Arts & Leisure

Dear Homeward Bound: What’s a ‘community cat’?

Dear Homeward Bound,

I’m confused! I always thought that cats were cats but the other day I saw a documentary about colony of “community cats” in San Francisco and in the show they were talking about feral cats, working cats, community cats, house cats, and even warehouse cats. What are they talking about?

— Curious


Dear Curious,

Ah . . . cats! They are mysterious in so many ways and I think that’s part of why we humans love them. Historically the relationship between cats and humans did not start out as intentionally as the relationship between dogs and humans and to this day cats retain elements of independence from us. I think it may be useful to think of all cats as being on a spectrum of sociability ranging from our cuddly and beloved pets who sleep on our pillows at night to completely wild (or feral) cats who survive entirely on their own, opportunistically finding food and shelter on the outskirts of human society. We never see these cats except as an occasional pair of glittering eyes caught in a car’s headlights.

In between these ends of the spectrum are cats who are friendly but not snuggly, cats who will lay next to you on the couch but not touching, cats who like to rub against your leg but woe to you if you pick them up, cats who will lounge in the same space as someone they know but are gone like a shot if a stranger approaches, cats who come to the porch where the food is put out but are never seen otherwise and infinite variations in between. And to make it even more interesting, some cats can shift on the spectrum — hence the many wonderful stories of the feral barn cat who, over the years of being fed on the porch, slowly built the confidence to enter and house and now won’t leave the hearth!

All of these cats have different needs from the humans that interact with them and that has given rise to the many adjectives you heard in your documentary — cats like working or warehouse cats may just need shelter, food, and annual vaccines, community cats just need spay/neuter and neighbors who put out a shelter in the winter and make sure the water source gets heated, our lap cats need daily worship and multiple kinds of wet food, truly feral cats just need spayed or neutered and left alone. Another way you may see this reflected is in different adoption programs that humane societies have for cats.

I love cats and could go on and on but I hope this clears up some of your confusion about the many ways in which cats are characterized.


Homeward Bound

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