Letting Your Cat Go "Free"

What really happens when you let your cat "go free?"

Many people believe that cats go wild if you release them. In fact, some folks even believe that cats prefer a wild lifestyle, and they soothe their own consciences by thinking that Fluffy now lives "out in the country, happily hunting mice to her heart's content." Certainly, cats are very adept at survival and can eke out a living in some very difficult conditions. But many of those conditions are simply cruel and inhumane. And, contrary to popular myth, most pet cats turned loose do not survive long.

Shelter workers see the results of this thinking quite often. At our shelter, we have rescued cats from the country when a farmer calls to tell us there is a stray cat hanging around and they are worried about him. He is either injured, or is in danger of being injured or killed. Also, some farm residents shoot strays on sight because they have to protect their own animals. Some kill them other ways, including ignoring them, which then results in starvation, freezing in winter, heat stroke in summer, or being killed by some predator.

Interestingly, while city folks are dumping unwanted pets in rural areas so some nice farmer will take them in, rural residents occasionally dump unwanted animals in towns, because they believe there is an animal control policy that protects them if they get picked up.

Unfortunately, both sides are wrong. And both sides create nothing but misery and death for the poor, unsuspecting animals. In a way, the "lucky" ones are those the farmers shoot immediately for intruding, or the ones hit by cars in their new town because they've never learned how to navigate traffic. At least they die right away, rather than suffering for weeks or months with no food or water, or shelter from the weather. Or sometimes they bleed slowly to death from an injury. We have picked up cats with broken legs, smashed faces, horrible sores from some sharp object (maybe even a predator's teeth) or just so skinny it is hard to imagine they could even stand up.

I have more bad news. There were no happy endings with any of the above mentioned cats. They all died shortly after we rescued them. They were too far gone.

But of course, they don't all die. Some do survive and become what is known as "feral," a social condition that is roughly equivalent to "wild." In other words, such cats no longer trust humans and have become acclimated to life on the streets. Some live in the fields on the edges of a town, but they must stay close to the people they don't trust, because people provide their support, even if the people don't realize it.

Feral cats eat food left by humans as garbage and litter, and some eat better because the soft-hearted ones bring out bags of cheap cat food. The number of rodents consumed is actually quite small. A wildlife show on television recently revealed that cats are only successful in about 2-3 hunts out of 10. Multiply that by hundreds of feral cats in the same area, and one can see that those cats are not eating like royalty. And the mouse population just isn't large enough to take care of all of them, either.

The same concept applies to farms. In my opinion, farm kitties are just ferals on a farm. Some farmers do take very good care of their cats, but they seem to be the minority. Most farms host cats simply to be mousing machines, and they care not one bit whether the cats eat or die, just so long as there are enough cats every spring to maintain the mousing duties. Obviously, then, they do not believe in spaying or neutering, either.

I've heard farmers complain that they "ran out of cats this year. Do you know anyone who could bring us some kittens, so we can start over again?" They have no idea that cats have feelings, and so they treat them as furry commodities or just another farm tool. It's rather disgusting - and deadly for the poor cats.

So, if you know someone who doesn't want or can't keep their cat anymore, don't let them get the rustic and romantic notion that they'd be doing Fluffy any favors by taking him to a farm, or by just letting him go "run wild" anywhere he wants to go. He WANTS to be with his people.

Take him to a shelter, where he might have a chance at a future. And if that fails, and he has to be put down, at least it will be done humanely. He won't suffer.

Copyright 2006 - 2007 - RJ Peters 
Dr. R.J. Peters, a retired physician, established an animal rescue shelter in 2002. She has worked with hundreds of dogs and cats and shares much of what she's learned, at The Problem Cat.