When I was growing up, my grandparents’ farm was a prime dumping ground for unwanted cats. Cats and kittens were always showing up at random, and some of them made it back to our home.
The ones who remained at the farm got by. They had shelter, and it was assumed they would mostly live off the mice and occasional rabbits that they caught.
My grandmother brought scraps out for cats, same as she did for the dog, and they usually had some cow’s milk left out for them in a plastic dish. (Nobody realized then that cow’s milk was not a cat’s best friend.) The cats didn’t get veterinary care, and they weren’t spayed or neutered.
The matriarch of this ever-changing barn cat colony was Snow White, a tough old she-cat with different-colored eyes. Her kittens were considerably less tough, inbred and didn’t last nearly as long as she did.
That’s the way it was on most farms back then.
Years later, when my husband and I got our first 2 kittens from my uncle’s small dairy farm, I noticed that he actually kept a bag of dry cat food for the cats on a shelf out in the barn. Snow White and my grandfather would have been shocked.
Barn Cats: A Matter of Choice
Being a barn cat still struck me as being a risky occupation.
There was no health plan, lots of exposure to the elements and predators, and not a whole lot of benefits. Wouldn’t any cat rather live indoors with humans to wait on them?
Well, not all of them would, as it turns out.
The Pet Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Norwalk, Connecticut, says that some cats “are just too independent to appreciate being cooped up” in a shelter. Or anywhere else, for that matter. “Cats who are feral, shy or fearful of people and who may prefer the company of other cats and animals” may not want to live indoors.
Simply put, these cats actually like being outside. They don’t want to be traditional pets.
Not All Feral Cats Can Be Tamed
There’s a lot of debate over what constitutes a feral cat and whether or not they can be “homed” or re-domesticated.
Ellen Perry Berkeley, author of Maverick Cats, says was told that “re-domestication can happen only if the cats have been reared with human beings or have been taken in as kittens.”
Based on her interactions with feral cats — 4 of whom adopted her — Berkeley isn’t so sure about that.
“Feral cats are mavericks,” she says. “Unbranded. Unowned. And, in the sense in which we have come to think of mavericks, feral cats are unbounded by customary ways. Independent. Individualistic.”
Feral cats choose how much they will or will not interact with us. To some extent, this is true of all cats — it’s just that feral cats have taken it to a higher level.
I have encountered only a few thoroughly feral cats. One female, whom I fostered for a local group, pretty much hated people and spent her time living under my desk. She ended up as a permanent resident of the group’s facility, content to live among the other unadoptable cats there.
She would’ve been a prime candidate for a barn cat program if the organization had had one.
What Are Barn Cat Programs?
Barn cat programs are a natural offshoot of trap-neuter-release (TNR), which Monica Frenden, cat program manager of Austin Pets Alive! in Texas, calls “the most effective and least stressful method of reducing the populations of community cats.”
She explains that community cats are any cats who are “not owned” and can include ferals, semi-ferals, strays or even “a pet cat that gets lost.”
Frenden, who started one of the first and largest barn cat programs in the United States, believes that “returning cats to the area they were first taken from should always be the first option for community cats.”
Sometimes returning the cats isn’t possible, though:
- Their original territory might now be uninhabitable or dangerous (residents have complained, or the area is being developed).
- The shelter to which the cats were taken does not allow returns.
- Nobody is really sure where the cats lived originally.
This is where barn cat programs come in.
How Barn Cat Programs Started
The idea of barn cat programs originated with shelters.
These shelters “used to see really high rates of euthanasia among feral cats, shy cats, or cats who couldn’t or wouldn’t use the litter box,” Jessalyn Pennington of the Windham County Humane Society (WCHS) in Brattleboro, Vermont, tells me.
WCHS “has had a barn cat program for as long as I’ve been here — 3 years — and it was definitely around for many years before,” she says. “We were dealing with farms that were overpopulated with cats. We were assisting with spaying and neutering and giving food assistance.”
Gradually, WCHS built up a level of trust with the farmers, who began contacting them “when their population had gotten small or had unfortunately died out.”
