October 16 is National Feral Cat Day - a day established by Alley Cat Allies in 2001 to raise awareness about feral cats and promote trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs.
My first real invovement with feral cats occured in 2003 when I was on my way to the Post Office to mail some eBay packages. As I was headed through the parking lot of my apartment complex I spotted a momma kitty with three kittens. She saw me, grabbed one of the kittens and ran. I pulled over and got out, one of the remaining kittens toddled off into a window well and the other ran under a huge forsythia hedge planted on the bank. The little gray kitten in the window well was easy to scoop up and I carried her home and put her in my bathroom before going back to look for the other one under the hedge. When I got back, momma kitty was retreiving him though, so I became mommy just to baby Chloe who was just about 4 or 5 weeks old.
The following year I was able to grab all four of "Turtle's" (momma kitty was a tortoiseshell) babies from the window well right in front of my building and find homes for them. That same year we had another family of slightly older kittens - usually you need to socialize them before about 8 weeks but while feeding them I saw another feeder actually petting one of these older kittens. I called a rescue group and ended up taking this older tamed kitten to them where they found a home for her and they got me started on TNR - the idea behind this is to trap the cats, have them neutered, and return them to their habitat where they can be fed and cared for as outdoor cats. Both Alley Cat Allies and Alley Cat Rescue have a lot of good information on why this is proven to be the best way to deal with feral cats in the community and how to get involved and do it yourself.
I will be doing a later post on the trapping proceedure which I'm about to embark on again but today I want to focus on how to build a simple, inexpensive shelter which is important to help keep the cats dry and warm for the winter.
Supplies You'll need:
- 18-20 gallon plastic tote ($6-$9) in a color which will blend with the landscape
- Insulating styrofoam ($7.50/6 pack of 3/4" x 14 1/2" x 48" sheets)
- Duct tape
- Sharp knife
- Gloves (optional if you don't want to handle straw with bare hands)
Using the sharp knife, I cut a three sided "door" in an end of the tote. I leave the top intact and fold it up and hold with duct tape to make a small awning to help protect the opening from the rain. Depending on where you'll be placing your shelters, you may want to make a back "escape" door so no one gets trapped - I did this for the ones I put out in the woods because we have a lot of wildlife (racoons, foxes, etc). I do not tape the back door up to help protect the opening from wind and rain, but the cat should be able to push his/her way out of it if needed. A knife with a sharp tip seems to work the best and I just push on it until it plunges in and then saw. My cuts aren't neat or pretty - cats don't care.
The few that I made for the barn forebay just have the one door so we can put bales of straw around them or extra insulation.
Next I cut the styrofoam insulation to fit inside the tote. It is easy to cut just by scoring and snapping it.
I did two layers for the bottom for extra protection from the cold ground. Make holes in the insulation to line up with the doors you've cut in the tote. Line the tote with the styrofoam, taping the walls at the corners as best you can.
Stuff the tote full of straw - straw will not hold water and get soggy like fabric would and even though it might not seem as snuggly, soft and warm as an old towel it is a better choice than something that will get and stay wet and will mold. I also put it in the spaces outside of the styrofoam for extra insulation.
The straw can be changed each year if you can access your shelters, but the ones I did for my last colony got so overgrown I was unable to service them after the first year. Finally add a layer of styrofoam on the top, snap the lid of the tote on and duct tape it shut. Depending on where the shelters are, you may want to use a Sharpie or label maker to label them with something like "Cat Shelters - Do Not Disturb/Remove" so that landscapers or curiosity seekers will leave them alone. Of couse you'll only be placing them off of your own property with permission (*wink*). I had mine in a right-of-way area behind my old apartment complex and the ones I'm construcing now are at my work, which is a public park so I do label them.
As for placement, try to put them in thick underbrush where they will be hidden from view of the public and near where the cats are fed so they can find and use them. I've even put plates of food right in front of them when they're first put out to help draw their attention. Of course if these are going on your own property, a sheltered porch, tucked in a corner of a fence, behind a shed, etc. are all good choices.
I was able to construct three shelters for about $7.50 each and have one full sheet of my styrofoam insulation left. I've also used styrofoam coolers turned upside down within the tote (leaving the widest part where the cat needs to fit).