Alley cats not just a local problem

by Joel Dames

For over 15 years, Bruno Ruggeri fed abandoned cats near his home in Kamakura daily.

Depositing fistfuls of dry cat food under bushes and on street corner curbs, Ruggeri would make his rounds late at night, to avoid neighbors who complained of him luring disease-breeding alley cats into their neighborhood.

Though cats are skilled in finding shelter and food, when left on their own, they often suffer from weather conditions, parasites, disease, accidents with car and starvation. Many people feed them on and off, but that’s the extent of it. Although largely ignored by politicians and the media, the worldwide feral cat problem, in which Ruggeri and his neighbors played their small part, is serious and growing.

In the United States alone, an estimated 40 to 100 million feral cats roam the streets, and 17,000 healthy cats are killed by animal shelters each day. A fertile female cat can produce two or three litters per year of two to four kittens each; with a survival rate of 2.8 kittens per litter, a breeding cat can generate an extended family of 12,680 cats in five years.

Atop each generational feral tree sits an abandoned domesticated house pet. (The word “feral” denotes a domestic animal or plant that has returned to the wild.) Since each year hundreds of thousands of pet owners dump their cats, the problem spirals out of control.

Feral cats are extremely difficult to rehabilitate as house pets unless they are captured before they are 6 to 8 weeks old. Though some wild-born cats older than 3 months may never become completely domesticated, however, they will return daily to their caregivers for food, and may bond with them over a period of time.

Animal Refuge Kansai, or ARK, a Japanese animal shelter, urges pet owners to take their animals with them if they leave Japan. When Ruggeri departed Japan in 1980, he took his four adopted cats and a German shepherd on the same plane. As their cages came down the Kennedy International Airport conveyer belt in Long Island City, New York, he says, “the cats were meowing away and making such a racket the immigration official says, you can go right through. They didn’t even stamp my passport. I had a special van waiting; I loaded them in the van and took them home.”

Two and a half years later, less one cat and the dog, who had both died, Ruggeri brought the three cats back with him to Japan. Then in May 1995 he loaded the same three cats on a plane and came to Florida, where he now lives in Delray Beach with his wife, and continues to feed feral neighborhood cats.

Ruggeri was once lectured by a bird-loving neighbor about cats killing hundreds of millions of birds and small animals. Though it’s hard to estimate how many birds cats actually kill, the neighbor’s estimate may not be far off. A study near the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Ariz. found cats kill an average of slightly more than 80 small animals each per year, about 26 percent of which are birds.

Ruggeri didn’t argue with his neighbor’s estimate. He offered the same response he gives to other bird lovers who confront him, paraphrasing Adlai Stevenson who wrote in 1949 when he was governor of Illinois:

“If we attempt to resolve [the cat vs. bird problem] by legislation, we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age-old problems of dog vs. cat, bird vs. bird and even bird vs. worm.”

Even cat-loving neighbors have occasionally confronted Ruggeri. One woman argued that the cats he feeds become dependent on him as a daily food source and will starve if he stops feeding them. Ruggeri countered with the story about the cats he fed in Japan. “Every day without fail for 15 years or more, I’d go down at 11:30 at night and leave batches of food in four or five places. It could be raining, hailing or if it were snowing, I’d go down and bring a piece of cardboard and wipe the snow away and put the food down. I never took a vacation, not even for one day.”

The neighbor had a point, however. The last of Ruggeri’s cats, Romeo, has a hyperactive thyroid, arthritis in his left hip, and is rapidly losing weight. When Romeo dies, 70-year-old Ruggeri and his wife plan to relocate to San Francisco, and the cats he has been feeding for the last five years may be left without a caregiver.

Ruggeri hopes that a group of local women belonging to feral cat support organizations will take on feeding responsibilities. Members of groups such as Alley Cat Allies and the Feral Cat Coalition, the women are involved in rounding up cats in the neighborhood and taking them to vets to be neutered, vaccinated and treated for any medical problems.

Based on the idea of “kill the problem, not the cats,” these “trap-test-vaccinate-alter-return” programs take money and time. Ruggeri himself spends considerable sums on vet visits; whenever he comes across a sick cat on his nightly feeding runs he attempts to capture it and bring it to a vet for medication and shots. He says he spent a good part of his income earned working on North Pier in Yokohama on cats, and now spends much of his retirement income the same way.

Nonprofit feline advocacy organizations say TTVAR programs are a better approach than the current government extermination programs that capture and kill millions of cats each year. They also recommend people take a cat home from a shelter rather than buying one from a pet shop.