While Australia is killing 2 million feral cats, Maine allows them to be captured, fixed up, and released back into the woods.

feral cats
Should feral cats be released back into the woods, after they’ve been captured and cleaned up? And is that legal in Maine? Good questions!

While Maine law is unclear, people are being allowed to capture feral cats, sterilize and clean them up, and release them back into the woods. Some local animal shelters are doing this. The Humane Society of the United States, in a program they call “Managing Community Cats,” is implementing a TNR program: trap-neuter-return. More about that in a minute.

Maine Law

Maine’s law outlawing cruelty to animals defines cruelty this way: “Injures, overworks, tortures, torments, abandons or cruelly beats or intentionally mutilates an animal.” Note the word abandonment in the definition. And yes, feral cats are put back into the woods and abandoned. How can that be legal?

Well, what exactly is a feral cat? Here’s the legal definition: “Feral cat means a cat without owner identification of any kind that consistently exhibits extreme fear in the presence of people.”

With the guidance of Dr. Rachel Fisk in Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Conservation, who was very helpful in answering my questions, I found this in Maine’s Title 7: “Population control effort means the activities, programs and projects aimed at reducing the number of cats and dogs without homes, including, but not limited to, the trapping, neutering and vaccinating of feral cats, the trapping of cats for impoundment at an animal shelter and spaying or neutering services for abandoned animals and stray dogs and cats.”

And that’s it, as far as Maine laws go. For sure, there is no indication that it is legal to release feral cats or any animal into the Maine woods. And I read in a January 31, 2016 Maine Sunday Telegram story, written by Scott Dolan and Edward Murphy, that “abandonment of an animal that results in the animal’s death is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.” Don’t some of those released feral cats die?

Wildlife Society

The Maine Chapter of The Wildlife Society, in March of 2007, adopted a position on the issues of feral and free-ranging domestic cats, noting that “Feral and free-ranging domestic cats are exotic species to North America. Exotic species are recognized as one of the most widespread and serious threats to the integrity of native wildlife populations and natural ecosystems.”

The Chapter included an example of the negative impacts of feral cats, reporting, “The impact of free roaming cats on piping plovers has resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordering the removal of feral cat feeding stations located within 2 miles of nesting habitat in New Hampshire.”

“Humans introduced domestic cats to North America,” noted the Chapter, “and humans must be responsible for the control and removal of feral or free roaming domestic cats that prey on wildlife.” Note the word removal.

Among the recommendations in the Chapter’s policy are these:

Strongly support and encourage the humane elimination of feral cat colonies;

Support the passage and enforcement of local and state ordinances prohibiting the public feeding of feral cats, especially on public lands, and release of unwanted pets or feral cats into the wild.

HSUS Research Report

Katie Hansberry, the Maine lobbyist for HSUS, shared some research on “community cats” with me. One 11-year study followed a population of 155 free-roaming campus cats at the University of Central Florida in 2001. They study found an 85% reduction in the population of feral cats (to 23 cats), through the TNR program, “demonstrating that a long-term program of neutering plus adoption or a return to the resident colony can reduce free-ranging cat populations in urban areas.”

At Texas A&M University, an attempt to control its campus cat population with a trap-and-euthanize approach failed, but two years after a trap-test-vaccinate-alter-return-monitor program was implemented on campus, there was a 36% reduction in the number of cats and fewer nuisance complaints to the university’s pest control service.

A TNR program at a federal facility and hospital in Louisiana started out with 41 cats. “Three years later, 30 of the original cats remained. Their overall health had improved and nighttime vocalizations were greatly reduced, and no new litters of kittens were found.”

Many TNR programs seek people to adopt the feral cats, if the cats are friendly, while the other cats are returned to the area where they are captured.

Australia killing feral cats

Last year I wrote about a story that appeared in the Washington Post announcing that the Australian government planned to kill up to 2 million feral cats by 2020, in a last desperate attempt to save dozens of native species that face extinction because these cats are killing them.

Throughout Australia, feral cats are being baited, shot, and poisoned in a program funded by the government which claims the killings are being carried out in as “humane and effective” a manner as possible. Since being introduced by Australia’s first white settlers, feral cats have grown in both number and size.

Survey Question

It turns out this is a pretty complicated issue, with lots of people feeding “barn cats” that essentially spend all their time outdoors, rampaging through the fields and forests. I have seen some of these cats deep in the woods of Mount Vernon and I can tell you they are killing machines.

So I am wondering, will Maine learn anything from the disastrous impact of feral cats in Australia? Will we continue to look the other way as feral cats are captured, fixed up, and returned to the woods?

And what is your opinion on this issue? Should Maine continue to allow feral cats to be captured, sterilized, cleaned up, and released back into the woods? I’ve posted this question for you in the Sportsmen Say Survey section of my website. You can access the question here. And I can’t wait to hear your opinion!



George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.