There are differing opinions and different schools of thought on the socialization of feral cats. Conventional thinking says that only kittens under the age of 8 weeks are good candidates for socialization. But our experience has indicated otherwise.
This lovely boy (Alistair) was trapped last winter, here in Dorset. At first it was believed that he was a female, because he was out there looking after a couple of orphaned kittens (Dolly and Erin, if you've been following along.). It was assumed at first that he was their mother, such good care he was taking of them.
We sent him in for a TNR (trap-neuter-release), thinking at first that he would be going back to where he came from, his familiar outdoor territory, with people who loved him and were willing to keep feeding and caring for him. But before he had completely recovered from his surgery, we began to second guess ourselves. Maybe we could work with him, as we had with others, and help him to socialize? It was worth a try, we thought.
Fast forward several months, as Alistair began to settle in and start feeling safe with us, making friends with our resident "therapy cats", and eating and sleeping any time he wanted to. We discovered what a sweet boy he actually was, and decided that he needed to have people of his own, and a home where he could be loved for the rest of his life. He deserves it. They all do.
This effort has been a huge learning curve for us, who with 35 years of experience with them, thought we knew some things about cats. The conventional thinking around feral cats is that the adults cannot be socialized, and need to be returned to their old territories. We have found that this is not true. Adult ferals CAN be socialized. It takes more time for some of them. But if we don't have to put them back outside, we don't want to. Domestic cats, even feral ones, are not native to the wild spaces, and can cause havoc to the wildlife that is native, especially birds. Conventional TNR programs are mostly about volume, getting as many cats fixed as possible at the least possible cost. And that is fine in some environments, like the cities that are overrun with feral cats. But out here, there are too many other species at risk from the awesome predatory prowess of the average cat! We have learned that crating them actually makes them feel safer, gives them a hideout, and a safe space/territory in which to convalesce, and learn to interact with other cats and humans. We thought this would be stressful for them, but we have discovered that it actually helps them to - what we call - "come down off the ledge" of fear and what basically amounts to PTSD. Most feral cats have endured starvation, predatory threats, adverse weather conditions, and a host of other trials. They often come to us traumatized, unhealthy, and defeated. It is these cats that we take the most time with, loving them, feeding them the best foods we can, and helping them to feel better, physically first, and then emotionally. When we begin to allow crated cats to free roam - in brief supervised periods - they have a 'home base' to run back to when they get startled. Over and over again we have seen it happen. When they're done roaming, they go 'home'. We may go looking for them, thinking they've gone off to hide somewhere, only to discover they're back in their own cozy bed in their crates. There are different schools of thought on feral cat management. We differ in our approach from other rescues and animal welfare organizations. But we also find that the approach works, and it can be adapted as required to the needs of each animal. The transformations are amazing to bear witness to. Sometimes they take a little longer, but it's worth it when you see results like this. Case in point: Alistair, in his new "habitat", a rambling farm house, with lots of dog and cat friends to hang out with and chase around with, and people who adore him. All of these creatures deserve to be loved, safe, fed, and at peace.
We couldn't do what we do for these animals without all the amazing volunteers and supporters who have stepped up to help, here in our community and beyond. It is a team effort, and we are grateful for all of your support.