Coming In from the Cold: Home for Life’s Feral Cats

 In memory of Holly & Pierre 

Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate

- Albert Schweitzer

The end of January, now early February and a bitter north wind is blowing, reducing the temperature to only – 8 degrees. I look around the sanctuary tonight and am glad our animals are all cozy and warm and inside. Our several feral cats like being inside too, and I think about what kind of suffering they would have been going through right now, trying to survive the mean cold, if they had not been taken in by Home for Life.

Pierre was one of the first feral cats Home for Life ever encountered before I even knew what a “feral “ cat was. He just appeared, presented himself one night at the sanctuary the first winter we were there, in front of the dog building. He must have smelled the food, seen the lights, something- he was desperate. It was a winter night like we have been having -severely cold, with a biting northwest wind. To this day, we have no idea  where he came from. He was only about a year old, wild, with a frostbitten nose and paws. Here is the photo we took of him once we finally got him indoors:

We accomplished this by setting a live trap for him. It took him less than a minute to go in the trap and get the canned food we had baited it with. He was famished, exhausted and starving.  
 Taken a year later, these photos of Pierre depict how comfortable he became as a resident of Home for Life, and what a beautiful cat he grew to be with good food and loving care.

As the above photo of Pierre by Mark Luinenburg reveals, Pierre forever remained a shy cat, wary of people. 
Like every feral we have ever cared for, he loved other cats, took comfort from them, and learned from them. From the other cats, Pierre learned how to use the cat doors to get outside to the cat run and from our tame cats, Pierre learned that  our staff would not hurt him, would feed him and be kind to him. If we didn’t move too quickly, or try to force ourselves on him, he would let us approach him and let us pet him.   We lost Pierre last year, at the estimated age of 15, from intestinal lymphoma.  With courage and hope Pierre, a feral cat, bridged that gap of trust, overcame his fear and distrust of people and let us take care of him.

Home for Life first wrote about feral cats in one of our early newsletters from 2004 and featured an article by guest writer Ellen Perry Berkley, author of  Maverick Cats. Click the image below to read the full article.

Nearly ten yeas later, everyone is still talking about feral cats, I have come to realize that, like the poor, feral cats will always be with us. One rescue maven in the Twin Cities  gave me an estimate that there are nearly  one million  feral cats living in the sewers of Minneapolis.  One million  cats.  Even in cities  which have aggressively implemented spay and neuter and  TNR, the numbers surely are diminished but after a few years and the “low hanging fruit” is caught and altered,  the population of cats plateaus.The reservoir for kittens isn't pet cats but rather the inaccessible feral cats not easily trapped and caught  who still breed and keep the population of kittens and cats static. Current estimates put the population of feral and stray cats in the United States at 80 million if not more .

Trap, Neuter and Release or TNR is  accepted as the most humane way to help as many feral cats as possible.   With the numbers of cats potentially involved, experts agree that the most humane alternative available is to trap the cats that can be accessed, alter them so they can’t breed, then release them back to an area where they will be cared for by someone who will manage the colony by feeding them and keeping them reasonably safe. This solution is more humane where the weather is not so harsh.    Reportedly, cats who are not part of a TNR  managed colony will only be expected to live 2 years or less. Cats who are part of a TNR colony  are known to have survived up to 10 years. House cats generally have life expectancy of 15 years or more.

Coinciding with the bitter cold this week has been the latest controversy about feral cats and TNR: whether these cats and those house cats allowed to roam are responsible for the decimation and even the extinction of some bird species (and small wild mammals as well) , and if so what can and should be done. Feral cats and TNR is one of those emotional hot buttons in animal welfare and rescue, like pit bulls. In this post I am gong to talk about just one small aspect of the feral cat issue, one we have had experience with in 15 years of operating Home for Life: the role sanctuaries can play in helping them.

There are some vocal people who oppose sanctuaries playing any role in helping feral cats. ( see: There are several notorious cases of well meaning organizations getting way over their heads. These are not sanctuaries. Home for Life has always advocated for a network of small  sanctuaries( no more than 200-250 animals at each location)  because animals with special needs that need to live at a sanctuary need a lot of individual care, and that care is really difficult to provide when you have hundreds and hundreds of animals. It’s not only a matter of money but time and energy: there are only so many hours in a day and the people who operate a facility have finite resources of physical stamina, energy and attention. Right now Home for Life has 80 cats divided among three indoor catteries with attached outdoor runs , and we work hard to monitor and care for our wards – how anyone can do this with 500, 600, even 700 cats in one place is tough for me to understand.   Further, Home for Life believes that a true sanctuary can not be a hybrid –half adoption center and half life time care facility.(