People started bringing kittens to the shelter for spaying/neutering, “which was a big step and an important one for keeping the population under control,” Pennington says.
“So they’re pretty much set for 1 year,” Pennington says.
Success in Numbers
It can be tricky to re-trap the cats for future vet visits, but the farmers can always make use of the shelter’s Havahart traps.
There’s no charge for the traps, but the farmers do have to put down a deposit to ensure the traps come back.
Barn cats are more social than people give them credit for, and Pennington and the other volunteers always suggest that the farmers adopt more than 1 cat.
“We definitely encourage pairs when possible,” she says. “A studio apartment with 2 cats is not necessarily the normal territory that 2 predators would share. With a barn, they have lots more territory. And with a lot of these cats, if they’re feral or semi-feral, they’re used to living in colonies.”
Partnering up with another cat often helps a feral or skittish cat relax more in their new surroundings.
Watch Austin Pets Alive! cat program manager Monica Frenden discuss in detail the organization’s barn cat program, among other programs that help animals:
Outside the Barn
Of course, the cats in these programs aren’t limited to life on the farm. Home can be a stable, a nursery, a garage or a warehouse.
There are certain considerations, of course.
“For example, declawed cats, once slated for euthanasia due to temperament or bite histories, have been placed in warehouse jobs where they are in a safe, inside, environment and are still useful as a deterrent to mice and other rodents,” Frenden says.
“Likewise, tripod feral cats and other cats with disabilities have been placed at carefully selected locations where they have minimal risk of predation and a committed caretaker. Searching for the unique adoption location that meets the cat’s individual needs is all that is required.”
What matters most, in the words of Austin Pets Alive!, is that the cats end up in “safe outdoor homes with shelter and a caregiver, and [that] adopters enjoy having healthy, sterilized cats tend to their mouse, snake or vermin troubles.”
The cats also get fresh food and water daily because, as the Dakin Humane Society in Leverett, Massachusetts, puts it, “cats cannot live by mice alone.”
Barn Cat Adoption Fee
Some of the barn cat programs charge an adoption fee. Others don’t but ask that you make a reasonable donation to offset the cost of the veterinary care that each cat receives.
When there are adoption fees, they’re pretty low. At the WCHS and Dakin, for instance, the barn cat adoption fee is $30 per cat.
“I think that the benefit of that is that these are cats that aren’t easily adoptable,” Pennington says.
“More often than not,” she says, “our barn cats are ferals or semi-ferals. A lot of farms, especially near us, are not huge money-making farms. And since these are not cats that would necessarily have a home otherwise, we want to make the process as easy as possible.”
Frenden advises against an adoption fee.
“It is my experience that very few adopters would be as persuaded to adopt these cats if there was a fee,” she says. “About one-third of our adopters make a donation toward the program, and almost all go on to become supporters of the organization in one way or another.”
In my opinion, these barn cat adoption fees (like any adoption fees) tend to weed out undesirable adopters.
Changes in Attitudes
Pennington says there’s “some wiggle room” — that it’s not impossible for barn cats to bond with their humans.
She tells people, “There’s a chance that the cat is always going to stay away or be skittish.”
But she also has what she calls “her super success story” of 2 very feral cats whom she placed with a woman. “She can pet them now, and one even goes up on her lap, which is incredible to me,” Pennington says.
With barn cats, as with all cats, you can never assume anything.
- “Barn Cat Program.” Austin Pets Alive! https://www.austinpetsalive.org/about/programs/barn-cat-placements/.
- Berkeley, Ellen Perry. Maverick Cats: Encounters With Feral Cats. New England Press. 2001.
- “Barn Cats/Working Cats.” Dakin Humane Society. https://www.dakinhumane.org/barn-cats.html.
- Frenden, Monica. “Barn Cat 101: Starting a Barn Cat Program in Your Community.” https://www.maddiesfund.org/assets/documents/Institute/APA!%20Barn%20Cat%20Handbook.pdf.
- Frye, Elizabeth. “Barn Cat Placement Program: A Simple Shelter Solution.” Huffington Post. Oct. 20, 2015. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-frye/barn-cat-placement-progra_b_8334110.html.