ON a remote island outpost 70 years ago, a pint-sized animal lover earned the name Maire na gCait — Mary of the Cats.
After 40 years in England, Mary Cotter, now 77, has returned to her childhood home, the family farmhouse on Cape Clear, where she keeps a colony of 25 feral cats.
The island’s cat population acts as a mirror for what’s happening on the mainland, where Ireland’s feral cat population has reached crisis levels. The ISPCA estimates the number of strays at 200,000. Anvil Ireland estimates the figure is closer to 730,000.
The colony’s ability to expand at an alarming rate is under no illusion. A female cat becomes sexually active at six months. She can produce an average of 18 kittens per year. An unneutered colony of six cats can grow to over 100 within 12 months.
An extraordinarily high mortality rate in excess of 80% means most kittens will die within their first year. Such a death rate might serve as a natural form of culling, but it involves an inordinate measure of suffering on behalf of these semi-wild cats. The greatest killers are starvation and viral disease. Feline AIDS, leukaemia, and cat flu are present in epidemic levels in most cat colonies. The resulting death is horrific.
For the Cat Woman of Cape Clear, as Mary Cotter is known (a title she’s happy to perpetuate), the trauma of finding dead kittens strewn about her garden tugged at the heartstrings.
She might fit the stereotypical cat lady persona, but as a farmer’s daughter her practical side prompted action. “I love cats, as a child I was always rescuing cats. If I heard of people wanting to drown cats on the island I’d rescue them. I was an only child, always running off somewhere. I was like a little wild cat myself,” she says.
Mary tells how it was on one such adventure that her first pet kitten adopted her by following her home. “I was halfway home and I heard a tiny miaow behind me and there he was, this little kitten. I called him Potie.”
Potie the tomcat may well be an ancestral relative to the current collection of cats that have made Mary’s cottage garden their home.
“They’re very independent. I like cats that do their own thing because I like to do my own thing, too. They will meet me out on the road to convey me home. They say miaow. And I say miaow back. It’s an honour when they come and sit in your lap for you to stroke them,” she says.
The internet-savvy septuagenarian researched feral cat care online and found Community Cats Network (CCN), a fledgling group of Cork-based volunteers championing an internationally promoted policy of humane and effective feral cat population control known as Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR).
Through Mary’s initial contact, the group plan to trap and neuter the island’s feral cat population, which includes two other known colonies at the east and west ends of Cape Clear.
In September, CCN volunteers, working with vets charging the cost of materials only, trapped and spayed 20 of Mary’s cats, using an outhouse as a makeshift surgery. In October they returned to collect and neuter the remaining kittens too young to spay the first time round. Armed with their cat traps and Styrofoam boxes, which they provide for feral cats to sleep in, the team raised a few eyebrows among islanders. The group returned to Cape this month to neuter the remaining colonies.
CCN founding member Eimilie Péneau, 35, explains how Ireland’s feral cat population originates from an unneutered domesticated population turned wild. “All cats in Ireland were at some stage domesticated. Those cats have kittens and people are feeding these strays in their garden. Next they are feeding its kittens as well. Our work is about breaking the cycle,” she says.
Péneau began by implementing the ethos in her adopted home, the coastal village of Ballycotton, where she organised fundraisers to neuter stray cats.
“People are not aware that you can catch a feral cat and that’s where we come in. We have the traps and the experience and we can do it. We support communities by helping to organise fundraising events but we don’t do everything for them, we try to encourage communities to take responsibility for their own feral cat populations.”
Jim Dwyer, 54, part of the CCN team working on Cape Clear, points out that feral cats offer a valuable service through rodent reduction.
“For every person in Ireland there are four rats. You’re talking about 18m rats and a rat is never more than a few feet from anyone. On farms where we operate, the TNR system cats play a vital role. By keeping down rat numbers, they stop the spread of disease and can help prevent food supplies such as grain stores being raided. People tend not to think about that. The common expression is, ‘sure they are only cats’,” he says.
His wife Maggie Dwyer, 38, has endured plenty of scrapes and scratches, but is driven to provide a better life for Ireland’s feral cat population.
“Their immune systems are poor due to inbreeding and disease spreads easily within the colony. We check their ears, nose, mouths and temperature and carry out blood tests for cat AIDS and leukaemia if required,” she says.
Cork-based vet Clare Meade opened the Cat Hospital in Glanmire in 2009. She says Irish attitudes towards cats need to change and neutering is crucial to stabilise the feral population.
“The problem is that there is no national programme to control the cat population. Cats are still classed as vermin in this country and that hinders an awful lot of good work that could be done for them. We know the population can be controlled in a compassionate and humane manner and the responsibility reverts back to humans to take control of it,” she says.
Urban feral cats generally fare better than their fellow rural felines due to food sources such as scavenging. Meade says cats serve a useful purpose particularly on farms, where attitudes towards neutering need to change.
“It’s a myth that cats should have a litter of kittens before being spayed and it’s very frustrating. We neuter feral cats as young as five months as it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“There is a lot of goodwill from interested parties and vets will neuter feral cats at a reduced cost. But without a national programme this is just scratching the surface of the problem. International research shows you have two options in dealing with feral cat populations: Either kill half or neuter 75%,” she says.
*For information on how to care for a colony of feral cats visit feralcatsireland.org or contact Community Cats Network at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Starve a cat to make it a better hunter.
Jim Dwyer says: ‘If you starve a cat, you make it lethargic. A cat that isn’t constantly looking for food is a cat that will go looking for entertainment, and that’s hunting.”
*A bowl of milk is sufficient.
Dwyer says: “Cats are carnivores, they need a high protein diet.”
*Tinned food is best.
Jim says: “Wet food has an immediate protein boost, but that wears off quickly. It’s comparable to junk food; long term it has no benefit. Dry food takes more crunching but it lasts longer and the effect is better for the cat.”