A feral cat roams through the neighborhoods just north of the University of Florida. Populations are difficult to estimate for these nomadic felines, but Dr. Julie Levy, UF professor and leading researcher in feral cat behavior, has estimated one cat for every two households. Photo by Erica Sterling.

If the cat is in the cradle with the silver spoon, then why are there so many seemingly homeless kitties roaming the streets of Gainesville? You’ve probably seen them lazing on the warm cement sidewalks, casually crossing the street or stalking the lizards that dart about. The cats have got their turfs covered.

The population of these free-roaming felines is estimated between 12 million to 15 million in Florida. As the summer heats up, Gainesville’s feral cat population will likely increase due to their seasonal breeding patterns.

For the cat lover, maybe this feels like a little slice of heaven. Furry beasts to pat or potentially make you YouTube famous at every corner doesn’t sound so bad.

However, these felines pose a threat to the environment. These practiced predators of the species Felis catus, descendants of the African wildcat, Felis silvestris, can take down bird after native bird, having hugely negative impacts on native wildlife populations, including the federally listed endangered Florida scrub-jay. A single cat can be responsible for roughly 100 native species deaths per year.

Dr. William Giuliano, from the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida, has been teaching wildlife management of Florida for 19 years and is well versed in human, domestic and wild animal conflicts.

Giuliano sees feral cats as a particularly concerning problem for wildlife. “They present an abnormal form and rate of mortality that the wildlife have not evolved with and are not adapted to handle,” he said.

Feral cats are the ones that you are unlikely to catch; they are unsocialized and untamed. They can be born wild, without human contact, or revert to the wild if abandoned and can form colonies that produce hundreds of uncontrolled births.

This is where programs like Operation Catnip enter to try and help control the free-roaming cat populations. Operation Catnip is a local trap-neuter-return program where over 200 animals can be sterilized and vaccinated in a matter of hours. If you see a cat with the corner of its left ear missing, then it has been a member of Operation Catnip.

Neutering helps control an expanding population, but that’s only one part of the problem.  Giuliano says he’s not a fan the program. “Cats without gonads still kill wildlife.”

Unless every potentially impregnable cat is removed from the population, neutering will likely not have a lasting effect in the overall number of free-roaming cats. The population is self-regulating to the amount of food and resources available. The feral cat population will remain artificially high in comparison to that of wild animals as long as people are feeding them.

This is why UF, a designated wildlife sanctuary by Audubon International, has a strict policy that does not allow feral cats to be fed on campus. Not to mention, the food attracts other animals like raccoons and insects, too.

Dr. Julie Levy, of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Shelter Medicine Program, is the founder of Operation Catnip. She supports the use of trap-neuter-return programs and has documented reduction in cat populations when trap-neuter-return is targeted to a defined area, sustained and coupled with an intensive adoption program. Since 1998, when the program began in Alachua County, there has been a steady decrease in the number of cats shelters are bringing in and needing to euthanize.

Having an appropriate place to relocate the neutered animals would diminish conflicts with wildlife and would provide health benefits to the cats.

The American Bird Conservancy suggests that the solution should be trap-neuter-remove; relocating feral cats to enclosed cat sanctuaries where they can do no more harm. This option would be even more humane as free-roaming cats only have an average lifespan of two to five years, compared to the potential 15 years of an indoor cat.

Taking wild, feral cats to a typical shelter is rarely successful, as they are not likely to find a home in which they will be settled companions for humans.

Euthanasia of the feral cat colonies has been suggested as a possible solution to the problem by several groups. However, this causes obvious conflict with humanistic viewpoints and has never been scientifically proven to have an effect on the population.

Giuliano agrees that euthanasia could be a viable solution for the wildlife conflict. “It would ultimately discourage people from having and releasing cats,” he said.

This opinion is hard to swallow for most of the public. In Levy’s professional studies of local feral cat populations, she said she found that “individuals that feed unowned cats feel a protective bond for the cats they care for.”

There was strong opposition to the planned euthanization of the feral cats trapped in nooks of UF campus.

Dr. Levy rejects the option of euthanasia, seeing it as “costly and confers no demonstrable benefit,” given the research that has been done at this time.

Better than feeding a homeless feline is committing to find it a permanent indoor home; if possible, neutering it or taking it to a designated enclosed feral cat sanctuary. Currently, Gainesville does not have such a sanctuary. The nearest is located in Brevard County: The Last Chance Sanctuary.

Members of a coalition of local pet rescues are working toward making Gainesville a ‘no-kill’ community, ending the euthanasia of adoptable pets by the end of 2015.

Most people don’t see the harm in letting their cat outside. Giuliano recognizes that, “even house cats that are let outside for a few hours each day are a problem.”

Currently only an estimated 35 percent of house cats in the U.S. spend all of their lives indoors. Although it is legal in Alachua County to allow your licensed cat outdoors–as long as it does not become a public nuisance—the perils that can befall an outdoor cat are numerous. The chances of death, disease, fleas and ticks are certainly higher for outdoor cats.

For the sake of cats’ health and the stability of native wildlife populations, cats should be kept either indoors or in a monitored outdoor enclosure. Managing these felines—and thus native wildlife populations—starts with responsible pet owners.