Cats (Felis catus) are a domesticated species, dependent on humans and genetically different from "wild" cat species such as lions and tigers. Contrary to popular belief, free-roaming, feral cats can live about as long as house cats and contract diseases at about the same rate.
Like rabbits, cats multiply very quickly. Gordon Stull, V.M.D. and director of Burlington County Feral Cat Initiative (BCCI) in NJ, notes that there are many extraneous factors such as season of the year, location, food supply, presence of predators and other dangers that affect population dynamics in felines. "Sexual activity can begin as early as 5 months of age. The median average litter size is 5," says Dr. Stull.
Despite the fact that there are no-kill shelters in the nation, more than 70% of the cats and kittens that get taken to animal control pounds and shelters get killed. Neutering or spaying house cats that are allowed to go outside, never abandoning a pet, and Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) programs for feral cats, are humane methods available to help fight cat over population. TNR programs are done by caring volunteers and organizations throughout the United States.
Feral cat issues are very controversial and stir up stong emotions in the gardening community, especially between cat lovers and bird lovers. Some feel strongly that feeding feral cats is wrong and that all feral cats, when caught, should be euthanized; others claim that it is more humane to set up managed feeding stations, and that TNR programs have been shown to work and are therefore the best option.
Cape May, NJ, a Victorian, cat loving coastal community and one of the top bird-watching areas in North America, has been successfully using a TNR program since 1995. However, although Cape May's cat populations have been declining, shorebird populations, such as the endangered piping plover species, have also continued to decline.
In an effort to restore populations of threatened shorebirds in Cape May, officials approved a plan to relocate feral cat colonies to outside a buffer zone around the piping plovers' nesting areas on the beach. This effort, in turn has created new challenges and concerns. Since the removal of the cats, animal control officer John Queenan has received increased calls and concerns about skunks. "Cape May's Trap-Neuter-Return program still serves as a model for communities around the world," says Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, a Maryland based national cat advocacy group.
Effective collaboration needs to continue among all parties involved with feral cat issues, to improve the accessibility of affordable spay and neuter services in every community. Improving humane public policies to reduce feral cat populations will eliminate their needless suffering and help save the 100 million songbirds that are killed by feral cats each year.
Tango, the Garden Cat ~ Part 1
Becky and her brother, Bill, have 3 indoor pet cats and a dog named Holly. Holly is a friendly German Shepherd who is a very curious and alert dog.
Holly loves living with them. They have a yard with native trees and berry bushes that provide shelter and food for wildlife. Holly loves to chase little animals, especially squirrels.
Becky and Bill enjoy exploring and playing in their backyard. They also like to help their mom and dad plant and pick fresh vegetables from their garden. Beautiful, colorful flower gardens are planted all around, which attract a lot of bees and interesting insects, like spiders, praying mantises and butterflies.
The wildlife at Becky and Bill's house includes rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, raccoons, and a lot of birds, including gold finches, ruby-throated hummingbirds, American robins, hawks and owls. One time they even saw 3 large deer! Lately, there has been a new visitor.
Early one cool, autumn morning, when yellowing leaves from the large walnut tree were dropping to the ground like snowflakes, Holly followed Becky and Bill outside to play. As they began throwing an old, faded yellow tennis ball to Holly, they heard something rustling in the leaves beneath a nearby yew bush.
Holly rushed over first and started to investigate. What could be in that bush? There were bird feeders hanging nearby...could it be a bird? Then, suddenly, Becky and Bill saw something small and black run halfway up a pine tree. They looked up and saw a small black animal with big, light green eyes, the color of celery, that were opened wide and staring right at them! The fur around its head was short and messy looking.
Holly was curious; she looked over and started to bark. "Put Holly in the house!" Bill shouted.
Becky ran towards the house with Holly, "Come, Holly, come."
As she put Holly inside, she could hear Bill calling, "Hurry! Hurry, Becky!"
She raced back out. "Bill is it still there?"
Ssshhh...there it is," whispered Bill, as he pointed to the small form clinging to the leaning trunk of the pine tree. Becky looked up and saw a very scared, little cat.
"Who are you?" Becky asked the terrified creature. "I've never seen you before."
But before she could say any more, the cat sprang off and quickly disappeared under the pine trees. Hiding in the neighbor's bushes, the cat was out of breath, his heart pumping from all the excitement.
Later that night Becky and Bill told their parents about the little cat that arrived. Becky decided to name the cat 'Tango'.
Where did Tango go?
Several days went by. There was no sign of Tango.
"Where did Tango go?" Becky asked. The family wondered too.
Later that week, as Becky got off the school bus, she spotted a skinny, small, black cat in the neighbor's yard. She watched as it jumped into the neighbor's shed through a broken window.
"That's it!" she thought out loud, "I'll bet the cat is living in there." This made sense, because the weather was getting cold at night and the shed would be a little warmer.
Later that day her parents asked the neighbor, "Do you know anyone in the neighborhood who has a black cat? We think we saw one go into your shed."
