush along a small waterway, Ginny can see various plastic colored food dishes strewn about 15 feet from the water. Cats of all sizes scurry away to the shelter of brush and palmetto. Mysteriously, there are a few seemingly friendly cats waiting close by that do not seem alarmed at the approach of humans.

Jessica plops the carriers down and opens the doors. The gray male quickly exits and departs to the undercover in a low paddling crouch so typical of cats with little human contact. The orange male and the striped male are second out and both nose around wanting to be fed. These two are obviously used to people. The female calico cowers in the back of her carrier and tries to inflate her size and potential for human harm with loud spitting sounds interrupted by guttural growls. Jessica knows better than to reach her hand inside to coax her out knowing the back of her hand would be in ribbons. The calico emerges carefully and darts away-an orange and black blur.

The release

Ginny watches excitedly as some of the cats scurry and slink their way into the shadows of the early morning. Suddenly she notices something peculiar. Other than the muted sounds of the undercover felines, the place is unusually quiet. She also notices that among the scattered dishes are the partial carcasses of various small creatures. She leans down and sees bones and feathers. As a member of the local Sierra Club she suddenly realized that she is on the horns of a dilemma.

"What about the impact these cats have on the nearby park bird communities?" she asks.

Ginny looks up and seems confused by the question. It is apparent that this issue had seldom surfaced in the group of friends she usually talked to. She was forced to think and respond.

"There are so many birds out there-what difference could these precious cats make? The most important thing is that none of these cats have to suffer at the hands of man or be euthanized. Besides now that they are neutered, they won't have to suffer needlessly fighting and having litters. It is obvious that this is the greater good," Ginny intoned.

Ginny was surprised and proud that she could wax philosophical on such short notice. She felt warmed by her own words.

The two crusaders now needed to get back to Barb's clinic. Barb is the cooperating veterinarian and is also an active and vocal member of the TNR group in the area. She also gives most of her friends in the group a huge discount on professional services. This has helped attract a lot of new and often marginal members to the group.

Something smells

On the way back, they intend to stop at Bonnie's to talk and have coffee. As they approach her trailer various cages and animal enclosures appear in the back of the property with a menagerie of various pets from rabbits to goats. Some are thin. Inside Bonnie greets them from the current campaign with a hearty slap on the back and an offer of coffee and breakfast. Ginny notices a foul odor and only then realizes the number of cats inside the dimly lit trailer. Bonnie is eager to talk.

"You folks have been a blessing," Bonnie gushed. "I couldn't really keep up with all my cats till y'all came along to help me move most of 'em way off to the end of the property. I get a few new ones coming in still, but it has cut way back. Some of my friends and even people I don't even know are now dropping them off where you folks were this morning. Some say they take the short cut from the park or just drop 'em off at the park knowing they will find their way on over to the colony."

"I know it seems very successful," Jessica remarked.

Ginny now notices the conditions that Bonnie's cats are in-many have swollen eyes and almost all of them have an occasional cough. Many have a sort of mild wheezy sneeze.

"Are your cats ok?" Ginny asks.

"They seem fine to me but I take 'em to Barb's clinic and she says a lot have sinus infections and a few have leukemia and AIDS. I treat them and they get better but a few die every month or so. I am trying my best."

Bonnie then points to a rather large torn cardboard box.

"Look in that box!" Ginny obeys. Inside the dirty box is an immense pile of various ointment tins, old medicine bottles and a plethora of other medications. As she picks up a few of them, she notices that some of the dating on the medications have expirations of more than four years ago. Many of the bottles are partly used.

"That's what I use on 'em most of the time. When I run out I just get more at Barb's."

By now Ginny had lost her appetite for breakfast and luckily Jessica had just said that they needed to run and drop the cages back at Barb's place.

On the way back Ginny had time to reflect. She was conflicted inside but was resolute in her backing of the TNR group's efforts. Yet something still bothered her. She was an avid member of the Sierra Club and needed to at least talk with some of her friends about their feelings concerning the cats being that close to the state park. They would surely understand the need for the colony and could offer suggestions about the bird populations and keeping them healthy as well.

Ginny finally smiled and thought to herself that she must be overreacting. Surely they would have an answer.

Overpopulation of feral cats is a given. As veterinarians we are called to a healing art, yet society seems to call us to a role beyond just fixing sick animals. Society also now sees us as custodians of the species itself. Unfortunately, we often are long on medicine and surgery and short on biology.

The feral cat problem

Domestic cats are native to northern Africa and were first tamed by the ancient Egyptians. All domestic cats have descended from the African wild cat. Therefore, in this country, the species is technically a foreign exotic and thus is not native to the Americas. The domestic cat is now distributed worldwide and in all ecosystems other than northern Africa would be considered an introduced exotic. In the wild, cats apparently do not live long due to the natural ebb and flow of food availability and intra-species fighting.

