Cat colonies abound worldwide. When I lived in Spain for a few years I saw the feral cats there had a routine. They were in colonies and they waited at the dumpsters at certain hours when the local ladies would be walking down the street to deposit their kitchen scraps from the large afternoon meal (their lunch meal is larger than dinner there), and the cats waited patiently like they had little clocks in their heads. The rest of the day they were nowhere to be seen except sunning on rooftops away from danger.
Being a cat lover I started saving scraps to take down the street to the dumpster. I learned to throw them on the ground quickly so as not to be in the way of a horde of scavengers fighting to get a share. It was difficult to watch, but it was a way of life for them there.
They didn't look skinny, nor did they look mean, but the ladies warned me not to approach them. I was told that they were fed at a central location so they wouldn't come bumming door to door. It seemed to work.
I remember the person running the apartment where I stayed warning me not to befriend the feral cats because when I was gone, they would starve if they had been forgotten by the colony or were no longer allowed to feed at the usual location. I learned to believe that the cat colonies were a survival method for a lot of cats.
Most feral cats are born in the wild and never experience human companionship during their critical period of socialization (about 2-9 weeks of age), so they will always remain frightened of people. Only very young feral kittens can learn to adjust to living in a home.
My cat, Chanel#5, is now 5 years old and she still runs under the sofa if the mailman comes near the door with a package. She was 6 months old when she joined us and it was quite a project to get her partially adjusted. She loves us but is still wary of any quick movements.
Feral cats left to fend for themselves isn't a great option. Untended street cats face death by starvation, disease, inclement weather, traffic and predatory animals. Experts estimate that 60-70 percent of wild-born kittens die in their first 6 months.
Feral cats that do survive kitten-hood then spend the rest of their lives struggling to find food and repeatedly breeding...adding more homeless kittens to the population. Forming cat colonies is one of their survival tools.
There are no simple solutions. Some people try to help feral cats by leaving dishes of food, but unfortunately, feeding alone doesn't solve any problems. Extra food usually brings more cats into the area...leading to fighting, infectious disease transmission, and lots of homeless kittens.
Meanwhile, unattended dishes of cat food may attract other creatures besides cats...including rats and rabies carriers such as raccoons and skunks. Also, people in the neighborhood get upset with the noise and urine odors and seek to rid the area of cats.
There remains the need to control the feral population. For years, the standard approach has been to trap groups of the cats and humanely euthanize them. But how effective is this when as long as there is a food source such as garbage, more cats will simply move into the area once the first group is removed.
Some humane groups have begun to use another strategy for dealing with ferals. This method involves capturing, neutering, and vaccinating feral cats and then putting them back in their former territory where their cat colonies exist. Caretakers provide food and shelters to protect the cats in the colony from wind and weather.
Backers of this method say it can effectively control feral populations because the neutered cats no longer reproduce but they still continue to defend their territory against incoming cats.
A maintained feral colony will stay the same manageable size until the cats live out their natural lives. Caring for ferals in the community can educate people. Alley Cat Allies is a national feral cat support organization in Mount Rainier, Maryland. It teaches compassion.
If you feel like you would like to be a Cat Caretaker for a feral colony...or if you just want more information on what Alley Cat Allies do to improve the life of feral cats, please go to their website: Alley Cat Allies Everyone can help make a difference. Recently I became aware of another group doing good work with needy cats. For more information their website is The Colony Caregivers.