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THERE ARE AN ESTIMATED 1 million feral cats living in San Diego County. Our local suburban sprawl and lovely year-round climate are perfect for sustaining these homeless kitties. It’s quite possible that one day, while opening your back door to check on what’s blooming in your garden, you might come across one of these uninvited guests. The furry feline may look adorable, lonesome and hungry, but should you feed her? And, if you do, will she move into your yard and bring all her relatives?

Here’s what Julie Levy, the director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program in Florida and an expert in feral cats, has to say on the matter.

Q: What is a feral cat?
A: Feral cats are domestic animals that are not socialized to people. They usually behave like urban wildlife, avoiding close contact with people but often seeking the benefits of food and shelter that come with loose associations with human society.

Q: What is a colony?
A: Feral cat “colonies” often form around a food source and can range from just a couple of cats to more than 100, although large colonies are the exception.

Q: How did this happen?
A: Cats have been living outdoors alongside human societies for 10,000 years. Thanks to the high-reproductive success of cats, the free-roaming community cat population is self-sustaining.

Q: Does a tame cat that’s been abandoned become wild and join a colony?
A: Cats that are lost or abandoned from homes often struggle to survive. Having not grown up in the wild, they never developed the skills to find a safe place to live and adequate nourishment. The stress and fear associated with abruptly losing a home and a family is enormous, just as it would be for a child that was suddenly lost and alone. It’s likely that most kittens that are abandoned do not survive to adulthood. Those that do usually gravitate toward a source of food and shelter, often intentionally or unintentionally provided by people. Many cats live on residential properties, either alone or with one or two other cats. Others live in colonies that can grow larger if their reproduction is unchecked. We estimate that adult females average a litter of four kittens each year. Other research shows that three out of four kittens won’t make it to breeding age and that if cats have a second litter in a season, the survival rate for them is much lower.

Q: Where are these colonies in San Diego?
A: It’s likely that colonies exist everywhere people do, including residential areas, industrial parks, strip malls, institutions and other places where food and shelter are available.

Q: What should we do when we encounter a colony?
A: Locating any other caregivers or people concerned about the colony to develop a well-supporting response to the colony is ideal. The best approach when encountering a colony is to initiate the process of trap/neuter/release. (Editor’s note: To find a trap/neuter/release clinic near you, call the Feral Cat Coalition, 619-758-9194.)

Q: When you have a feral cat come to your house, what should you do?
A: Give her a meal, borrow a trap and take her to a TNR clinic. She’ll reward you with her company and look to you for protection, even if she never lets you touch her.

Q: Can we invite a feral cat to be part of our family?
A: Some feral cats are actually lost pets and will readily accept joining a family. Feral kittens often can be tamed enough to come inside. Some older ferals become tamer as they age and spend their elder years inside. Most truly feral cats are too frightened to enjoy life inside or in close proximity to people and dogs and are better off left outside.

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I first heard about the University of San Diego’s Women PeaceMakers program in 2010 from Sigrid Tornquist, an editor and writer from Minnesota. Each year since 2003, the program has selected four women peacemakers from around the world for an eight-week residency at the John B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. Each is paired with a writer and documentary film team to record her story.
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