It’s estimated there are more feral cats living on Islesboro than there are wild deer, but all those undomesticated felines haven’t proven to be too big a problem to the local community due to the hard work of the Island Feral Cat Association.

As Janice Bethune, Island Feral Cat Association (IFCA) board member notes, “Because there are no natural predators to feral cats on Islesboro, such as foxes or coyotes, it is only the work of the Island Feral Cat Association that keeps the population down.”

Before the IFCA was founded in September 2006, different individuals on Islesboro were working independently to address the island’s growing feral cat problem. Because many of those cats were killing wild birds and tearing through the garbage of local residents, something had to be done.

Current board members (including Bethune, Lisa Satchfield, Katie Hickel, Bonnie Bird, Charles Serns, and Joan Lillie) began spending their own time and money to catch the cats and have them spayed and neutered before returning the wild animals to their home colonies.

“All the members of the board were doing something independently,” says Bethune, “and I brought them together under the roof of the IFCA.”

Feral cats come from one of two places. Either they are cats that have been forced to live in the wild after being abandoned by their human owners, or they are cats that are the offspring of such abandoned pets.

Although the exact meaning of “feral cat” remains somewhat vague, Dr. Annette Rauch of the Cumming School of Veterinary Medicine of Tufts University defines them as cats that are “unsocialized to human contact. Feral cats are cats that are afraid of people,” she says, “They are cats who won’t let anyone touch them.”

The work the IFCA does on Islesboro is vitally important, as feral cats are becoming a significant problem in many communities around the United States. While the exact population is not known, Dr. Rauch estimates the numbers of feral cats in this country is a very large number indeed.

“No one really knows how many there are,” she says, “because they are hidden, living in colonies behind pizza parlors and in state parks. However, it’s estimated there are as many feral cats in the U.S. as there are domesticated cats, a number that may be as high or 70 or 80 million.”

Although feral cats occasionally bring benefits to a community (for instance, by controlling rodent populations), the problems that may result from a large feral cat population can be myriad. Feral cats sometimes hunt and kill small animals and wild birds. They can spread diseases such as rabies, round worm, and toxoplasmosis. And their presence alone can be problematic, with the fighting, mating, and howling that is a natural part of a feral cat colony often proving to be a considerable nuisance to the people living in a city or town.

On Islesboro, however, the problem of feral cats has not grown more significant due to the work of the Island Feral Cat Association and local volunteers. Funded by private donations and community organizations such as the Maine Community Foundation and the Lyman Pope Foundation, the IFCA helps control Islesboro’s wild cat population by trapping the feral cats (with humane, Hav-A-Hart traps) and delivering them to local veterinarians.

There the cats are given general physical exams to ensure their overall health, are given rabies shots, and are spayed or neutered before eventually being returned to their native colonies. The old practice of trapping and killing these cats is now considered inhumane and not effective.

“In the last eighteen months or so,” says the IFCA’s Janice Bethune, “Since the spring of 2007, we’ve safely captured 114 feral cats or kittens and either returned them to their colonies or found them homes for adoption.”

While the IFCA plays the primary role in controlling the population of Islesboro’s feral cats, they are not alone in the project. Bethune calls Blake Vet and All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Northport the IFCA’s “veterinary benefactors,” noting they provide their services to Isleboro’s feral cats at “a huge discount.”

Additionally, community members assist the Island Feral Cat Association by helping to transport the animals, by cleaning cat boxes and washing dishes and laundry, and by volunteering to help socialize the feral kittens that are caught at a young enough age. The Camden-Rockport Animal Rescue League also helps find some of those feral kittens new homes, while Camden’s Critter Outfitters regularly donates expired pet food to help feed the island’s cats. Private donations (including money, food, and supplies) are also regularly offered.

Programs like the Island Feral Cat Association’s both help to ensure the overall health of feral cat colonies while also limiting the number of future cat births, and while its results are promising Dr. Rauch doesn’t believe such programs are the final solution to this country’s wild cat problem.

“We have to stop people from dumping their pet cats,” Dr. Rauch says. “Unless that happens, there will always be more feral cats. It will be an endless cycle.”