by Merritt Clifton
Part 2 of a four-part series. See also: What to call cats, & why it matters: evolving terms; Feral cats & street dogs; and “Community cats” vs. community health.
Krazy Kat, alley cats, & strays
In the beginning of the mass media era, before George Herriman introduced the 1913-1944 Krazy Kat cartoon series, depicting a much-abused cat with an unrequited love for a mouse, before anyone thought much about feral cats by any name, was just the word “cat.”
Cats were on the land and over the land. Yet cat-related controversies were as seldom seen as cats themselves, in an urban ecology then dominated by highly visible and often noisy street dogs.
From the debut of rotary-printed newspapers in the mid-19th century, cats by any name were not a visible problem for more than 60 years.
The sum of reportage and editorial attention to cats in the entire 19th century was slight: just 192 items published in U.S. newspapers mentioned “stray cats,” according to NewspaperArchive.com, which makes accessible the newspaper holdings of the Library of Congress. “Alley cats” were mentioned 32 times. The term “feral cat” was not used at all.
“As much danger lurks in a cat as in a rat”
1910, however, was perhaps the worst year for the image of cats in more than two centuries, since cats were last commonly condemned as alleged “familiars” of “witches.” In 1910 the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that outbreaks of rabies, diptheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox had been traced to “alley cats” consorting with free-roaming pets. “As much danger lurks in a cat as in a rat,” the USDA warned.
Controlling disease by tracing vectors and trying to eliminate them was already an old idea. This had been a primary pretext for the medieval purges of alleged witches and familiars, which actually had the net effect of purging whole regions of traditional healers, and of extirpating one of the first lines of community defense against disease-carrying rodents. Dogs consumed as many rats and mice as ever, but they could not go everywhere a cat can. Millions of people died because cats were persecuted.
Judges at witch trials
The USDA in 1910 was trying to be scientific, but despite having gained a basic understanding of the roles of microbes and viruses, the USDA scientists still understood disease transmission only slightly better than the judges at witch trials. Among the then-common epidemic diseases that the USDA attributed to cats, only rabies is actually easily transmissible by cats, and then only if the cats have had exposure to other rabid species. As cats are not the host species for any rabies strain, they are not a primary rabies vector.
“The stray cat therefore not having the proper attention should be exterminated,” recommended the Washington Post in 1913. “Some physicians are in favor not only of exterminating the stray cat but of isolating the pet cat when there is disease present.”
Then as now, people concerned about cat proliferation scared themselves and others with exaggerated estimates of feline fecundity.
“One stray cat will bring from ten to 50 kittens into the world,” projected a syndicated article published by many Midwestern newspapers in 1912.
The tendency to exaggerate continued even after National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull conducted exhaustive research, published under the pseudonym “John Marbanks,” to put the U.S. population of stray cats at circa 10 million in 1927, 20 million in 1937, and 30 million in 1950.
The gist of their findings was that cats were occupying habitat left by a declining population of street dogs, at the rate of about three cats moving in to replace each dog who could no longer make a living after refuse was mostly buried or burned, sewers were enclosed, and automobiles replaced animal-powered transport, resulting in an urban environment much less congenial to dogs.
Birders decrying cat depredation and hunters clamoring for an open season on cats responded to “Marbanks” by insisting that the cat population at large was closer to 80 million.
“It is our duty to eliminate the vagrant or feral cat”
“It is our duty to eliminate the vagrant or feral cat,” editorialized the Indiana Progress, of Indiana, Pennsylvania, on May 5, 1920. This appears to have been the first use of the term “feral cat” in U.S. public discourse.
The second use was no more cat-friendly: “There can be but one solution to the feral cat problem: shoot the cat wherever you find him,” recommended the Connellsville Daily Courier, also of Pennsylvania, in 1931.
“Feral cat” did not catch on. “Stray cats” turned up in 8,602 articles published between 1900 and 1991; “alley cats” appeared in 17,662 articles; “feral cats” were mentioned only nine times before 1950, and just 74 times more in the next 40 years.
“Any domestic pussy abandoned or neglected”
The Fremont Argus, of Fremont, California, published the apparent first mainstream definition of “feral cat” on August 21, 1971: “A feral cat is any domestic pussy that has been neglected or abandoned by its owner and returned to a state of nature. It hunts to live. Mice make up a large portion of its diet.”
The presumption that most feral cats once had a home, now known to be false, was a carryover from common perception of “strays.” The term “stray” is derived from the words “astray” and “estray.” The former means “out of place,” while the latter is the legal definition of an animal found at large. “Stray,” accordingly, connotes an animal who should be somewhere else, under human care.