There would be little problem with wild and feral cats except for the hand of man. Yet we find ourselves overrun with cats in this country despite the forces of nature that prevail against the cat. Enter the human touch.

Cats are wonderfully lovable creatures and most Americans have an ongoing love affair with them. Some humans however, have taken in these lovely creatures with little regard to biology or veterinary medicine. They have harbored and collected them in groupings that are beyond the group biological norm for the species itself.

The human touch

Humans can be divided up into various classes of cat owners-some are responsible and some are not. The intense hobbyist, at one end of the spectrum are devoted guardians of a given breed(s) and is of the highest order of caretaker and for the most part is not subject to this discussion. They keep their cats in, go to the veterinarian religiously and spend what is necessary in order to make life comfortable for their charges. It is left up to the rest of us to foul the nest.

At the other end of the spectrum are animal collectors like Bonnie. They are long on compassion for animals but are either naïve or blind to the problems they are creating when bringing so many felines into one small and mostly closed ecosystem.

Other end of spectrum

Some of these people are mentally ill. At the fringes these people are true abusers of animals.

Most of us reside in between. I have three cats and have had up to five. Veterinarians are natural collectors of animals for obvious reasons. How many cats are too many? You can sometimes get a hint that a person has too many cats when they will not admit to a "number." If a person won't admit to a number they have too many cats.

I went to a seminar at the American Veterinary Medical Convention in Nashville last year fully expecting a reasonable discussion about the feral cat population in this country and solutions to be sought. What I found was strife, enmity and a "scientific" discussion based on emotion.

A veterinary medical quagmire

This was most evident when a short film taken in Hawaii was shown of a feral cat stalking a member of an endangered bird species. When the cat had successfully trapped the bird in its mouth and turned and faced the camera, two very distinct reactions occurred within the crowd. A portion of the crowd gasped in horror while another portion of the crowd was vocally pleased and emotionally overtaken by the cat's obviously cute face in spite of the bird sticking out of the side of his mouth. The discussion divided immediately into two emotional camps. Nothing of any import resulted from the two-hour seminar.

Current solutions based on little science have divided into two camps: euthanasia and trap, neuter and release programs (TNR). Although TNR programs have the potential to be successful (i.e. the colony disappears), from a practical standpoint the influx of new cats into a colony that is being fed by caretakers are likely to expand not contract.


From a veterinary medicine and a public perception standpoint euthanasia and/or removal by way of firearms is undesirable. However, various public agencies have been backed into a corner both by federal mandates including The Endangered Species Act and by the political savvy of various ecology and environmental groups with deep pockets. Enter TNR.

There is little science devoted to trap, neuter and release-only the desire to stop euthanasia of cats at whatever cost. (Some studies indicate a moderate reduction in cat colonies but not eradication. These studies introduce bias in that aggressive adoption of cats [presumable trapped and adopted] accompany these studies and a better experimental model must be introduced before conclusions can be made concerning the effectiveness of TNR by itself.)

There is no middle ground because middle ground violates the core values of those interested in establishing cat colonies and forcing the issue with a solution that is acceptable only to them. Although this group ostensibly gives anecdotal and small, uncontrolled studies as evidence that colonies reduce populations of feral cats, their overall objective is to stop euthanasia. And, indeed, it is hard to argue for wholesale euthanasia. Some other solutions need to be offered.

From a purely biological viewpoint, cat colonies should be self-limiting if the populations are indigenous to the ecosystem they inhabit.

The biological approach

Unfortunately, cats are exotic and either displace other predators in their ecological niche or have very few natural enemies. With cats, we can most likely assume the latter. With very few natural enemies and an unending food source (TNR), cats are able to compete in nature on an uneven playing field. A colony under these conditions would likely propagate indefinitely in lieu of 100 percent sterilization.

A biological approach that would seem to work the best would craft a colony in which every cat more nearly reflects the biological norm.

A viable solution would be for these animals to be neutered without changing their biological mating behavior-in other words, either tubal ligation for the females or a vasectomy for the males. The quickest and most efficient approach would be to find the dominant males and females (alpha animals) and vasectomize and ligate them first.

Conventionally neutered animals sit on the sidelines and watch as others compete to reproduce. This type of neutering is life-extending as can be attested in any veterinary clinic in the world. These animals expand the colony, not reduce it.

Why this approach is superior

Gomer (slang for vasectomized cats) males compete with invading males for territory and the affections of ligated females (and other females that may invade the colony). No litters will be produced.

Litter sizes are naturally reduced by predation by both Gomer and intact males. Gomer and intact males limit the number of males in a given territory-in this case a colony.

Alpha ligated females compete for intact or Gomer males. These dominant females limit the access these males have to other females including infiltrating intact females. Litter production becomes next to zero.

Funding for such a trial colony may be readily available as state agencies are already looking to find a way out of the political mess created by TNR programs.

This approach suppresses reproduction to the point that the colony ultimately disappears. End of story-end of colony-end of problem.

Related Videos
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.