Community Works Together to Manage Feral Cat Population

Feral Cat Return

Story & Photos by JB Lester

Photo caption #1 Litter of Feral Kittens #2 Feral Cat Release

In the summer of 2021, my wife Niki and I were sitting on our front porch in Webster Groves, enjoying a cool beverage. Suddenly we heard a faint sound. “Did you hear that?” Niki asked. “Yes, what the heck is that?” I responded. In just a few moments we realized the sounds were coming from beneath the decking of our front porch. We quickly realized the sounds were tiny meows of kittens. It was obvious that a cat had given birth to a litter of kittens under our porch.

In just a few weeks, five kittens had introduced themselves, climbing up on our porch and eating the food and drinking the water we put out for them. Being cat lovers, we were happy to help the stray cat family. Momma cat would appear from time to time, but she was very leery of us. The kittens however began getting friendlier and friendlier. We decided to take them inside our house and look into taking them to an adoption center to be fixed and then adopted out. Now that they were obviously weaned and eating our food, we knew the time was right to help find homes for these feral kittens. We ended up adopting two ourselves and left the other three to be adopted by new families.

Momma cat remained wild and continued to roam our neighborhood. Then earlier this year, she had another litter, not under our porch but somewhere close by. It was not long before she brought her five gray kittens to see us. They grew up fast and seemed much wilder as young kittens than the first litter we took for adoption. Neighbors often stopped by while walking their dogs to see the kittens on our porch. Some even donated blankets and food for the feral cats. The kittens became young adults quickly and we knew we had to do something fast as they approached breeding age. Niki talked to someone at the Animal Protection Association (APA) and they told her about the St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach (STLFCO). We had no clue that the feral cat population had grown so much in the St. Louis area. We just knew we needed help.

We contacted STLFCO and asked what we should do with our feral cat family, which was quickly growing up. They explained about their trap-neuter-return (TNR) program. This program helps someone like us by offering help in humanely trapping stray cats, taking them to be fixed and then returning them back to the territory they came from. We began working closely with STLFCO volunteer Tara Berger to learn how to trap, neuter and return our feral cat family. Our hope was to capture as many as possible – the momma, and all five youngsters. Niki and I felt this a tall order although the kittens were getting to the point of letting us pet them when they came to dine on our doorstep. As friendly as they had become with us, Berger explained they were still wild and were only accepting us because we were their providers.

“Feral cats are the result of an unaltered pet cat,” Berger explained. “Those pets were either allowed to roam, got lost, or were dumped. When kittens are raised without human contact, they are feral. Feral is just a scary word for un-socialized to humans. Feral cats are not normally vicious or scary. They are simply afraid of humans and will avoid human contact.”

Berger went on to say that it’s hard to estimate how many feral cats there are in the St. Louis area, but she said the STLFCO group has been fixing over 2,000 cats per year for the last several years. “We receive upwards of 50 requests per week for TNR assistance. We are a small group of volunteers and cannot possibly trap for everyone who reaches out for help, but we are more than happy to loan equipment, give advice, and financial assistance (if necessary),” Berger said.

We greatly needed the help of Berger and the STLFCO, but we quickly learned to trap the cats on our own. She loaned us the wire live traps and showed us how to bait them. When a hungry cat entered the trap and was caught, she showed us how to quickly put a cover over the trap to calm them down. “The covering helps them quiet down like covering a bird in a bird cage.” Berger said. She helped us catch our first two cats on a Saturday morning at mealtime, then she had to leave and it was up to us. We were very worried mostly that we wouldn’t catch the whole family, especially the momma who was still very wild and never let us pet her. As fate would have it, we managed to catch all of the kittens and even the momma after a day of anxious waiting. It was a test of will knowing that we were doing the right thing for the feral cat population. This momma cat had already had three litters and we wanted to help stop the cycle.