Obviously a sanctuary can’t possibly take in every feral cat, and therefore, until  safe birth control is  developed for cats, TNR seems the most humane alternative. It’s the “ R” of TNR I have had problems with over the years.  Some cats Released suffer terribly, especially in our climate, before dying or being rescued, as Pierre was by Home for Life. I suppose advocates trying to implement population control consider these individual cats collateral damage or something akin :“well they may not survive but at least they won’t breed and create more cats so in the long run the situation is improved”. But  Home for Life and any proper sanctuary is always  concerned about the individual animals. We can't  turn away from individual cats we’ve encountered over the years who have been subjected to the “ R” and a near certain, suffering death from starvation and dehydration nor can we go along with cats with infectious diseases being released to infect other cats.        

Not all feral cats swept up in a TNR project should be released, especially in this part of the country, and yet shouldn't be killed either(euthanized). Sanctuaries can provide a viable, humane option for those cats and kittens who aren't likely to survive if released: the disabled, old, frail, young, or those infected with communicable viruses.   As the stories of the several HFL feral cats illustrate, universal TNR is NOT the best or most humane solution for every cat,(even though it probably is for most at this time). Many of the cats that are subject to the “ R” of TNR  die from dehydration or starvation even with feeding stations available because they are too small, old or weak to fight for their fair share, or they die from exposure or they have infectious diseases that will affect the other cats in their colonies, and ethically, they should not be released.     

PHILLIP was found in a TNR project in the “Frogtown” neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota several years ago. A mature tom, his appearance discloses the hard life he must have endured trying to survive and eke out a living: many scars on his face, half his ears and part of his tail gone due to frostbite. Some TNR sweeps do test cats for infectious disease, and this was how Phillip was found to be FIV positive( more about FIV and Home for Life’s philosophy about caring for these special cats: .

He was going to be put down, rather than released. A kind volunteer affiliated with the  Feline Rescue organization  in St. Paul, MN spoke up for Phillip. The group was helping to coordinate the TNR project, and somehow this volunteer was touched by Phillip, his dignity and all that he had survived. He was still healthy and strong, and wanted to live. She literally  begged  Home for Life to help Phillip( and another black tom that had been caught in the same TNR project and was also FIV+-his name was Diego: yes the inspiration for the now famous canine Diego of Home for Life! (

Since the alternative was death for both cats, or being released to infect other feral cats with the FIV virus, and because we hate to let a kind hearted unselfish person down, we accepted both. Phillip and Diego were neutered by Feline Rescue  and were estimated to be at least 7-8 years old  when they came to Home for Life and lived for many years in our cattery devoted to FIV+ cats. As toms used to their freedom, they appreciated and enjoyed the outdoor cat run attached to the cattery, and spent many happy afternoons in the sun on the cat trees. They were surprisingly mellow with the other cats, and never got into any scraps in all the years they were with us. Even though they were big and strong enough to survive another couple years on the streets, they seemed  happy to give up that struggle.  Exhausted and on their last nerve when they came to us, they were relieved and content to be warm, safe and fed.     

Julius was a feral and feline leukemia positive cat from Coon Rapids or Anoka,MN. A woman called us who lived in the neighborhood where he had been trapped. Julius had obviously had very tough existance up to that point, fighting to survive and getting the worst of it. He was thin and blind in his left eye from a previous injury. Check out his right ear: tipped- indicating he had been trapped and  neutered- and then released. But Julius was in no condition to be released. If not for the woman who spotted him after the TNR project in her neighborhood, and who made sure he had food and water, and sought help for him, Julius would have been released only to  die a cruel death.

We didn't know Julius was leukemia positive when we agreed to take him in and get him off the streets before he perished. Home for Life found this information out  upon his admission, after  testing we did for him. So this cat, in terrible condition, had been neutered and then released back on the streets,yet was leukemia positive. No one had tested him to determine this fact, so he was released- to infect more cats with this deadly disease. Not only did we save Julius' life by accepting him at Home for Life, we also, no doubt, saved many more cats as well, who were spared from becoming infected with the leukemia virus.  Julius will always be dear to me because like Pierre, he was able to overcome what had been such a difficult life, and in his tentative way, with utmost bravery, he learned to accept our caring attention and affection while he was at Home for Life.

STORMY, CELESTE, SUNSHINERAINBOW  are all feral cats that are at Home for Life after being caught in TNR projects. Stormy, Sunshine and Celeste are blind;

 Like Julius,Celeste is also feline leukemia positive. Sunshine had suffered a head injury that left her not only unable to see but brain damaged. None could have survived the “R”. Celeste couldn't have been released without infecting many other cats in the colony with leukemia, a deadly feline virus. It was no doubt due to  contact with another cat who was leukemia positive that Celeste herself became infected.

