Cat Walk

I traveled to Canada in late February, a month not notable for its warmth and charm. On Vancouver Island, frozen snowbanks receded reluctantly from the roads and even the hardy Islanders were wearing woolly hats and gloves.

The temperature, day and night, was below zero. My sister keeps her house heated at 17C which does not feel very warm to a body long adapted to the tropics. Her two indolent cats permanently positioned themselves on top of the floor radiators one of them made a small, angry sound. Looking up, I caught a glimpse of another cat just outside the glass patio doors. He flicked away before I could get a good look but it did not seem to be wearing a collar. Beth’s cats were outraged by this intrusion to the point of spraying pungently against the patio doors to define their territory.

“Feral cat,” explained Beth as she scrubbed the doors clean. “It’s been around before.” It was surviving outdoors in that bitter cold, foraging for food and water.

Canada is a highly regulated country and all cats are supposed to be sterilized and vaccinated. But feral cats operate outside all rules. According to Wikipedia, a feral cat is a freely-ranging, wild-living domestic cat (Felis catus) that avoids human contact, does not allow itself to be handled or touched and generally remains hidden from humans. Feral cats on Vancouver Island are descended from pets which escaped or were abandoned, and become wilder with each generation.

Beth called Shannon, a volunteer experienced in the arcane specialty of catching and dealing with feral and abandoned cats. She works for Kitty Cat Pals (KCP), which was established 11 years ago by two women concerned at the number and plight of the feral cats in the area. The cats were trapped and released after sterilization and vaccination. They are no longer released unless they have a place to sleep and are fed, since a cat recently operated on is particularly vulnerable to predators.

Life as a feral cat on Vancouver Island is short compared to that of domestic cats. Dangers include disease, cars and predators like cougars and eagles. Feral cats here live an average of seven years compared to up to 20 for domestic cats. Adult male feral cats are characterised by very broad faces and large testicles, and can be very aggressive.

Cats, whether feral or domestic, take a huge toll on wild birds. For this reason domestic cats should be kept indoors from dusk until dawn. One spring I was staying at the remote village of Bamfield on Vancouver Island’s wild west coast. Over the course of the winter almost every domestic cat and dog had disappeared into a sleek cougar who had figured out where the easy meals were. A feral cat has nowhere to hide.

Now KCP brings in about 500 homeless cats and kittens a year, an average of 115 of which are feral adults; feral kittens bring the total to about 350 a year. Most are trapped, and Shannon has become an expert at this. Using a variety of humane padded traps and wildlife and heat sensing cameras, she has learned to wait patiently, often for hours, until the target feline enters the trap, then pulls a string to close the door. Baited traps are left in position for at least several days so the animal becomes accustomed to it before it is set.

The photo shows an abandoned cat rescued from a dump, before and after a bath. Shannon kept this one. Kittens are tamed and re-homed. “The first generation is much easier to socialise. But most feral kittens can be socialized if we can get them by five weeks, seven weeks at the latest,” Shannon told me. “We have about 50 volunteers who take the kittens home to be socialised.

“Adult feral cats are almost impossible to socialise. Since it can’t be domesticated and is at risk from hunger, disease and predation in the wild, we will find it a position as a barn cat. We always have a list of farmers looking for low maintenance pest management.”

The success of KCP programs is a result of many dedicated volunteers and a compassionate, engaged community. The story of feral cats in Bali is much different. There are few happy endings here. The wonderful work being done by Villa Kitty and many dedicated individuals is inadequate to meet the needs of un-owned, uncared-for, diseased and abused cats here.

Elizabeth Henzell, founder of Villa Kitty, says,” With the Wikipedia definition in mind, I would have to say that the majority of cats on Bali could be regarded as feral. This is because cats are not valued by the local community for their very important role in managing pests.”

Last year Villa Kitty received 1,017 cats and kittens, lost 496 to disease, sterilised about 550, vaccinated 909 and adopted out only 281. The low adoption rate reflects the transitory nature of Bali’s foreign population and the unfamiliar concept of keeping cat as pets in the Balinese community.

“Villa Kitty’s role on this island has not been to trap, neuter and release. We have our hands full caring for many socialised, adoptable cats besides receiving, vaccinating, treating, neutering and breaking our hearts trying to find adopters for new cats. The reason we don’t trap/neuter/ release is because we might as well euthanize as release cats in unsafe areas inhabited by free ranging dogs, speeding vehicles and cruel humans.

“Having said that, we have trapped a number of cats in Ubud and the surrounding areas and in particular the beautiful gardens of the Museum Puri Lukisan. The tiny kittens rescued from there were taken to Villa Kitty and socialised for adoption. The adult cats are sterilised and returned to the gardens to live, where we feed them.

“More people now know about our free sterilization program and we are seeing more Indonesians coming in to adopt, but still not enough. We also offer to vaccinate free if the adopters cannot afford to pay. Most do give a donation.”

There’s also the issue of foreigners who adopt cats although they don’t live in Bali permanently, then dump them at Villa Kitty when they leave. If you’re here on a short stay and want a cat, please foster one.

Bali’s feral cat issues and management are very different to Canada’s. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Indonesia is a great country in so many ways. Hopefully broad-based, socially accepted animal welfare will someday rank among its achievements.

Villa Kitty does stellar work with Bali’s unwanted cats. Please support it with cash donations, volunteer your time or consider fostering kittens. And please always, always make a donation when you use its services. Money is perennially short with this wonderful organisation.


By Ibu Kat


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