Consigning cats to an alley, humble though the habitat is, suggests that the alley is their natural place.
“Strays” have never gotten good press
Though “stray cat” and “alley cat” have always been used more-or-less interchangeably, to describe the same animals, “strays” have never gotten good press.
Conversely, “alley” cats have often been mentioned in favorable and even admiring contexts, even when “strays” were least accepted.
A Mrs. Freeman, for instance, defended alley cats against the USDA denunciation in 1910 by contending that she had been “just a plain scrawny little alley cat herself in a past life,” according to the Logansport Reporter, of Logansport, Indiana.
Alley cat exhibitions meant to improve the image of homeless cats were held as early as 1928, apparently beginning in Masillon, Ohio.
Paradoxically, animal advocates of the mid-20th century campaigned for the use of “stray.” This appears to have begun with efforts to get people to take responsibility for cats they fed and tolerated in their yards and under their porches. A “stray” cat was a waif who should be adopted, according to humane literature of the era. An “alley cat” was believed to be much less likely to find a home–or to reman in one.
“Not a nice way to designate cats”
There was also an aesthetic aspect to the argument. Contended a Miss Miller of Chicago to various media in 1941, “The term ‘alley cat’ is not a nice way to designate cats.”
Unfortunately for many millions of cats, the gradual ascendence of “stray” over “alley” coincided with intensified efforts to kill them.
“Alley” cats were largely left alone by “dogcatchers” in the first half of the 20th century, despite the antipathy of birders, hunters, and the USDA. Available records indicate, however, that more “stray” cats were purged by animal control agencies and humane societies in the 33 years between 1950 and 1983 than in the whole 331 years that cats were actively persecuted in medieval Europe, from the Great Plague of 1334 through the London Plague of 1665.
The next big change in public perception of cats– and public policy toward cats–began with the 1982 publication of Maverick Cats, by Vermont architect Ellen Perry Berkeley. In original definition, a “maverick” is a heifer gone “estray.” Looking critically at the concept of “stray” as applied to cats, Berkeley argued that cats are by nature less a domesticated species than easily tamed wildlife.
Berkeley described three states of being of cats: true ferals, who have never lived with humans; cats who are dependent upon humans; and actual strays, who once depended on humans but were abandoned or lost. Many cats move back and forth among the categories, Berkeley acknowledged. However, she established that the most resilient outdoor cats, most resistant to extermination, are the true ferals. Their numbers are regulated by the abundance of prey and extremes of climate, as are the numbers of other wild predators.
Larger litters, more often
Like coyotes, feral cats respond to persecution by raising larger litters, more often. Because cats have evolved the fecundity of a prey species, they can usually reoccupy a habitat from which they have been extirpated faster than rival predators can arrive and breed up to the vacated carrying capacity. Lastingly reducing the feral cat population can accordingly be done only by either eliminating their food sources or by inhibiting their fecundity.
Feral cats live mostly on mice. Humans have sought to exterminate mice since the dawn of civilization, without success sufficient to deplete the cat population through lack of food. Thus further reducing the feral cat food supply is unlikely in most of the places where feral cats persist. Neuter/return, however, is an effective brake on fecundity.
Influence hard to measure
To what extent Maverick Cats influenced the first large-scale practitioners of neuter/return in the U.S. is difficult to say, since hundreds of individuals had already quietly sterilized thousands of cats in quiet private projects, some of them underway as of 1982 for as long as 25 years.
What can be said is that Maverick Cats gave neuter/return a theoretical foundation and an oft-cited scientific canon.
The first well-documented feral cat neuter/return project in the U.S. appears to have begun at Stanford University in California in 1988, led by a coalition including Nathan Winograd, then a Stanford undergraduate, now the combative director of the intensely controversial No Kill Advocacy Center. But the Stanford neuter/return project was not immediately influential, and for the first several years of the project Winograd, as the project publicist, described the cats as “stray” rather than “feral,” a term then still rarely applied to cats.
Holton & Robinson
On October 16, 1991 Louise Holton and Becky Robinson formed the national advocacy group Alley Cat Allies, after working together to sterilize a cat colony inhabiting an alley in Washington D.C.
Holton and Robinson used mostly the term “alley cat” at first, but were quick to recognize that “feral” was gaining acceptance. When Alley Cat Allies began organizing an annual day of cat awareness activity tomark their formation, it was called “National Feral Cat Day.” This day now attracts more media notice than many “days” declared by humane organizations that are decades older.
This was part 2 of a four-part series. See also: What to call cats, & why it matters: evolving terms; Feral cats & street dogs; and “Community cats” vs. community health.