Feline Good in the City

A plan for community cats we can all be happy about.

CRITTER CHRONICLES:  This month’s local wildlife feature is a non-native species that has lived in symbiosis with Philadelphians for hundreds of years: felis catus, the domestic cat. Though dogs have been in North America for thousands of years, cats are relative newcomers, arriving with European colonists in 1492. These felines were indispensable for the shipping industry, catching vermin and protecting food stores in cargo holds and passenger vessels, both.

In homes of all classes, good mousers were welcomed as pest control but not usually considered part of the family. Nocturnal hunters, they’d come and go as they pleased. Cats were simply a part of the environment, their numbers organically regulated by the amount of available food, shelter, and prey. The Industrial Revolution, however, threw this balance out of whack.

From 1890 to 1910, Philadelphia’s population boomed. Busy factories required big workforces, attracting millions of immigrants to bustling blocks of rowhomes. As communities grew denser, they sustained bigger and bigger colonies of cats, but then advancements in storage, shipping, and agriculture, eliminated the need for so many natural predators. By the end of WWII, thousands of unwanted felines roamed the city’s docks, dumps, and alleys.

Today the descendants of these cast-off kitties still live among us as “street cats”, in colonies that have existed for generations, along with many abandoned pets and runaways in our urban environment.

Some are friendly, some are feral; most are resistant to human captivity, while others seem more desperate for our attention. None of them asked to be here, and all could use our understanding.

City cats get a bad rap, but a lot of people would say they bring it on themselves. They yowl, they spray, they relieve themselves in our gardens. They slink around in the shadows, glare out from under cars. People see them and think of fleas, rabies, parasites. And they’re decimating our songbird populations!

Or are they? While it’s true that many US bird species have been in serious decline for the last 50 years, the famous 2011 study that blamed outdoor cats was based on observations of just 69 catbirds in suburban Maryland (and others that followed have been thoroughly debunked). Research by far suggests to the contrary that cats’ primary prey are rodents (followed by insects). Birds are fast! The ones that fall prey to cats are most often old, sick, injured or otherwise ideal for natural selection.

True Story: Rats kill birds, too! They will easily scale a tree to feast on bird eggs and baby birds in a nest. Obviously some cats do kill some birds, but more cats kill a greater number of rats so…. it’s complicated, assessing one predator’s responsibility for overhunting billions of birds. Especially when there’s so much else going on in the scheme of things.

Urban sprawl, for instance. Since 1970, suburban development has skyrocketed in the US, causing undeniable ecological impact. Millions of acres of wildlife habitats have been destroyed and fragmented. Traffic, pesticides, fertilizers, poisons, climate change – all these factors coincide with these changes, which would explain troubling new patterns in songbird populations better than blaming creatures who have been part of our environment since we’ve been here.

Here’s a thought: maybe humans are killing all the birds, and blaming outdoor cats as a convenient scapegoat? There’s no doubt some generational guilt from how we used them until we didn’t need them, then left them out to dry. Occasionally, hardcore haters will try rounding them all up and destroying them, but that never works. Colonies quickly spring back, as there’s more than enough kittens and strays to fill the void. Over-population remains a constant, public nuisance.

But there’s real hope, now, in a program called Trap, Neuter, Return – “TNR” for short – that humanely reduces feral cat colonies over time until they eventually peter out. It’s a simple but effective strategy: unfriendly adults are captured, neutered (and inoculated), and then released back to where they came from. Kittens and strays, meanwhile, are socialized and rehomed. All the kitties get to live their best lives, as the undomesticated population naturally peters out.

Even better: many of the behaviors that annoy neighbors most about feral cats go away when you neuter them. They stop fighting, scent-marking, roaming into yards. They’re healthier, too. TNR is more than a sterilization program: colonies are monitored, vaccinated, contained. It’s not a stand-alone solution, but it’s the best way we have to stabilize cat populations, while advocating for better funding, policy and education.

For better or worse, community cats have a place in our city landscape. We brought them here in our service, they did the job we asked. TNR is an act of compassion we owe them, along with our patience and understanding. Please click the source links for more information, and leave your comments below. 


ACCT Community Cat Program: Local TNR hub, where you can access resources, sign up as a caretaker, and help volunteers document the city’s gazillions of free-roaming cats.  Acctphilly.org

Philly PAWS: TNR offered by appointment at their Grays Ferry and Grant Avenue clinics, plus a range of low-cost pet services. phillypaws.org

Morris Animal Refuge: TNR by appointment at this center city institution – America’s first shelter. Free for community cats, thanks to Mac’s Fund, which provides financial assistance.  Morrisanimalrefuge.org

The Cat Collaborative: Coordinates city-wide cat-trapping projects (use their online form to report a colony). They also provide free sterilization services, vaccinations, and flea treatment for pets in need. Thecatcollaborative.org

PHL Community Cats: Facebook group with 11.2k members dedicated to supporting the city’s street cat populations. TNR info plus free trap library thru Catadelphia. Rescue assistance, emergency fundraisers, free/low-cost spay/neuter options. Great place to learn and get involved.


  1. An adult female cat is called a “queen,” males are of course “toms.”
  2. Queens can get pregnant as young as four months old, and have multiple litters a year.
  3. The average queen will have 50 – 60 kittens in her lifetime.
  4. A group of cats is called a colony or a “clowder”
  5. As many as 1 in 5 households feed community cats (who often form lasting bonds)
  6. The universal sign of a TNR cat is an “ear tip”, where the point of one ear is snipped while the cat is under anesthesia (provides a harmless visual marker that prevents re-trapping).
  7. Cats use meows to communicate with humans, rather than with each other. Since feral cats are seldom in the presence of humans, they don’t meow as much as socialized cats.
  8. Male feral cats that haven’t been neutered tend to have bigger, wedge-shaped heads and more muscles than those that have been neutered — this happens because of the hormone testosterone.
  9. ACCT’s Working Cat program finds non-traditional homes for outdoor cats who earn their keep in barns, nurseries, warehouses, and other properties that benefit from low-cost rodent protection.
  10. Despite their reputation as nuisance animals, feral cats play a vital ecological role by controlling rodent populations. Their hunting skills help to keep mice and rats in check, reducing the spread of diseases associated with these pets.

This article is dedicated to Greg, the feral kitten captured in 2020 from the train tracks behind Wissahickon Brewing Company (now a happy housecat and indispensable part of the family).


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