Podunk Wisconsinites and the Feral Cat

In April 2005, my fine state supported a proposal to make feral cats an unprotected species, a classification that would allow them to be hunted and killed. Despite the fact that 51 of 72 counties in the state voted in favor of the proposal, Gov. Jim Doyle dampened our kitty killing spirits by claiming it was making Wisconsin a “laughingstock”.

A feral cat is a free-roaming, unowned and untamed domestic cat. These are not to be confused with stray cats, previously owned and lost, or the 80’s rockabilly band with pompadors. Raised without human contact, feral cats (not Brian Setzer) revert to a wild state and form colonies wherever food and shelter are available. One source cites that nearly 2 million free-range cats call Wisconsin home.

I would say approximately 10% of the WI feral cat population has established a thriving colony in my backyard and intend to become a fully independent state.

We enjoyed their presence for a brief moment in history. We spotted one fluffy guy venture into our backyard and named him Sergeant Tibbs. We mused how he and our tortoise shell cat shared a forbidden loved despite the confines of her impenetrable window. The skittish black one with glowing eyes became Sneaky Pete. But wait, is that another Sneaky Pete? That’s Sneaky Pete’s son, my child explained. Are there two or three orange cats? Five? We would crouch behind the lilacs like Dian Fossey in the bush, noting the habits and behaviors of about thirteen primitive cats.

But my husband lovingly built me two raised beds one Mother’s Day so that I could support my family’s diet with chemical-free vegetables. Upon digging, I soon came up with a handful of cat crap. My beds had become giant litter boxes. The amount of cat shit found would trigger any normal gag reflex. Those with tender tummies would be vomiting by now.

I love cats. I normally don’t seethe with rage at Little Whiskers. But after flinging one last pile of poop into my neighbor’s yard, (my only logical military strike against the woman who’s been feeding them all winter) I was ready to start picking those critters off one by one with a shotgun I don’t even own. But I don’t live in South Dakota or Minnesota, where they are allowed to shoot feral cats. I had to resort to chicken wire to exclude the colony from full citizenship rights to my beds. My lovely little seedlings are now incarcerated.

Which led me to rethink this kitty huntin’ proposal. The Humane Society’s answer of Trap-Neuter-Release returns the feral cat back to its colony under the watch of a designated “caretaker”. I support this, as it works to some degree, but it doesn’t cut down on the number of birds killed in my backyard (in WI, 39 million per year perish in the jaws of the street-wise tabby) nor does it eliminate the dumping of toxic waste on my vegetables.

The Humane Society and Alley Cat Allies argue that the logic behind “if you don’t feed them, they’ll go away” is faulty. Feral cats are territorial animals who can survive for weeks without food (!?!?) They tend to encroach closer into human habitations as they grow more desperate. Their malnourished condition makes them more susceptible to parasites, which they will spread. The cats will continue to reproduce despite the effort to “starve them out,” resulting in the visible deaths of many kittens. (Aaggh! Kitty deaths!) Keep feeding them, they say.

On the other hand, others say feeding strays maintains high densities of cats that kill and compete with native wildlife populations. Cat colonies will form around sources of food and grow to the limits of the food supply. You can’t realistically trap and neuter all wild cats to the point where you control the population. Colonies can grow to include dozens of animals, who will then eat smaller native species and dump on my vegetables. Ever hear of toxoplasmosis?

In reflecting on my feral cat situation, I am riled by the thought that Doyle was worried about being a “laughingstock”, insinuating the proposal was created by backcountry simpletons. So what else is new? As a Wisconsin native who lived outside of the motherland for eleven years, I experienced a widespread, ignorant opinion that most Wisconsinites were less civilized and unintelligent, usually based solely on our accent. The movie Fargo, although not even filmed in Wisconsin, did nothing to help my cause. Even my closest, most liberal friends think its hilarious to point out how “incorrectly” we speak, but wouldn’t dream of doing so to any other ethnic group. 

Are there ignorant rednecks in Wisconsin? Absolutely. But believe me, yahoos are alive and well EVERYWHERE. I recall finding it annoyingly humorous that my Californian hippy dippy friends would cut me down for the way I said “bagel” (and try to correct me as though I were a child learning to speak) in the same breath that they’d tell me they don’t listen to or read the news because its just The Man talkin’. But you didn’t find me driving all the way from Santa Cruz to the Grand Canyon only to find the park closed during the federal government shutdown of 1995. Hey, I warned them. I read it in the newspaper. Now hand me my baaagel.

But I digress. Back to feral cats. When taking this proposal out of context, you may find the Conservation Congress, the independent group that advises the state Natural Resources Board and the Department of Natural Resources, seem a bit like podunk fools. But some quick research on feral cats, (what fun!) and any educated reader would see the proposal was an attempt to educate and alert cat owners. Congress Chairman Steve Oestreicher, clearly stated that people are overreacting (surprise, surprise) if they imagine hunters are going to grab their guns and go hunting cats willy nilly. “We are not advocating a hunting season or the shooting of cats,…this is really to get the attention of the pet owner that when you get tired of your cat, don’t take it out into the woods and dump it.”  Makes sense to me. Eight of my childhood cats were acquired through neighborly cat dumping, not to mention the four or five we took to the Humane Society because we were at our household feline limit. Never have to pay money for a good cat in these parts.

And the U.S. spends over $50 million a year to shelter wild cats. Hmmm…and that ’05 education-oriented  proposal was idiotic?   

If this proposal would have passed, I doubt I would be the person sitting on my back porch with a rifle across my lap waiting for the little buggers to get into close range. But these days, I ain’t going to blame the person who would like to exercise their right to grow shit-free lettuce. Family health trumps wild kitty.  

So time will tell if feral cats will rule the world. If you are a feral cat lover, I suggest on October 16th, National Feral Cat Day (yes, there is one) you take a trip to Rome, (its population has been estimated to be between 250,000 and 350,000, organized in about 2,000 colonies), or a Greek holiday, where the affection for the stray feline remains strong. I’ve been there. Its not cute. Its gross. And watch out, if the origins of our modern civilizations started there, why can’t theirs?

Terrorists be damned, it’s the dawn of the feral cat. They are organizing, I tell you, revolution is near.