Feral cats can make excellent pets - but it takes time and patience.
Mr Spit, pictured on the right, as his name might suggest, is no ordinary, soppy domestic puss. He has a wild past. At the age of three weeks, he was rescued by Cats Protection from the bottom of a farmyard milk churn, having been abandoned by his feral mother. Kittens with his sort of background tend not to come quietly. In fact, the best way to describe Mr Spit’s departure from his feral roots - in terms of hissing and claw power - is probably as more like a scene from Alien than Animal Hospital.
But things have looked up since. Mr Spit has discovered the comforts of domestic life, with his new owners, Louise and James Williamson, in Derbyshire. Just over a year ago, the couple saw five-week-old Spit, as he then was called, at their local Cats Protection shelter, and were smitten by his energetic tabby charms. He now lives with their four other female cats.
Louise, an accountant, says that Mr Spit was initially "a bit of a shock to the system, as we’d always lived with rather quiet, domestically raised, lady cats. The day Mr Spit arrived he spent six hours doing the wall-of-death around the tops of our furniture. I had never seen anything like it. He also needs far more individual attention and stimulation with toys than other cats we’ve had. Otherwise he’ll do things like divebomb through The Times when you’re reading it, get on the back of the settee and whack you round the head or bite your ankles and hang on to them, swinging, as you walk."
The Williamsons are among a growing number of pet owners giving homes to kittens from feral backgrounds. The main reason for this is because increasing numbers of people in urban areas are having their cats neutered, so there aren’t always enough domestically reared kittens to meet demand. That apart, many feline rescue and welfare organisations, such as Cats Protection, are constantly looking for ways to keep the country’s spiralling feral cat population under better control.
The United Kingdom now has a feral cat population of around 1.2 million. Many live in distinct colonies and gravitate towards food and shelter - usually farms, warehouses or buildings where there are plenty of rodents or food refuse left by humans. The main risk to their survival is overbreeding. A female cat can, within five years, be responsible for up to 20,000 descendants. The more cats there are in a limited area, the higher the risk of disease and the fewer resources there are to go around.
Many of the founders of feral colonies will be cats which started off as pets, only to be abandoned by their owners when they moved. These cats, if not neutered, then go on to produce generations of descendants with no experience of living with mankind, or the will to do so. Instead, they will live entirely on their wits and survive by hunting or scavenging.
Julia Walton, the deputy manager of the Cats Protection’s Cardyke rescue shelter in Glasgow, finds that feral cats are a particular problem in her area. As well as rehoming many feral-born kittens, she says: "At any one time we can have around 100 requests on our books from the public asking us to remove feral cats - especially from the local tenements - and it’s incredible how divided people can be about this issue. Some residents love having the cats around and regularly feed them, whereas others see them as simple pests which should be destroyed. We always hope that we can get to the cats before the pest control people do."
In many areas where feral cat colonies exist, a dedicated army of feline welfare volunteers traps and removes all the breeding adults. They then neuter, worm and de-flea them before returning them. This keeps the population stable and healthy. Adult ferals can rarely adapt to pet life, but the CP has had considerable success finding many of them homes on farms or in stables and warehouses as "working cats", keeping down rodents. "They make brilliant hunters," says Walton, "and in return we’ll arrange for someone in their new homes to keep an eye on them and regularly feed them."
Kittens will often be removed from such feral colonies to become pets - ideally at around six weeks of age. The older the kitten when rescued, however, the harder it finds domestic life. Many feral kittens are timid, aggressive or indifferent to human company, which is why they need someone special, like Marie Macauley, to help them adjust to life with people.
In Glasgow they call Macauley "the cat whisperer." Cats Protection says Macauley "can take on the hissiest, spittiest little feral kittens and convert them into quieter, sociable and affectionate animals".
Macauley has given up her career as a fashion designer to concentrate on cat rescue full time. She currently has four foster kittens from feral backgrounds. "Each one requires hours of being stroked and brushed, talked to gently and played with," she says. "You have to let them come to you when they’re ready."
If you want to help feral cats or kittens - either rescuing, fostering or rehoming them - call the Cats Protection helpline on 08707-708-650 (UK).