The kittens were found under a doghouse in Mill Woods during a brutal December cold snap. Five had already frozen, and the other three weren’t far behind. “If we had gotten there one day later, I think they probably all would’ve been dead,” says Christine Koltun of Furget Me Not, the rescue she started out of her home in March 2018.
While the year-old mother was likely a stray, her surviving kittens were feral, having lived their lives to that point without any human contact. These are just three of Edmonton’s estimated 63,000 feral cats, which survive in the city’s liminal edges, where weather, predation, disease and malnourishment are constant realities.
Though numerous, feral cats are experts at not being seen, avoiding human interaction while taking advantage of the shelter, food and water that can be found in cities. As social animals that easily interbreed with strays and free-roaming housecats, they form colonies ranging from a few individuals to several dozen. In Edmonton, these colonies are peppered throughout the river valley, in industrial parks and in undeveloped pockets of residential areas.
Rescues like Furget Me Not provide medical treatment and sterilization with a possibility of rehabilitation and, in some cases, even adoption. In two years, Koltun estimates she’s adopted out some 800 cats and kittens — but only a small percentage of them were feral. Feral kittens can be adopted after a socialization process, which acclimates them to humans, though this becomes difficult after four months and impossible after six months of age. Even for the youngest kittens, socialization can be lethally stressful. “Sometimes even at seven or eight weeks,” Koltun says, “they just can’t get past that mindset that humans are the enemy.”
Edmonton has adopted a Public Trap Neuter Return (PTNR) strategy to manage its feral cats. Those cats captured by residents within city limits can be sterilized at the Animal Care and Control Centre before being returned to the outdoors. According to Animal Care Coordinator Tracy Bauder, the program is by appointment only, due to large quantities of cats being taken in, and the shelter’s limited capacity. On its website, the city provides some guidelines to help the residents spot the difference — and discourage them from misidentifying and bringing in owned, free-roaming cats.
“Part of that move was to allow cats to find their way home on their own,” Bauder explains, noting that owned cats are 10 times more likely to return to their owners if left alone.
As for feral cats, PTNR is generally considered the most humane and effective method currently available for managing their numbers. Unfortunately, PTNR doesn’t fix hunger, and sterilized cats still need to eat. That’s bad news for other animals, birds in particular. Researchers have struggled to quantify the damage that feral and free-roaming cats do to songbirds in Canada. But Environment Canada researcher Peter Blancher pegged the number anywhere between 100 and 350 million birds killed annually by cats in this country.
Dale Gienow has seen the damage firsthand. The executive director and rescue manager at Edmonton’s WILDNorth estimates that 80 per cent of the 3,000 animals his organization takes in each year are birds, many of them cat-catches. And those are just the ones that aren’t killed outright. Telltale signs include puncture wounds from claws and teeth, which can become infected.
“On average, the prognosis is not good,” Gienow says. “Most succumb to their injuries, and then it’s a matter of providing humane euthanasia when they come in.”
The City continues to work on possible solutions to its cat overpopulation problem. Stronger bylaws, higher intensity PTNR and expanded assistance programs are all on the table and have proven successful in other cities. But such changes take time and resources to implement.
In the meantime, we may need to rethink our cavalier attitude toward cats. Few owners would allow their dogs to roam free and unsupervised outdoors, especially given the fines they could face and the harm that could befall their pet.
“We know this is a problem we face and we want to take steps to address it,” Bauder says. “But what’s most important is encouraging responsible pet ownership.”