Tomorrow (Oct. 16) is National Feral Cat Day, a time to celebrate the lives of cats who did not choose to be wild and to celebrate those too-few dedicated individuals among us who are committed to ensuring these animals have enough to eat and drink, that they have shelter and veterinary care.
I didn't know a feral cat - or even know what one was - until I moved to rural Maryland in my 20s.
In the Washington, D.C. neighborhood where I grew up there were no feral cats.
Now, feral cat people will say they were there I just didn't know it.
But I spent many countless hours on my neighborhood sidewalks. A paper route had me up and out at the crack of dawn.
There were dogs yes, but no cats.
I lived in a community where it was the norm to take your young animals to the vet to be spayed and neutered and few residents let their cats outside on the perilous streets.
I was well known in my family for bringing home stray dogs. Remarkably, all except one was reunited with its owners, all desperately searching for the beloved pet that squeezed through the fence or taken advantage of an open gate.
Now I live in the country again and I can say with confidence - and my menagerie of formerly homeless felines can attest - that rural Pennsylvania is overrun with feral cats.
Farmers and other country residents do not spay and neuter their barn cats or the cats they feed on the porch.
Second, the preferred option for handling a stray cat in my community, sadly, is to shoot it.
The concept of TNR (trap, neuter, release) has not been publicized enough in rural areas, nor are there enough free or very low cost spay/neuter options. Though we paws to note here that the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) offers $25 spay/neuter for feral cat trappers ("As close to free as we can get and still cover our costs," says PAWS director Melissa Levy).
Mobile veterinary clinics (hey, PennVet how about it?) would be a fabulous way to attack the problem of feral cats at their source in Pennsylvania and beyond, but are so far non-existent.
TNR is a well-regarded method of reducing cat populations and has proven effective throughout the nation - perhaps the best known among the feral cat colonies are the boardwalk cats of Atlantic City.
The concept behind TNR is to use a humane live trap to catch the wild cats, take them to the vet to be altered and release them - ideally - back to the place where there were found. [Kittens and others who can be tamed can be adopted but you can be assured that a feral cat taken to the shelter is a dead cat.]
After the cats are released, a designated person or group feeds them and provides shelter in frigid months; it could be a dog houses stuffed with straw or even a cardboard box in a sheltered area. In addition, there are pet food banks and some shelters offer assistance to groups feeding feral cats.
There is or was a heart-warming little TNR operation in an office building parking lot alongside the Amtrak line in Harrisburg. I don't know if it is still functioning, but it has cheered me no end over the years to see the cluster of dog houses and an occasional cat sunning themselves behind the fence by the tracks as I settled into my seat en route to Philadelphia.
Sadly, some businesses municipalities have tried to eliminate cat colonies through extermination and local governments have sought to ban citizens from participating in TNR activities.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission five or so years ago tried to declare stray cats "wildlife," so that people could shoot them without repercussion. Fortunately, that idea was shot down, thanks to the intense lobbying efforts of feral cat protectors.
Shooting cats or rounding them up and destroying them does not stop the overpopulation problem. The cats that escaped and new cats fill the void and breed again. This has been well-documented by Alley Cat Allies - the nation's only nationwide feral cat advocacy group.
There are good-hearted people out there, but there are far too few and far too many irresponsible folks out there who don't realize how a cat population can grow exponentially or how disease can sweep through a colony if the animals are not vaccinated.
But tomorrow we celebrate the enormous progress that has been made in humanely handling feral cats.
This month Alley Cat Allies and its supporters have organized 342 "feral cat awareness" events throughout the country, including too many to mention around Pennsylvania. Check out the map on the Alley Cat Allies website to find out how you can get involved in cat day activities and save a wild kitty or two in your community.
(Photo: Alley Cat Allies)