Rainbow,hardly bigger than a kitten when she came to Home for Life,  was found last summer by some vacationers in rural Wisconsin’s lake country. She was emaciated. Had these kind people turned her away Rainbow would have died a terrible death from starvation. And she was in this condition when the weather was warm-what would have happened to her had the weather been as it is today( -5 degrees)? Her ear was clipped showing she had been fixed in a TNR project but the “ R “had left Rainbow in dire straits.

Had she been run off from her colony by other cats, or had the caretakers who were supposed to be watching out for her and the other cats disregarded their obligation? The vacationers couldn't keep Rainbow, and shelters and rescues offered them only humane euthanasia because Rainbow was feral and not “adoptable”. So Rainbow came to Home for Life and even with the challenge of asthma, has developed into a beautiful cat who lives up to her name.  She is still shy with people but not aggressive. It is interesting to me that she has become best friends with our other young feral cats of the north cattery.       

Two other feral rescues on the past couple months are Autumn and Cedar. 
Autumn had a conscientious caretaker on a  hobby farm in Hudson, Wisconsin who fed her and about 30 other cats. She had undertaken a TNR project for the cat colony with the help of a local rescue, but she didn’t think Autumn, who  was born on the farm and was about age 1, could survive another winter or survive period. Autumn's original name was  Wisteria.  I like the name for her because with her unusual gait and the way she held her head. tilted to the side, it seemed  to describe this cat, who reminded her caretaker of the beautiful climbing, flowering plant.  But   Wisteria  was hard to say, so we named her Autumn because we took her in at Home for Life the fall and she has the beautiful coloration of a fall landscape like all our tortoiseshell cats (

  Autumn  fka  Wisteria was born with hyperplasia cerebellum(  a condition like cerebral palsy)  and had trouble keeping her balance. She struggled to get to the food put out for the colony, and  to  hold her place at the dishes among the other cats. She was a sitting duck for predators like the coyotes and rough farm dogs that roamed the property. The farm owner asked us to help Autumn before fall and chilly weather set in.  Now at Home for Life, Autumn W. as she is known, spent the majority of her first weeks at the sanctuary in the attached cat run where this photo was taken. We brought plates of canned food out for her and water and dry food was out at all times. Thankfully the weather remained warm until early December. The other cats accepted her, and she made friends with other feral cats of the North cattery including Shady, Winter and Rainbow( who hides in Autumn’s places, pretending to be her with the same camouflage of tortoiseshell colored fur to avoid administration of her asthma medication). As the weather grew colder, she would be seen indoors, waiting to eat off the plates of canned food until HFL personnel had left the cattery. In the evening, she can be seen at any time perched on a tree on a cat hammock. When I feed the cats, she doesn’t run away anymore. She sees me moving among the other cats, and that I bring food and that the other cats are not afraid of me. So although she doesn’t approach, she will eat off a plate and not run away as I move around the cattery passing out bowls and plates. Progress! Plus, her balance seems to have improved. She can climb the trees, has learned from the other cats to use the cat doors, and although she still holds her head tilted to the side, she gets around fine in our protected habitat.

 Cedar is our newest resident in the FIV+ cattery. He was named after a supporter’s Shepard dog who was lost in the mountains last year. Our Cedar is the same beautiful burnished copper color. His original name was “ Moochie” so this name does him more justice.
Cedar is feral and was TNR’ed   near a Twin Cities neighborhood by a spay/neuter organization. After his neuter, he was tested by the organization  for infectious diseases and found to be FIV+. He was also administered a one time treatment for his eye infection. It didn't work, so his eyes and lids are permanently deformed. Before and after being caught in the TNR project, he visited a family daily who faithfully fed him, but would not take him in to their warm house or even their garage because they had other cats. Still they loved “Moochie/Cedar” and if not for their efforts to make sure he always had food and water, he likely wouldn't have survived long.  No rescue group would help Cedar because he was positive for the FIV virus, and because he was feral. The mom of the family who fed him believed he had the potential to make a loving pet;she claimed he would sit in her lap when she would leave him food. But she worried about the approaching winter, and his ability to survive the cold.  The “ R”  wasn't  going to work for Cedar, the family was convinced, and we agreed.  Cedar came to Home for Life just before the north winds began to blow this late fall, bringing subzero cold and snow to our region. 

