Last week’s column included a list of animals my wife and I’ve lived with who started out with severe behavioral challenges, including cats rescued from traps (my sweet, sweet Lily) and dumpsters (Sniff, who loved Carolyn but absolutely loathed me). I noted that some folks refer to such cats as “feral.” That deserves further discussion.

You can find a lot of definitions but in all cases the term “feral” comes down to some version of “having reverted to the wild state, as from domestication” (, “animals that have changed from being domesticated to being wild, natural, or untamed” (Wikipedia), or “having escaped from domestication and become wild” (Merriam-Webster). A feral cat, then, is an animal who went from tame and domestic to untamed and wild, or the untamed and wild offspring of once tame cats. The key is the shift from socialized to truly wild, from domestic to independent. When it comes to wild animals (think raccoon, owl, lion, bear) people are either a potential problem or a meal; people are not a friend.

Worldwide, there are millions of unsocialized cats surviving outside of loving human families and homes, and perhaps some actually are feral. Most, however, are not. Let me offer an illustration.

I’m on the Board of Directors of a cat sanctuary which provides care for 650+ cats, probably 99% of them born far away from people, hidden away under buildings or in really remote locations: almost all are offspring of offspring of offspring of cats who survived on their own. Giving these cats a safe, caring place and protecting native wildlife from cats’ predatory behavior is the dual mission of the program. As you walk through the Sanctuary’s front gate, you’re swarmed by a couple hundred of the cats, all of them wanting to climb into your lap or onto your shoulder for love. If any cats were to be truly feral – wild, natural, untamed – it would be these multi-generation survivors. But given safety, reliable food, caring humans, most of them rather quickly demonstrate what thousands of years of life with people have helped them become: pussycats.

Why does this matter? Words have power. Cats deserve a loving home. Feral animals do not want one.  Think about the implications of the label, and you’ll see why it matters.