We could not have done it without the help of volunteer Tara Berger, and the STLFCO. They went the extra mile to educate and aide us in our socially responsible task. All six cats have been fixed and returned to our neighborhood. They are coming again for meals and measured companionship. While they were fixed, they also received micro-chips, vaccinations and had one of their ears tipped to show they are “community cats” who have been neutered/spayed and released.

The issue of feral cats can be somewhat controversial. The Missouri Department of Conservation considers them an invasive species. In other words, they are not native and have been introduced by humans. There is a backlash from bird lovers who have seen a depletion of songbirds in recent years, some due to feral cats. We love birds, too. As with much of nature, there is always a balance of positive and negative. Feral cats do offer some benefits worth noting.

“Feral cats provide organic rodent control. You can appreciate this if you’ve ever had to replace concrete due to chipmunk damage,” Berger explained. “Caring for community cats can also increase a human’s sense of purpose and compassion. An established and managed (neutered and vaccinated) cat colony will also keep out new cats. Removal of an established colony causes what is called the vacuum effect. The bottom line is if your area is conducive to cats there will always be cats present. TNR reduces the behaviors that cause neighbors to complain. Once the cats are neutered, fighting, spraying, and late-night yowling go away.”

Berger suggests, “If you find kittens, the first order of business is to determine age. If kittens are under 6 weeks old, they need their mom. It’s best to leave them be. Kittens between 6 and 8 weeks old are the perfect age to be socialized and should go to rescue. You can find a list of no-kill rescues on our website. Kittens over 8 weeks of age are somewhat trickier. They are harder to socialize at that point, thus harder to find rescue placement. TNR may be the only option. Don’t forget about mom or any other adult cats hanging around. Formulate a plan for TNR.”

According to Berger, St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach began in 2012. It started as a Facebook group intended to educate about TNR. The original founders were members of a St. Louis City TNR task force. The need for funding (for TNR surgeries) led them to becoming a 501(c)3. The mission of St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach is to humanely reduce the feral cat population in St. Louis (and surrounding areas) through trap-neuter-return while improving the quality of life for both humans and cats.

“We contract with (Operation Spot – Stop Pet Overpopulation Today) OpSPOT for monthly clinics when the weather isn’t too cold (March-November),” Berger explained. “We trap and fix roughly 80 cats during those 2-day clinics. This is not open to the public. Only our volunteers can bring cats to these mobile clinics. Carol House Quick Fix is our other go-to. They are open to the public. Anyone can bring feral cats there to be fixed, but they must be in a trap”. 

It is important to note that it is against the law to harm or kill feral cats. And they are very hard to catch, and most are difficult to adopt out. So, the trap-neuter-return (TNR) program is the best way to eventually manage the population, according to the STLFCO.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” Berger said. “If you are interested in helping community cats, we’d love to have you. We work for free, but the rewards are immense. We accept tax-deductible, monetary donations as we do pay for services at area vet clinics. The most important thing you can do to help us is to fix the cats you are feeding or seeing in your neighborhood. Get the word out. Educate people about TNR. Our small group of volunteers can’t do it alone. We need your support.”

If you have a family of community cats and want to care for them like we do, the STLFCO group suggests you offer them well provided outdoor shelter. “People can contact STLFCO and we will direct them to available shelters. We have wonderful people who have volunteered specifically to build feral cat shelters. They ask for a small donation to cover their cost of supplies,” Berger explained.

When my wife and I first heard that faint little meow under our porch a year and a half ago, we never dreamed what adventure and education about feral cats lie ahead. It’s been a journey of love and responsibility, and we are glad to have taken on the challenge. We hope many of you will take on the challenge, too, and become responsible community cat lovers. We made a donation to the STLFCO on their website to help pay for the cost of neutering, traps, outdoor cat shelters, etc..

The STLFCO is in need of volunteers. If you have a love for cats and have the time to help, please call 314-669-5228 or visit www.stlfco.org for more information. If you can’t volunteer, please make a donation on their website.