What Community Cats Can Teach Us about Multispecies Care

A lone, scraggly tabby cat sits on an urban street, with rumpled fur and a clipped left ear.

Community cats, more commonly known as feral cats, live outdoors in multispecies environments such as urban neighborhoods and rural barns. Although they are not very friendly toward humans, many communities provide for these cats through human volunteers who take on the responsibility of feeding and caring. The unique lives of community cats show us how they rely on multiple species to survive and thrive in the outdoors. In the minds of community cats, humans occasionally provide food, but their lives are much bigger and filled with vibrant multispecies interactions with garden plants, raccoons, squirrels, mice, rabbits, and other flora and fauna.

Community cats have historically earned a bad name due to their unfriendly attitudes toward humans, rampant rates of overpopulation in certain areas, and negative impact on wildlife. However, the problem does not lie with community cats alone, but rather human beings’ inability to allow for the existence of multispecies environments where humans play merely a background role.

Focusing on the needs of community cats based on their multispecies lifestyles can allow us to create safe outdoor environments for them to spend their lives, while ensuring appropriate population size and health of the colony. Further, these outdoor cats inspire us to think and live with animals outside of understandings of the domestic and the wild. Although the lifestyles and behaviors of community cats may be different from that of pet cats, their lives matter just as much.

Why Community Cats are Misunderstood Creatures

Sometimes referred to as “homeless,” 60 to 100 million community cats reside in the United States alone. In urban neighborhoods, community cat colonies can sometimes overpopulate, which leads to a struggle for resources. Human caretakers can no longer provide food for such large numbers. Unsterilized cats are more prone to health concerns as well.

In the minds of community cats, their lives are much bigger and filled with vibrant multispecies interactions.

Community cats are also generally considered “unsocialized,” which means that unlike the cute behavior of pet cats, they are not accustomed to human touch, space, sight, smell, and sounds from a young age. This lack of familiarity with humans makes them apprehensive of people, and they are generally not happy living or interacting with them. While this may make community cats seem like unfriendly creatures in general, they actually share strong intra-species sociality with their feline family members. Colonies have strong individual bonds and rely on each other to survive in both urban and rural areas.

A tabby and white adult female cat sits on a dusty barn board, with her smaller but identical kitten hiding behind her.
A mother cat and her kitten at a barn in Wisconsin. Photo by author, 2023.

Nonetheless, many cities have an unfavorable attitude toward community cats—often euthanizing them at shelters if they are caught because they are deemed “unadoptable.” It is crucial to ensure the wellbeing of these misunderstood creatures when their lives are often threatened by environmental and human factors.

Trap-Neuter-Return as a Humane Alternative

A multispecies perspective can help humans practice humane coexistence with community cats. Instead of euthanizing cats who do not fit the conventional box of a domesticated pet, humans should prioritize the independent welfare of community cats by attending to their basic needs and allowing them to continue living and thriving in their outdoor environments. While some studies have shown that community cats can cause greater wildlife mortality thereby creating negative ecological impact, the essay foregrounds the needs of community cats within multispecies relationships.

Since overpopulation can often cause lack of food and health concerns, rescues around the nation commonly practice Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). TNR is considered a humane alternative for managing the populations of community cat colonies. With this method, all the cats in the colony are live-trapped and brought to a veterinary clinic to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and ear-tipped. Volunteers then return treated cats to their original territory, where they recover from their surgeries and a caretaker provides regular food and shelter.

A pregnant adult female cat with yellow eyes and brown fur rests inside an animal crate with a fluffy bed and litter box next to her.
Pallas, a pregnant female, waiting to give birth in her temporary shelter at 9 Lives rescue. Photo by author, 2023.

In addition to gradually decreasing population size over time, there are also many health benefits to sterilizing cats. Spayed and neutered cats are much less likely to spray, fight, and roam. Further, sterilization significantly reduces the risk of mammary gland tumors/cancer, prostate cancer, perianal tumors, pyometria, and uterine, ovarian and testicular cancers.

I recently undertook a Graduate Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) Project at the University of Wisconsin Center for the Humanities, where I partnered with Dane County foster-based cat rescue 9 Lives Rescue to support the community cats in Madison, Wisconsin. Our main goals with this project were to reduce overpopulation through a sterilization program, ensure safe habitability and access to resources, and spread awareness about community cats’ needs and spay-neuter education in underserved communities.

Five small barn kittens, three gray and two orange, snuggle up in a corner amidst wet cardboard and other makeshift bedding.
Five of the Cottage Grove barn kittens before their rescue. Photo by author, 2023.