Like all our feral cats, who have had to survive by their wits prior to coming to Home for Life, Cedar is smart and learns quickly, his best teachers being the other cats. He has quickly made friends with some of our other feral cats of the FIV cattery including Achilles who came to us from Texas,Nero from Michigan, and Tommy who came to Home for Life from a South Dakota Indian reservation. Due to the virus, his eye lids are damaged and deformed, but thankfully, his vision is normal, and he can see. At first, he wouldn't come near the canned cat food plates put out each day if staff were in the cattery,but after a few weeks, he will now come off his perch on a cat tree to eat with the other cats, and he won’t automatically run away if staff are in the cattery. If I sit in the FIV cattery and hold some of the friendly cats , Cedar watches with curiosity from a safe distance. I believe it won’t be long before he will come around for his own attention and affection. He loves the soft jazz music we play, the warmth of the cattery, his cat friends, the routine he can count on and the delicious food.

This blog post is dedicated to Pierre, one of our first feral cats, and also to Holly,left, another of our early feral rescues before I really even realized what ferals were. Her rescue was what prompted me to seek out Ellen Perry Berkley to contribute a guest article on TNR for our newsletter.

  In 2003 on  Christmas Eve , I drove to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Hospital to get medicine for a sick dog we had, to tide us over the holiday. Of course it was freezing,  barely 15 degrees . The snow eddies swirled before my truck tires and the north wind blew bitterly.  Driving back through the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, which are located adjacent to the veterinary hospital, something darted in front of my truck and ran off to one of the vacant buildings. Did I mention that the State Fairgrounds this time of year are like an abandoned town, eerily like the resort in the movie The Shining.  This place that is so teeming with crowds during the “Great Minnesota Get-Together” in August, is haunting when devoid of people, and especially  desolate in winter. 

The something that darted in front of my truck  was black, painfully thin and weaving unsteadily down the road to a vacant building overhang. I got out of my truck and followed the little being, where she had come to a stop under the canopy overhang of the building. She was so weak she was incapable of running any further. She looked up at me, hissing and spitting with the last energy she had left in her. A very small black cat, and really nothing more than a spine with fur. She was so weak from the exertion of fleeing - and obvious starvation and dehydration- that she could do nothing more than look up with frightened eyes and hiss a protest as I picked her up. There was nothing to her. A skeleton with fur. 

There was no fight left in her. She was feral but she was weak, dehydrated, hungry and nearly dead.  She was as light as air as I picked her up and wrapped her up in my winter snow jacket because I had no carrier. I had to hold her on my lap as I drove. My manic cattle dog Odie  rode in  the car with us. She gave no protest.  And that’s the way we travelled back to Star Prairie Wisconsin. As our manager at Home for Life said, she ran in front of the right truck! Had she been out in the elements another day or two, I doubt she would have lived.

Holly voraciously ate the AD prescription canned food we gave her that evening. We gave her warm subcutaneous  fluids to re-hydrate her. I named her Holly because it was Christmas Eve when we found her She was already spayed so someone somewhere had  handled her, spayed her,  released her.  

In time Holly grew strong enough to exit the isolation room where she had been assigned and where she was cared for at Home for Life until she regained her strength. She  immediately made friends with another feral cat at Home for Life named Molly, an orange and white medium hair cat who was surrendered to the sanctuary from Animal Ark Shelter a few months earlier. Molly, who was older, showed Holly the  ropes- the cat doors, the cat trees, the sunny spots  to sleep. .  For the years they lived at Home for Life, Holly and Molly were inseparable, best friends and comrades.   Molly was older and died first. After Molly passed away,it seemed as if Holly could not go on without her friend, and followed her just a few months later, She was estimated by our vets to be 12 years old at the time of her death.

Unlike Pierre, Holly never warmed up to people,never was able to overcome her wariness after what she had been through. She never became tame enough for us to consider finding a home for her.Yet, we didn't think of releasing her back at the fairgrounds either, after her close call there. Home for Life didn't save her life and restore her health only to put her back at risk again. Even if she couldn't overcome her past to become a "pet" , we  believed that Holly's life still was worth nurturing and protecting. No one would suggest that all  wild animals should live at a sanctuary, But there are some who have fallen on hard times, become  imprinted to human beings, or  who have been injured and become incapable of living independently in the wild. No one argues that these animals should be released to face their fate.Of course they're better off in the protected environment of a sanctuary. At such a facility, we have the opportunity to observe and get to know  these animals,learn about them and grow to appreciate them. A sanctuary that cares for feral cats can provide the same service.        

Some cats like Holly who  are caught in a TNR project are just too vulnerable to be released yet will never be capable of being adopted. A humane option needs to be created for these cats too. If animal advocates argue that feral cats deserve to live and should not be exterminated than it only  follows that feral cats who may not be able to continue to survive in a  TNR colony also deserve a lifesaving alternative, an opportunity that. sanctuaries like Home for Life can provide.