The neighbor replied, "Yes, the house on the other side has a black cat. It was probably him."
"Was he large or small?"
"Oh, he's a large cat all right. We don't mind having him around. He keeps the mouse population in check," the neighbor chuckled.
Hmmmm... Becky and Bill remembered the cat they saw was small and thin. They began thinking that Tango might have been abandoned or lost, living out on his own, without anyone caring for him.
Time went by; the fall season changed into winter.
One evening, as it was just getting dark, Becky looked through the glass kitchen window at the snow covering their backyard. Suddenly, she saw a black flash, legs out stretched as it lunged towards the bushes by the bird feeders.
"I see Tango!" she shouted to her family. "He looks skinny and his shoulders look sort of pointy."
Becky wanted to run outside to greet Tango, but decided not to because she might scare him away. Tango's head was low to the ground as he sniffed around.
"Mom, it looks like he is eating the bread we put out for the birds!"
Her mom looked out the window and replied, "He must be hungry and cold."
They all decided to help Tango and put out some food.
Becky's mom set the rules. "Just remember, once we start feeding him, he will always come around, and we can't stop. It would not be fair to the cat."
Becky put out cat food that night, near the garage, but Tango never came. "Why isn't he going to his food?" Becky muttered in despair.
Bill wondered too.
Tango's a Survivor
The family gave up on Tango and never saw him again for the rest of the winter. The weather was now warming, and spring was in the air as little Tango snuck into the yard, hungry but alert.
He had had a tough winter but had managed to survive. Luckily for him it was a mild winter; even so, it was still so cold. A few of his friends died, but Tiger, Zipper and Cali survived and were there to snuggle with as they all tried to keep warm in their winter home behind the neighbor's woodpile.
The night before, he had killed a chipmunk and had found some scraps of bread that the birds had left. Maybe he would be lucky again.
As he darted past the vegetable garden, he heard something. In a flash he ducked behind a raised bed of emerging asparagus to hide. As soon as it looked safe, he jumped out and went to wait beneath the pine trees along the fence.
"Look, Tango's back!" Becky hollered, as she peered out the window, her nose and hands pressed against the glass.
Bill was standing nearby. "Quick, get a bowl of food for him!"
Everyone in the house became aware of the excitement. Becky quickly ran across the kitchen and grabbed a bowl of cat food.
"Here, Tango. Here, Tango... here, kitty..." she repeatedly called, while dashing out and putting the food by the garage before running back into the house.
Tango looked over from beneath the pines, while his friends stayed still and completely hidden. Spying the bowl full of fresh cat food, his head bobbing up and down, he sniffed the air, his mouth watering. He could see and smell the food but thought it much too risky to run across the yard to get to it.
"But he is not going to his food." Becky complained, as they peered through the window at Tango, who was openly sitting next to a concrete garden bench, staring in the direction of the food bowl. His dark fur stood out against the white bench.
"He is not going to his food. Should we move the bowl closer to the back?" she asked her family.
Everyone agreed that Tango might feel safer if they moved the food back to where they had spotted him.
Tango heard the door open and quickly ran off to hide. Peeking from behind the bird bath, he secretly watched as Becky moved the food and then went back inside.
The family was having dinner when Bill looked out the window. Pointing his finger as he leaned toward his sister, he said, "It's Tango, he found the food!"
The family celebrated as they watched little Tango finally eating a good meal.
Be sure to check with your local officials before feeding or attempting to TNR feral cats. Regulations vary from state-to-state.
Artwork Copyright © 2008 Carol Moore. All rights reserved. Tango, the Garden CatTM is a trademark of Feral Gardens.
Special Thanks to artist Carol Moore for creating the artwork for this garden story.
Carol provides care to her many grateful barn cats. She is a professional artist from Oregon with a passion for the outdoors, animals and art and creates art for custom commissions and her online galleries. She uses color pencil, water color pencil and/or acrylic-gouache on Stonehenge, Bristol, Canson MiTientes or Arches Watercolor paper. The Original Small Works of Art (OSWOA) of "Tango" and "Tango around the Bird Bath" were created with color pencil on Stonehenge (acid free paper).
Click here to read more about the artist, Carol Moore, and to visit her gallery.
 Alley Cat Allies, Do you believe she deserves to live even though she lives outdoors? Don't buy into the cruel myths about feral cats and kittens; Bethesda, MD 9/12/08.
 Alley Cat Allies, Cat Fatalities. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008.
 Degener R., The Press of Atlantic City. Feral cats gone, Cape May now has a problem of a different stripe; Sept. 2008. Accessed Oct. 22, 2008.
 Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Feral cat effects on wildlife. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008.
Tango the Garden Cat ~ part 2: Tango's Garden Adventure by Diana Wind
Tango the Garden Cat ~ part 3: Home for Christmas by Diana Wind
Cat Grass for Cats- good or bad? by Geoff Stein
Feral Cats Frequently Asked Questions, The Humane Society of the US