For feral cats, there are few environments deemed uninhabitable. You see them everywhere-slinking down alleys, running across streets, peering out from under bushes.
With as many as 50 million populating U.S. streets, according to the Humane Society of the United States calculations, feral cats have the potential to pose not only a strain on taxpayers' wallets, but also on the environment without the right kind of intervention.
"We do believe that it is an issue," said Nancy Peterson, cats programs manager for the Humane Society of the United States. "When their population is not kept in check, you have the birth of many more animals. You have nuisance complaints about cats roaming yards, jumping on people's cars and bringing home wildlife. You have kittens dying, shelters overcrowded with cats."
According to a poll of 1,118 pet owners by AP-Petside.com, released in January, seven out of 10 respondents believe animals should only be euthanized if there is no chance for adoption due to illness or aggression.
Unfortunately, due to their lack of socialization, Peterson said most feral cats that find their way to shelters are still euthanized.
A feral cat is defined as one who was born outside, either to a feral mother or an abandoned domestic cat, according to Jenny Schlueter, Chicago's Tree House Humane Society director of development.
"The big difference between a feral cat and a lost pet cat is that feral cats are not socialized to people," Schlueter said. "Abandoned pet cats can revert back to being fearful of people. There are grey areas."
In light of the country's growing disapproval of euthanasia for population control, a euthanasia-based system is quickly losing ground to other more humane methods, such as Trap-Neuter-Return or TNR. During TNR, caretakers capture feral cats and arrange for them to be fixed, vaccinated and then released back into their colony. To aid in identification, neutered feral cats have the tip of their left ear removed in a procedure aptly called ear-tipping.
Adding to its appeal, TNR is free to taxpayers while capturing cats and holding them for the mandatory period before they are either rehomed or euthanized can cost about $140 per cat, according to Schlueter.
Peterson believes TNR programs are the most effective way to reduce the number of feral cats as well as the nuisance complaints and safety issues that the animals cause. In addition, because the cats are vaccinated before being reintroduced and are monitored by caretakers, the cats will be healthier and less likely to spread disease.
Because of the how quickly cats reproduce, she said efforts to simply remove cats are unlikely to make the desired impact. As long as food is available, more cats are likely to replace them and breed in numbers that can quickly multiply even a small cluster of cats. Over the course of seven years, one female cat and her offspring can produce over 420,000 cats, according to PAWS Chicago, a local shelter that offers low cost or even free services at their Lurie Spay/Neuter Clinic.
"It's going to take time," Peterson said. "There's no quick fix in the sense of 'Let's just remove them.'"
Addressing the problem at its root, feral cat caretakers are able to vaccinate and fix new cats as they come into the area, negating their ability to cause health concerns or continue contributing to the population. They will also be able to detect cats that may simply be lost.
"Feral cats, unsterilized, contribute to a lot of the kittens brought into a facility like ours," said Cherie Travis, executive director of Chicago Animal Care and Control.
Though she said the shelter is just beginning to see the positive benefits of TNR, in the long run, Travis sees "feral cats as being a problem that is largely fixed by people doing Trap Neuter Return."
Fortunately, time may just be what is needed to achieve a full recovery. According to Travis, TNR gradually allows "the ecological balance to reset itself."
"By encouraging people to do spay/neuter with cats, the populations reduces in a way that is less sudden," she said. "If some people aggressively trap and kill all the cats in the neighborhood, if you get rid of all of them, then you'll have a rodent problem."
By giving people a positive way to impact the population and control the situation, she also believes that people will be more likely to take action and that others will be less likely to take matters into their own hands.
Should people wish to aid feral cats in their own neighborhood, it's wise to seek the help of a local shelter or caretaker group for tips on how to feed and care for the animals. In addition, location, number and vet costs all need to be taken into account before beginning TNR with your own neighborhood cats.
As tempting as it might be, Peterson cautioned against approaching an unfamiliar cat. Although a feral cat is likely to run away, a tame cat that is lost and scared may lash out.
"The vast majority are living and doing quite well in their community," said Schlueter, Feral Friends TNR program manager. "It is all about how well they are managed."
Getting control of the problem, however, is not limited to the management of feral felines. Pet cats can make their own sizable contributions if left unchecked by their owners.
Since they can start reproducing as early as five months of age, pet cats should be fixed at an early age to avoid that all too common accidental litter.
When outside, pets should always be equipped with an ID tag and collar and be either confined to their owner's property or kept on a lease, according to Peterson. Not only will these steps keep them from contributing to the feral cat population, but it will also lessen the chances that owners end up permanently separated from their pet. Sadly only two to five percent of cats are reclaimed from shelters.
"I think that attitudes about cats need to change," Peterson said. "They do need our care. We need to be responsible for all of them."