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Maverick Cats, subtitled Encounters with Feral Cats, by Ellen Berkeley contains a balance of personal stories and researched facts. The cat portraits are varied, while the informational sections cover a wide range of topics. It’s a book I recommend for anyone interested in animal welfare, especially that of our undomesticated cats.
Over the years, Ellen and her husband had seen the paw prints of many cats, but rarely had they seen any of the cats themselves. Mama Cat changed all this and sparked the couple’s interest in feral cats. She was a white and gray cat who showed up on their steps, came around for weeks, and then left after the birth of her babies. After Mama Cat, six other cats visited the couple in Vermont. Each with their own unique personalities. And each with lessons to teach the couple.
For example, there was another mother cat. Turtle showed up one day with her kittens and maintained regular vigilance over them. Yet both of her young ones went missing within days. Berkeley wondered if they should have taken the kittens inside.
Then there was Sylvester, who resembled the cartoon cat both in its appearance and his pushy personality, and who developed thyroid issues. Sylvester seemed interested in making their place a home, but he also seemed intent on driving away every other cat. The couple wondered for a long time about their choice to not keep but instead to relocate him.
There were other cats too. One they didn’t know long enough to name. He showed up one day, limping, and collapsed in their driveway. Such can be the harshness of life for the feral cat. The feral cat’s life might also be like that of Herbert, who enjoyed the couple’s lap but never felt comfortable staying indoors. One day he disappeared for good, but sometimes they would spot him, still alive. And finally a feral cat’s life can be like that of Turtle, who eventually moved inside. At the time of the publication of Maverick Cats, Turtle had made the couple’s home a permanent one.
Anyone who loves cats will treasure these touching stories. For those involved in animal welfare, there is also much to learn from the supplementary sections about feral cat life.
In her first chapter, Berkeley overviews how the issue of feral cats is complex. She notes that we have feral swine, sheep, horses, goats, donkeys, cattle, camels, and even human. On this basis, the common consensus is that feral means wild, but how does one apply that to feral cats? Are feral cats the free-rangers found on farms, half-domesticated, strays, or untamed? And how do cats become feral? Are they born in the wild, abandoned by humans, or…? Berkeley even covers where we can find feral cats, including inhospitable places such as deserts and the Antarctica. Finally, she talks about why there is a growing interest in feral cats, which goes beyond cats ladies, extending to the humane society because of an animal surplus, and also scientists because of the effect of feral colonies on an ecological system.
In total, Berkeley covers eight topics of relevance to feral cats, all of which are well-researched. As part of writing Maverick Cats, Berkeley interviewed cat experts, read pet magazines and animal welfare newsletters, searched books about pets, and even browsed professional journals. For any in the field, the results of her research are fascinating, informative, and obviously reliable. Below are just a few tidbits which stood out to me:
- Mortality: The guess is that its 42 in the first two months of a kitten’s life. After that, if a wild cat survives past the age of three, it’s a rough life with many of them dying from starvation, illness, predation, poisoning, or weather. At the same time, the feral cat is a “healthy and natural hunter with an adjustable appetite, and it can always turn to man for food and shelter”.
- Territoriality: One of the fictions, Berkeley notes, is about animals living in the wild is that they are free to roam at will or to settle at random. The opposite is true. Animals tend to restrict themselves to well-defined territories and will defend these according to rules for their species, their sex, and their age. Feral cats are no exception. Since 1963, the use of radio tracking has revolutionized wildlife studies, including that of feral cats. One discovery is males will often travel much farther than females.
- Reproduction: Feral cats will breed whether or not there is a reliable food source. However, puberty often comes later for those cats which live on their own, perhaps at age one. Social factors may inhibit growth of a cat colony in some places, while in other places there are equal numbers of male and female, and in some places there might be millions of feral cats. The suggestion is that a colony survives because just as many cats which die as there are ones which live.
- Predation: All cats ARE carnivores and predators. Multiple analyses of the stomachs of feral cats shows content to range from : mammals, birds (mostly game not song—which might get eaten in greater abundance by blue jays), carrion, garbage, rodents, and insects. Some researchers contend that cats actually aren’t good bird hunters, their springing often only after the bird has flown. As a result, mostly they catch old, young, or sick birds. Feral cats can also be used to control unwanted populations of rodents.
- Danger: Diseases which feral cats could spread are actually of minimal threat. For example, only 3% of all cases of rabies in North America come from feral cats. (In contrast, 10% comes from bats.) A parasitical infection known as toxoplasmosis can provide risk to an unborn child, but most often this threat arises from the domesticated cat. Cat-scratch is rare, because feral cats would typically prefer to flee humans. As for the plague, it can wipe out a colony but it never gets passed onto humans. The bottom line, Berkeley believes, is people are more dangerous to feral cats than feral cats to people.
- Togetherness: Cats used to be viewed as independent creatures with no social life. Now at least when it comes to ferals, they’re known to form groups, inbreed, and develop long-term relationships with one another. As with cats in general, much research remains to be done.
Maverick Cats by Ellen Berkeley is a book I read for personal reasons. In 2006, a stray cat showed up at my door. She lived me with for eight years until dying of kidney and heart failure, among other complications. Since Lucy’s death, my interest in animal rescue has evolved to focus on feral cats. Maverick Cats has successfully whetted my appetite to know even more about these controversial creatures.