From Europe, the cats came with the new settlers. Often, cats were carried on the ships to combat the rodent problem and they would often escape when the ship was docked. In North America, it is estimated that the cat population is over 65 million.
Cats tend to have a free ranging spirit often traveling a few square miles as their home territory from their home. These domestic cats that are free roaming are not native to the North American ecosystem. On quite the occasion, some of these cats will not return home or would be abandoned and become feral cats.
Between the feral cats and the free roaming cats, they have an impact on the ecosystem where they live. Often, this becomes a problem for the wildlife that live in the region. The cats’ prey may already be under stress or their numbers may be low. If there is an overabundance of feral cats in the region, there can be devastating effects.
In some areas, the Galapagos Islands for example, wildlife managers have had to utilize an extermination program to return certain islands to the natural ecosystem. This is an area that not only were the cats not native to the area but there was no significant human population for the cats to have just wandered away from. The occurrence of these cats becoming feral cats came about from cats that were traveling on merchant ships escaping while the ship was at the island resupplying food or water resources.
In North America, the situation is often not that severe. If you talk to people that live in rural areas that have a lot of cats, they would fill you with stories of how this cat or that cat showed up at their door as a newly born kitten in the middle of the night. Often, the comment goes back to city-folk dropping off their kittens that momma cat had and they didn’t want. They just think that the cat belongs in the country and if they drop it off near the farmhouse, the farmer will take it in and it can hunt mice and rats thereby earning its keep.
This adds an additional expense to the farmer and more often than not, these cats will not receive medical care and worse, they will mate and reproduce until there are too many to care for. Let me paint a vivid picture from a farmer I knew. He commented: “when the number of cats and kittens gets to be too many, I would just gather up some of the extra kittens, put them in a burlap sack, tie it shut and throw it in the lake. After they are dead, I would pull the bag out of the water and bury it in the ground”.
There are alternatives. If you took the cats to the veterinarian, you could have them spayed or neutered. There is an expense involved with this and unfortunately has been a problem with the rural landowner in this forced adoption situation. As we are becoming more aware, there are more spay and neuter clinics coming to assistance and some of these programs are conducting catch and release programs.