Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Compassion for feral cats

For the past 3.5 years I have been watching various foster kitten cams. These cams show rescue cats and their kittens in foster care until they are adopted. Usually the cams follow each family for 9-12 weeks. The foster homes are connected to various rescue organizations, and the cats are usually abandoned or surrendered pets, rescued strays, and sometimes semi-ferals.

Recently, Shelly Roche, of Tiny Kittens in Fort Langley, BC, Canada, has started an innovative new project involving feral cats. The aim of the project is to care for a colony of feral cats in a forest, with a feeding station, and to reduce the population and improve the cats' health by TNR (trap, neuter, release). Over the past few months they have managed to spay and neuter over 100 feral cats and return them to the colony. They carefully observe and document the cats, and sometime manage to have some interaction with a few individuals, though they remain feral and unsuitable for adoption.

One of the questions arising is what to do with the pregnant cats. Eventually, the hope is that all the cats can be trapped and spayed, but until that happens, there are still some pregnancies, and these are more likely to happen among the cats who are less trusting and therefore more difficult to trap.

Some TNR projects trap the pregnant mothers and abort the babies before spaying. However, non-kill shelters and their supporters usually object to aborting kittens except in real medical emergencies. Other projects wait until the kittens are weaned and then trap and spay the mother, and try to trap and spay or neuter the kittens when possible.

Shelly proposed a new option: trap the pregnant mother and keep her in foster care during birth and the first few weeks of raising the kittens, then spay and release the mother and foster the kittens for adoption. The aim is to give both mother and kittens the best solution. The mother gets better food and some medical care before and after giving birth, and is later spayed and returned to her feral colony, while the kittens are born in a safe environment, under constant camera supervision, and can be socialized and adopted into a new life as pets rather than ferals.

Viewers of Shelly's foster kitten cam were privileged to be able to watch the first feral mother in this program, Sloane, and her four kittens. The experience was very different to the usual cam, because Shelly's aim was to reduce stress, and so she only came in twice a day and had no contact with Sloane. The outcome was a great success, with Sloane happily reunited with the colony and her kittens completely socialized and adopted to good homes like all the kittens of foster homes.

We are currently watching the next feral mother, Sisko, who is expected to give birth soon. A companion was trapped and brought in, Mila, who was first considered possibly pregnant, but now it seems she probably isn't, so she will be spayed and returned to the colony soon after Sisko's kittens are born. The purpose of bringing in a companion was to reduce Sisko's loneliness. The feral cats in the colony are very social, and it is possible that Sisko and Mila knew each other in the forest. There was also a chance that two mothers might co-parent, pooling their kittens into one group and sharing nursing and cleaning duties. I hope to see this happen one day with a future pair of mothers.

You can read Shelly's detailed report about the Compassionate TNR project here.

It is compassion and sensitivity that motivate people like Shelly to make a difference in the lives of cats. Expanding her reach from the mostly social rescue cats the shelter takes in for fostering to the feral cats in the forest shows that her care for cats is not motivated by the ability to make them into cuddly pets. She also wants to provide whatever help possible for the unfriendly and often invisible cats who live in the wild. This shows a profound understanding of the nature of cats. Some are socialized to living with humans, others live in cat colonies in the wild, but they are still cats worth caring for. TNR gives them a chance for a better life without trying to change them into something they cannot become.

Earlier this week, Shelly received an emergency call about a mother and newborn baby found in the colony. The mother was young and inexperienced, and one of her kittens was found dead, while the other was cold and wet at the bottom of a barrel. Shelly brought them home and calmed the mother, who was fortunately friendly despite being born in the forest. The kitten was kept warm and bottle fed for hours, but eventually faded and died. Watching Shelly hold the unresponsive, fading kitten was a heart-wrenching experience. Despite all her knowledge, experience, and compassion, sometimes even Shelly is unable to save a cat. It is a sad but unavoidable fact that some kittens die.

Being a foster care provider requires a unique combination of sensitivity and strength. You have to love the cats and then let them go to their new families. Shelly has demonstrated these qualities impressively throughout the time I have been watching her cams. Emotional involvement could potentially lead to a fantasy that everything must go well all the time, and to collapse when things go wrong. Instead, Shelly has shown resilience and a realistic view of life, doing all she can to save kittens, not holding back emotionally, but ultimately knowing that there will be pain and loss some of the time. It is a price that has to be paid, because we are not living in an ideal world and not every life has a happy ending. Let us hope that the joy of fostering and making a positive difference in the world outweighs the pain of sometimes losing a kitten.

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