Learn how this Michigander is living in “purr-fect” harmony with the feral cat colony near her house.
When Molly White and her husband bought their house in Okemos in 2019, they noticed a few stray cats roaming around the property.
Then they learned that the surrounding woods were home to a feral cat colony—a group of free-roaming, unsocialized cats—with around 25 cats. The previous homeowner, along with the next-door neighbor, had been feeding and caring for the cats from afar.
White didn’t mind. As a cat-lover and caretaker to her two indoor cats, she even offered her assistance to the neighbor.
“I kind of started asking her [if I could] come over and clear up their water bowls,” she said. “I was just slowly integrating myself into the process.”
White described her daily routine during the early days of taking care of the cat colony: scrubbing water bowls and refilling them with fresh water, blowing dead leaves off her neighbor’s porch, and even shoveling pathways for the cats during the winter.
“It very quickly snowballed into ‘I’m going to give them a few treats’ to now I’m ordering 20-pound bags of cat food and we just feed most of them,” White said. She even transformed the shed on her property into a safe haven for the cats to use 24/7.
“They have insulated and heated cat houses, scratching posts, and they’re pretty spoiled, at this point.”
WATCH: Molly White shows us her cat colony
While spoiling a feral cat colony can provide both entertainment and joy, it can also be expensive. In order to make sure the population of the colony didn’t turn catastrophic, White worked with her local humane society.
“If they have a willingness to learn about TNR, they’re usually in it for the long haul,” said Holly Thoms, spay/neuter clinic director at the Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing.
It might seem like a strange program—releasing feral cats instead of finding them homes. But while some cats brought in can be put into a rehabilitation and adoption process, Thoms said it’s not the best answer for all cats.
“Do you spend your time trying to tame older cats that may or may not ever come around or really want to be an indoor cat, or is it going to be a cat that’s always going to be fearful living underneath your bed? There’s a lot of different variations between a really friendly cat that’s easily adoptable and a totally feral cat that is an older adult [and is never] going to be a house cat,” she said.
Feral cat populations are particularly an issue for rural communities, where shelters are already packed, there isn’t as much access to low-cost TNR services, and there are more outdoor spaces offering potential shelter to colonies, like barns and sheds. Feral cats are also known for their high risk of carrying rabies and parasites—particularly the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, which can get deposited into soil through cat feces.
TNR services have been proven to be the most humane and effective method of managing feral and stray cat populations. Simply removing the cats from the area only creates space for other feral cats to move in—a phenomenon called the “vacuum effect”—and is a short-term solution for a much larger problem.
By simply ensuring that each cat is vaccinated and no longer able to reproduce, a colony has the potential to decline more naturally over time.
So what can you do to help?
If you see a stray or feral cat, start by checking in with your neighbors to make sure it’s not someone’s pet. Let them know you’re considering getting involved, and find out if they’d like to help. Some neighbors may not want to, and that’s okay—you can offer suggestions instead for naturally deterring unwanted cat behavior (more on this below).
The next time you see the cat, check to see if one of its ears is “tipped.” Cats that have already gone through TNR have had ear-tipping performed while under anesthesia, where about a quarter-inch of their left ear is squared off to signal that they’re fixed.
Your next step is to call your local animal shelter to find out who in the area offers TNR services. Then, follow the steps they give you—you’ll probably need to use their process for trapping and bringing in the cat.
“A lot of animal welfare programs do have traps for a loan, and usually you just have to pay a deposit so that they make sure that you’re going to return it,” said Molly White, the homeowner.
There are also plenty of online resources that include detailed information about trapping feral cats, and what community members should know before getting started.
“I feel like there’s a lot of ways that we can utilize the strengths of the younger generation that may be more tech-savvy,” White said. “I’m sure that some of these TNR groups could totally use some of their skills for helping them create new systems to track the cats that they are trapping.”
Most TNR programs will ask you to bring the cat in a live trap, then pick the cat back up later that day. You’ll probably want to try to contain the cat in your garage or similar shelter for a few hours, just to make sure they come out of their anesthesia before being released back into the wild.
Natural ways to deter unwanted cats
There are a variety of natural, non-toxic ways to prevent feral cats from entering your space. For example, cats have an extremely sensitive sense of smell. Spraying citrus-scented fragrances—like orange or lemon—can cause cats to turn the other direction. Coffee grounds, lavender, citronella, and vinegar can also do the trick.
As the weather gets colder, cats are looking for places to find shelter. To keep cats from sleeping under your porch, block any gaps with chicken wire. Rags soaked in citrus juice can also be placed in places you’re worried cats may sneak into.
Providing alternate shelter for feral cats is a kind way you can reduce the chances of them messing around on your property. Building an outdoor shelter and placing it away from areas that you don’t want the cats in is cheap and easy to do.
While these solutions can help cats stay out of your space, overly vocal cats and other noisy disturbances can only be fixed through TNR programs.
“Once they’re fixed, a lot of behaviors that people dislike—the yowling, the fighting—these sorts of things end, because the animals aren’t fighting over territory. They’re not trying to have sex in the middle of the night. All they’re really interested in is food after that,” said Thoms.
“We grow catnip in our garden for them,” White said. “During COVID, we started doing walks in our forest with them, and started taking what we call ‘catwalks.’ I think there’s just this misconception that these cats just live a horrible life outside, but compared to the fear levels that they would have inside, this is really the best of the situation.”
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