commentary (2007-41)

Cats at Home in the Wild


Efforts to control their feral population face challenges

by Barry Henderson

Donâ’t get me wrong, I love my dog. But Iâ’ve always been a cat person, and I still am. A dogâ’s love is unconditional and appealing. A catâ’s independence is likewise a reason for affection, even if it seems one-way.

They make interesting pets, to say the least, and they adapt readily to the wild when they are abandoned or choose to leave their homes on their own volition. Where there are food sources, and there are always food sources for the wiliest among them, cats thrive. I respect that.

In Knoxville, a group of people devoted to that respect for cats and their nature is working to keep cats healthy and reduce their population by humane means. Knoxville Feral Cat Friends is an organization with about 40 member volunteers who look after feral cat colonies.

KFCF is seven years old, a project of Peaceful Kingdom, a Tennessee non-profit organization with the support of a national non-profit called Alley Cat Allies. The still-growing group feeds, waters, and strives to trap, neuter and release as many of the hundreds of feral cats in the Knoxville area as it can, according to its spokesperson, Kristen Glasnow. She says they are partnering with the UT vet school, which has developed a project to keep the population of feral cats in check. Itâ’s sort of controversial, says Teresa Jennings, a vet-school staff member who is in charge of the project. Even among faculty and students and graduates, there are those who believe that the protection of other wildlife should require feral cats to be exterminated.

Her faction, Glasnow says, supports feral cat roundups, twice a UT semester, by the KFCF volunteers, who bring about 75 cats to the school to be spayed or neutered by the volunteer veterans, who participate along with vet-school students in examining and vaccinating the animals, which the Friends caretakers then observe for a day or two before returning them to their colonies in the wild.

Alley cats, barn cats, whatever you wish to call feral cats, have a place in this world. And as long as they donâ’t overrun it and serve as health hazards to humans, they are entitled to that place.

Former Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson, who was also a candidate for president and ambassador to the United Nations, had a Lincolnesque view of cats, as evidenced by his veto of a bill passed by both houses of the Illinois General Assembly in 1949. Itâ’s my considered opinion that Gov. Stevensonâ’s veto message to the legislature should be republished periodically. To wit:

â“I cannot agree that it should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighborâ’s yard or crossing the highways is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming. Many live with their owners in apartments or other restricted premises, and I doubt if we want to make their every brief foray an opportunity for a small game hunt by zealous citizensâ"with traps or otherwise.

â“I am afraid this bill could only create discord, recrimination and enmity. Also consider the ownerâ’s dilemma: to escort a cat abroad on a leash is against the nature of the cat, and to permit it to venture forth for exercise unattended into a night of new dangers is against the nature of the owner. Moreover, cats perform useful service, particularly in rural areas, in combating rodentsâ"work they necessarily perform alone and without regard for property lines.

â“We are all interested in protecting certain varieties of birds. That cats destroy some birds, I well know, but I believe this legislation would further but little the worthy cause to which its proponents give such unselfish effort. The problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to resolve it by legislation who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age-old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency.â”

Heed those words from one of the 20th centuryâ’s most distinguished statesmen.


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