Understanding Feral Cats and Urban Relocation Programs

Feral cats are some of the most misunderstood animals, particularly in urban landscapes. But these outdoor cats are a vitally important part of the world around them. 
The care of feral cats is a unique and important one, and now some cities are stepping up to allow these felines tto hrive in their environments while helping the communities where they reside. Take Chicago, where Tree House Humane Society—a no-kill shelter with a trap, neuter and release (TNR) program—uses feral cats to help control a rat problem in an Evanston apartment complex.
According to the Chicago Tribune, cats have been controlling a once-massive rat problem at the residence buildng. The cats "are micro-chipped, tagged and fed twice daily by a group of roughly 10 volunteers." The Tribune states that the cats have drastically reduced the number of rats at the apartment complex.
Peter Nickerson, the manager of the Tree House Humane Society’s Cats at Work Program, tells petMD that while it is ideal for any feral cat to be taken back to the same location after TNR, "sometimes it is unethical or unsafe to return them to the place they were trapped." For instance, if a feral cat's caregiver dies, or there's an immediate physical threat to the cats, the Cats at Work Program relocates the felines to a safe, new location. 
In Chicago there was a business and residential need to deal with rat issues, and with that, the Cats at Work Program came to fruition. Nickerson explains that the cats are given a 28-day period to get used to their new surroundings and put on a new feeding schedule—which gives them initiative to stay on or near the property. "There’s no guarantee the cats will stick around, but you can mitigate it by providing the best you can." 
When the cats do stick around at their new "home," it's bound to keep the rats away. Nickerson says that if a feral cat does leave an area, the rats will return in a 24-hour period. 
However, not all community organizations agree that caring for the feral cats and allowing them to prey on small rodents like mice is a good idea.
In a Facebook post, the Evanston North Shore Bird Club asked its followers to oppose a bill that would use funds to support TNR programs in the state of Illinois, stating: "These programs are bad for bird because they involve feeding the cats, which results in very large concentrations. Cats are the largest human-related cause of mortality for birds."
Chicago isn't the only city making headlines for these kinds of initiatives. In New York City, feral cats aided in stopping a rat infestation at Manhattan's Jacob Javits Convention Center. 
But according to the NYC Feral Cat Initiative (NYCFCI)—which is part of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals—they do not use cats specifically for rodent control and the cats were not put there intentionally. 
In a statement released to petMD, Steve Gruber, director of communications for the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals, said: "The NYCFCI would never place a cat on the street for the purpose of providing rodent control. Our express mission is to have as few cats living on the streets as possible. The very rare person who offers to adopt a feral cat or colony in need of relocation must pass an application process showing they wish to provide compassionate daily care to the cat or colony at-risk, and are not merely looking for 'mousers.'" 
The NYCFCI runs safe and efficient TNR programs with the help of more than 6,000 volunteers, who do their part to sterilize, feed, vaccinate, and monitor feral cats. The Javits Center offered to host a colony of cats, and soon after, NYCFCI needed to relocate an already existing group of street cats from a dangerous area. The group knew that several feral cats had already lived safely at the north end of the Javits Center for more than ten years and felt comfortable relocating the new group to the area. And when it comes to relocating groups of feral cats, the NYCFCI says it's not an easy thing to do. 
"These new cats were successfully relocated from danger to safety and released at the Javits Center after a three-week period of confinement onsite for habituation after confirming their comfort level in an area with heavy traffic and loud noise," said Gruber. "As it turned out, the new cats have helped to control the rodent population at the south end’s loading docks, but that would not have been sufficient reason for our placing them there. They had been offered a permanent home, not conditional to their performance as rodent deterrents."
However, the NYCFCI points out that feral cat colonies that are monitored and carefully taken care of can be efficient, when done properly and ethically. "It is true that neighborhoods and areas hosting spayed/neutered community cat colonies managed through TNR do enjoy the collateral benefit of a non-toxic rodent deterrent," said Gruber. "The scent established by hosting and feeding cats regularly in one place is what keeps the rodents away. Breeding female rats will move away from an area inhabited by resident cats that would clearly be a danger to their litters. When the breeding females move out, the male rats follow." 
Image via Shutterstock