Employing a TNR policy at an abandoned barn in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin allowed us to rescue 12 feral cats and kittens. Due to the absence of a caretaker at the original location, we could not facilitate the “return” part of the TNR process. However, all the cats found good homes. Kittens and friendly adults were placed for adoption in foster homes, while the remaining cats found new homes in nearby farms as barn cats—aptly called “mousers.”

Significant “Non-Kin” Multispecies Relationships

Learning more about the TNR process and helping 9 Lives with this practice of supporting community cats has clarified my perspective on multispecies relationships and environments. While we often find stories of cross-species friendships between humans and friendly animals, community cats belie this common narrative of human exceptionalism due to their non-social attitudes toward humans.

Humans treat pet cats with love and respect due to them being a companion species. A two-way dependency has defined humans’ relationships with their pets since the point of evolution. We see our pet cats as “kin” because they fit human sociality systems and accept us as part of their group, completing a biosocial leap across species. In turn, humans are “hailed” by pets to examine how intricately intertwined our lives are with other species.

Pallas, now given birth, playing with human staff and her kittens. Photo by author, 2023.

However, humans and community cats do not have such an easy two-way relationship. Our encounters and attachments to community cats are messy, carry different affects compared to our pet felines, and lack clear social unit definitions. While pet cats treat their human owners as part of their family unit due to their caretaking and social capabilities, community cats view human caretakers as just another creature in their multispecies crowd.

In When Species Meet, Donna Haraway argues that species interdependence involves making worlds based on response and respect. In these encounters with companion species, the categories of kin and kind are forever changed. When humans interact with other species, each of the species involved are irrevocably altered in these encounters. Haraway refuses human exceptionalism by embracing the inevitability of multispecies relationships in diverse environments.

Community cats demonstrate the importance of valuing animals’ lives even when they show indifference toward humans, are not kin, and are not included in our households. Whether they live in urban neighborhoods or rural farms, community cats lead lives adjacent to humans’. Apart from feeding time when they congregate near the human caretaker for nourishment, these cats have separate social lives from humans, preferring the company of their fellow colony cats or the squirrels, birds, rabbits, and raccoons in their vicinity.

The interactions between human caretakers and community cats reveal the multispecies webs of care at the heart of relationships of “non-kinship” and distant reciprocity.

Even so, there is a certain sense of joy in caring for other species that are not dependent on ideas of kinship. While community cats may not view humans as their family, this does not negate the relationship that exists between these cats and their human caretakers. Further, caring for these animals can be a therapeutic source of comfort for human beings as well.

By focusing on these relationships of “non-kinship,” I hope to highlight the potential of multispecies forms of care. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa has argued, “care is a human trouble, but this does not make of care a human-only matter.” Decentering the human subject in multispecies webs of care allows us to make visible powerful forms of collective existence already in place.

Helping Community Cats in Our Neighborhoods

So, how can we help to maintain and support the multispecies environments of community cats in our vicinity? What are the forms of multispecies care at our disposal, whether we live in urban neighborhoods or rural areas? Here are some recommendations.

Avid cat lovers might feel the desire to move closer to community cats in their neighborhoods, or even feel the urge to pet them. But the best thing you can do for these cats is allow them to co-exist in your backyards, alleys, and other outdoor areas. If a human caretaker does not already exist, volunteer to take on some of the responsibility of putting out food for these cats at a certain time, along with your neighbors.

Three adult cats, one orange, one fluffy gray, and one white and gray spotted, interacting in a dimly lit, dusty barn.
Three community cats have formed strong intra-species relationships at their barn home in Wisconsin. Photo by author, 2023.

The greatest challenges that currently threaten the lives of community cats are overpopulation and winter conditions. If you witness a steadily growing rate of community cats in your neighborhood, contact local cat rescues who can help you coordinate a TNR process. When the temperature begins to drop, consider purchasing some heated cat shelters and placing them in your porch or backyard to help these cats survive harsh winters.

Supporting community cats and their vibrant lives beyond domestication is one way to shift away from narratives of human exceptionalism and maintain space in our lives and neighborhoods for unexpected multispecies relationships. By attending to the lifestyles of community cats and their outdoor environments, we can begin to imagine and construct worlds that do not prioritize human needs. The interactions between human caretakers and community cats reveal the multispecies webs of care at the heart of relationships of “non-kinship” and distant reciprocity. Community cats and their “unsociable” encounters provide a needed approach to human-animal relationships between the domestic and the wild.

Featured image: A lone community tabby cat overseeing a village street in Singapore. Photo by Lily Banse, 2017.

Kuhelika Ghosh is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores questions of voice and care in multispecies gardens in contemporary Anglophone Caribbean literature and culture. Her writing has appeared in ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Environmental History Now, and Brittle Paper. Her last contribution to Edge Effects was “Poet’s Body as Archive Amidst a Rising Ocean (November 2020). Contact.