How Can Humans Form Bonds With Feral Cats?

Sometimes, feral cats can learn to trust human caretakers after lots of time and interaction.

Trap-neuter-release helps keep the feral cat population in check. By: Beverly Goodwin

The feral cats have been gathering in Sue’s backyard for meals for 10 years now. There’s a little room on the lower level of her raised ranch; it opens on to their feeding area, and it’s where she keeps their food, plates and a water jug. She also keeps a chart with their names and descriptions for her cat sitters.

Her 9 house cats originally came from the outdoor posse. They were “kittens and more malleable.” Feral cats aren’t usually regarded as malleable or even as touchable. The 4 whom Sue is currently feeding are extremely wary. They hiss at her, and she puts the food down and backs away.

But 2 ferals did come to trust her in their own way: Buddy, a red tabby, and Skuz, a white cat with orange patches. For 10 years, they came faithfully every day. And both came back to her when it was their time to die. “In both instances, they let me pick them up for the first time,” Sue recalls. They passed “very quickly” while she held them. “So, to me, that was a gift back to me — I finally got to hold them.”

Too Wild to Hold

Conventional wisdom says that you cannot have a relationship with a feral cat — that they will not, as the Tree House Humane Society says, “socialize completely with humans.” That’s why so many rescue groups advise 1 of 2 options:

Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR)

The feral cat colony doesn’t disappear completely; however, without regular kitten crops coming in, it shrinks. There’s a variation on TNR called trap-test-vaccinate-alter-release-maintain (TTVARM). Both have, as Ellen Perry Berkeley points out in Maverick Cats: Encounters With Feral Cats, “proven more humane, more effective, and less costly than rounding up cats and killing them.”

What Sue does is closer to TTVARM. “As soon as I’m able to present them with a trap,” she explains, “I get them trapped, get them their shots, and get them spayed and neutered.” She keeps them indoors for 24 hours, then releases them back outside. Sometimes, they disappear for good, “which makes me nuts because you never know if they got an infection. But you have to assume that they said in their minds, ‘This is not a safe place anymore.’”

Going Barn Cat

A number of rescue groups now have barn cat programs. This way, a feral or semi-feral feline can start a new — and better — life after being vaccinated and spayed/neutered by the organization.

The Oshkosh Area Humane Society in Wisconsin has such a program. The farmers don’t get a medically up-to-date mouser for nothing, however. They are required to make “a commitment to providing your new barn cat with a forever home” that includes food, water, veterinary care and “adequate, safe, and warm shelter in a barn, stable, garage, or warehouse/other building.”

The society also advises “adopting 2 barn cats whenever possible.” After all, most feral cats are used to living in colonies.

Feral kittens may be easier than adult feral cats for humans to socialize with. By: Darron Birgenheier

Bonding With Ferals

A feral cat “will usually bond with his/her socializer,” according to the Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County (CA). In fact, “[i]f you have decided that it is in the best interest of the cat to be adopted by someone other than yourself, it is important to integrate that person into the cat’s environment once the cat is comfortable with you.”

In other words, a feral cat is capable of forming a relationship with a person. At least, that’s what writer Andrew Bloomfield discovered when he and his roommates began looking after a colony of feral cats outside the house they were renting.

It started with Tiny, a calico kitten who’d “essentially been abandoned at birth” by her feral mother. Bloomfield and his roommates saved the little waif and started looking after the other cats. They fed the ferals, got them fixed and fended off predators (coyotes and raccoons) when possible.

Bloomfield in particular became “part of the equation,” as he puts it in his book Call of the Cats: What I Learned About Life and Love From a Feral Cat Colony. As time went by, he realized he “couldn’t fully understand outside unless I joined the colony,” metaphorically speaking. So he began sitting outdoors at night and studying the ferals. Over time, a bond developed.

Watch this feral cat, who has become used to the human who feeds her after much interaction:

When Feral Cats Trust Humans

Bloomfield ended up raising and keeping some kittens indoors, but even those who remained outside with the colony seemed to understand he meant well. The feral mothers presented their kittens to him.

One male, Beige, was very playful with Bloomfield: “Though feral, he loves chasing a toy mouse on a string, as does Marble [an alpha female]. When they see me bring the toy outside, they’ll go into a deep downward-dog yoga stretch, then be ready to play.”

But the most curious thing was how “whenever a cat we cared for escaped or was missing from the colony, we would ask the others for help. Usually within hours, they would bring the missing cat, though sometimes it took as long as a day.”

Can all ferals be tamed or “homed”? Probably not. But then I think of Berkeley, who “redomesticated” 4 “formerly feral” cats over the years. “A feral cat may become redomesticated if it feels like it, and if it has a human being available,” she writes in the 2001 update of Maverick Cats. “A cat may become feral if it feels like it, or if it has no other choice. The cat goes back and forth — into ferality and out of ferality — more easily than perhaps any other animal.”

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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