Cat Magnet: Managing a Feral Cat Colony

Updated on April 14, 2017

Mismanaging a Feral Cat Colony: The Set Up

We moved into a rural area near a Midwestern city. A nearby strip mall, built next to a grain field, had a large open storefront enclosed by concrete block and a thick gravel floor. The area cats treated it as a gigantic litter box.

Someone placed a couple of homemade cat shelters inside; others left plates of food. We saw kittens and cats, none willing to approach us. The nearby pizzeria fed them leftovers nightly. The hairdresser said that the longhaired calico had litters every six months. No one knew how many cats were there; one said it ranged from forty to eighty over time.

We found a feral cat colony. We tried to help and succeeded (partially).


Veterinarians and pet charities recognize the benefits of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) over extermination of these cats. One charity, Alley Cat Allies, focuses on this concern. TNR, or TNVR (V = vaccinate against feline diseases), stabilizes the population of feral cats over time while extermination does not. Cats live in loose-knit groups based on food sources; an established group is reluctant to accept newcomers.

Managing a feral cat colony requires the cooperation of people and organizations; it’s not a do-it-yourself project. Local residents need to understand the benefits of TNR and not obstruct it. Local animal shelters and veterinarians need to coordinate the spay-neuter operations and treatment, and determine whether any trapped cats are adoptable or potential barn cats. Fellow volunteers need to feed, help trap and transport, and log the conditions of colony members.

The local Humane Society loaned us one trap and assisted with the operations. We did not seek other volunteers or talk with local community leaders, and we should have done both.

As winter approached, we put hot food out nightly and watched the longhair calico train her latest litter of kittens. Several times people approached us hoping we’d trap the pretty longhair tabby kitten.

We plotted where, when and how to set the traps and told the nearest merchants. We hoped to trap as many as possible, especially the calico matriarch and a shunned newcomer limping from a sprained ankle.

In three trapping sessions, we captured ten cats and kittens, including the matriarch, the longhair kitten and the newcomer.

The first return to the colony was uneventful. The second return was observed and reported, and the third never happened. The police stopped me, certain that I was abandoning pets into the colony. I brought four cats back home.

Of those four cats, two became barn cats. The longhair tabby kitten suffered from diarrhea, needed emergency hydration, and recovered. Ruthie fluffed into a lovely shy cat, terrified of strangers well into her teen years. Shunned Smudge suffered from dry eye throughout her fifteen year life and loved to watch television. The calico matriarch sat on a chair at the hairdresser’s shop and never let anyone pet her. The storefront was enclosed; the feral cat colony moved on.

Smudge and Ruthie

Smudge the Newcomer
Smudge the Newcomer
Ruthie as an adult.
Ruthie as an adult.

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