On the Ethics Relating to Feral Cats

Last week, I said that I’ve got a family of ferals in my garage. These four felines have prompted quite a bit of discussion among my friends.

First, the Lenin question. What is to be done? Abbi and Brittany advocate TNR — trap, neuter, release. The idea is to crate the cats, take them to a local clinic that does free spaying and neutering for ferals, and then put the fuzzy four-legs back where they came from. The argument is that TNR is the most humane way of addressing burgeoning urban populations of feral cats: You don’t kill them outright, but you do remove their ability to procreate, thus controlling their numbers and limiting their footprint upon the bird and small-mammal populations.

Stacie, by contrast, echoes the official line from PETA, which is to trap and euthanize. Their argument is that there are too many feral cats already, killing birds and otherwise disrupting the local wildlife while simultaneously leading Hobbesian lives of nasty, brutish conditions. Better to painlessly euthanize them as an invasive species and be done with it.

Of all the ethical positions to take, it appears that the least laudable is precisely the one I’ve taken: I am feeding them. I’ve been giving Snowball and her three shorties a cup of dry food per day plus a plastic dish of clean water.

My strategy leads directly to a second point, regarding the line between feral and domestic cats in general. The mama of the bunch — which I’ve cleverly named Snowball because she’s solid white — went from hissing at me if I got within 10 feet, to meowing (happily) when she sees me and letting me pet her when I feed her. She actually comes to me when she sees me in the driveway. All this, within one week. Yes, her behavior is Pavlovian. But it’s interesting, because my two indoor cats pretty much act the same way. Granted that the indoor kitties are litterbox trained and don’t scratch stuff up, the question remains whether they’re really all that different from Snowball.

Dogs domesticate. Cats don’t, really. Snowball could probably never be an indoor cat — I wouldn’t even try. My indoor cats would probably die within a week if they were released into the wild. But habituation and domestication are wholly separate concepts.

More interesting are the kittens. When I first saw them, they were old enough to eat dry food and explore on their own, but not so old that they didn’t occasionally nurse. The kittens remained afraid of me; only one let me touch him when they dared to approach the dry food I left out. And now, I haven’t seen any of them in the last two days.  So do I still feed Snowball, when she doesn’t seem to be managing a litter anymore?

Decisions, decisions. Perhaps the best insight came from Alaric, who noted that presuming to make any interference with the cats — TNR, euthanasia, even feeding — is to presume to intrude upon the natural order of their lives, so right off the bat any choice violates their autonomy as creatures operating in the natural world. Every other ethical choice follows from that first-order violation.

Who would have thought that something as commonplace as a transient family of ferals could prove so ethically complex?