Meet Jake, a once-feral cat described as sweet, docile and loving. He has a home. He gets fed. He has access to a lap. Mason Cat Coalition member Amy Biderman found him a year ago as she made her rounds helping feed abandoned cats at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus. The cats are sterilized through the coalition’s trap-neuter-release (TNR) program.
Ms. Biderman noticed Jake, a domestic short-hair and a campus cat of at least eight years, living behind the physical education building.
“Over about a six-month period, he learned to trust me,” she says. “I would call him. I would hear him meowing, and he would come out to me.”
Ms. Biderman, public relations coordinator for GMU and a coalition member for the past year, worried about Jake as winter approached, so she had him trapped and taken to a veterinarian. On Dec. 4, she took him to her Vienna home and slowly acclimated him to a single room, then to her two female cats and to the rest of the house.
“This cat is truly transformed,” she says. “Feral cats can become house cats. It takes time. It takes patience and a lot of love.”
GMU, like many college campuses nationwide, is a dumping ground for unwanted cats. Elsewhere locally, Georgetown University had stray cats on campus several years ago and hired someone to trap and take them to a Pennsylvania farm, says Julie Bataille, university spokeswoman.
Spokespeople at George Washington University in Northwest and Montgomery College in Rockville say the schools do not have a problem with feral cats.
Residents of the communities surrounding a campus might believe a college is a good place for cats to find a home and leave them there. College students may bring a cat with them to campus, find a stray cat or take in a kitten they purchase or get for free. Some of the students may care for the pet while they are on campus, then abandon it at the end of the semester, realizing they cannot continue the care. GMU does not allow pets in dorms, but some students do not abide by the rule, coalition members say.
“It would be great to have a method of educating young people coming into colleges — if they take responsibility for a companion animal, they understand that it’s not a nine-month commitment but that it’s a nine-year commitment,” says Holly Hazard, executive director of the Doris Day Animal League, a D.C.-based nonprofit animal-protection lobbying organization.
Tens of millions of cats are feral in the United States — strays, lost or abandoned cats or cats born to feral mothers. Cats often are thought of as independent animals able to survive on their own, an image that is not necessarily true, says Donna Wilcox, executive director of Alley Cat Allies, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides information on the humane handling of feral cats.
Cats used to human care that are living outdoors have to learn to hunt and compete for food, defend themselves, and find their own shelter.
Many pet owners know that the cats they abandon may end up euthanized at an animal shelter, Ms. Wilcox says. They believe that if they leave the cat outdoors, “the cat has a better chance to survive,” she says.
GMU’s feral-cat population numbered about 300 in 1994 when Joan Ziemba, a former GMU employee, started the Mason Cat Coalition, a loose organization of 12 core volunteers of faculty and staff that receives assistance from students and others.
“Mason’s administration at that time was wonderful. They recognized there was a problem, and they recognized we were willing to try to help it improve,” says Ms. Ziemba, who continues to feed the cats on weekends, even though she left GMU in 1998. She is now the director of marketing and communications at George Washington University’s satellite campus in Ashburn, Va.
“It was a project I started. It’s not one you can easily walk away from,” she says.
The coalition has trapped 375 cats through the years, adopting out tame ones and trapping new abandoned cats as they come to the campus. About 50 cats remain.
Coalition volunteers, or caretakers, use a TNR program based on one developed by the Stanford Cat Network, a group that cares for free-roaming cats living on Stanford University property in California.
The caretakers at GMU trap feral cats in box traps and take them to the veterinarian, sometimes at a discounted rate, to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and given a general health check. A piece of the left ear of each cat is tipped to give a visual signal of their care.
The caretakers return the cats to where they were trapped if they are not or cannot be adopted or placed in foster care. They provide them with food, water and shelter at 12 feeding stations. The coalition works with several rescue groups to arrange adoptions.
Colleen Bauer, a caretaker and assistant registrar at GMU, comes to work with her car trunk filled with 30 pounds of food, what coalition members call a “kitty soup kitchen.”
“You can’t find homes for every one of these. Most of them are quote, unquote feral,” she says.
A feral cat “is still a domestic cat,” says Linda Saffell, vice president of Prince George’s Feral Friends, a group that provides education and support for the TNR program in Prince George’s County. “Cats need socialization during different phases of their development.”
If the cats are not socialized early in their lives, they can become feral. They learn to not trust humans, do not like being confined in a home and prefer being outside, Ms. Wilcox says.
If enough cats are abandoned in a rural or urbanized area, they can form colonies. They gravitate to places where they can find food, such as schools, military bases, restaurants, businesses, shopping areas, hospitals and apartment buildings.
“The colonies are the after-effects of people getting an animal without being prepared for the long-term commitment,” says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States.
The colonies increase in population as long as there are convenient trash bins, humans feeding them and breeding, Ms. Hazard says.
The average female cat, according to the Humane Society, can produce three litters of four to six kittens every year, so in seven years, the cat and her offspring are theoretically capable of producing 420,000 kittens.
Trapping and killing the cats in a colony is “a short-term and inhumane answer” to removing feral cats from an area, Ms. Hazard says. The empty space left open by a removed cat population creates a vacuum, since other cats will move in and cause the problem to return. The TNR program decreases the size of cat colonies through attrition; sterilization; and the cats’ territorial nature, which keeps outsider cats from joining the colonies.
“It’s a controllable situation. It’s not a stoppable situation,” Ms. Bauer says. “The part I don’t like: It never stops.”