There is a tendency among some rescue groups to label any animal that is in the least way damaged or antisocial as feral. Whether this helps their cause by making it seem that they have skills in rehabilitating feral animals or whether it helps increase interest in the animal by adding to its story is unclear. What is clear, however, is that these rescue organizations do not truly understand what the term ‘feral’ means.
Feral is defined in the dictionary in three ways:
With this in mind, it’s clear that animals could fall into all 3 categories. But for the purposes of rescue, how should feral be defined? For that, we need to turn to reputable, accountable organizations who have experience with true feral animals. The ASPCA defines feral cats as “A cat born and raised in the wild, or who has been abandoned or lost and turned to wild ways in order to survive”. They further say that ” While some feral cats tolerate a bit of human contact, most are too fearful and wild to be handled” and “The number of feral cats in the U.S. is estimated to be in the tens of millions”. (Full article here) With those sorts of numbers, it stands to reason that any cat shelter or rescue most likely has their share of feral cats to deal with. Many of the them choose to manage this by TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release), managing feral colonies (here) and separating the truly feral cats from those who could do well in a home environment. The former would be fixed and returned to the streets or euthanized (depending on the shelter/rescue) and the latter would be vetted and put up for adoption, either with or without the benefits of rehabilitation dependent on the resources the organization has available to them. This approach of course hinged on two things – first, the ability to trap the cats, and second, the ability to accurately assess whether or not the cats are truly feral. The ASPCA has undertaken a study to determine the accuracy of the criteria shelters use to label cats upon intake. According to this study, ” The research also suggests that some clues shelters commonly use do not appear to accurately identify truly unsocialized cats”. This is concerning news as cats’ lives hang in the balance (report here).
I believe that it is fair to assume that when considering adoption from a cat rescue or shelter, whether no-kill or not, it is a good idea to ask where the cat has come from, how long it has been in care, what possible problems said cat may have in a home environment, and if the shelter/rescue offers long term support. No-kill shelters, just by virtue of their mission to keep euthanization to a minimum, will have cats with special health and behavioral needs up for adoption. If they say otherwise, they are either the luckiest shelter in history, or are not being honest. As much as you may want to help out the cats there, please consider that you might be getting in deeper than you had intended with your new pet and will need to seek out support accordingly.
While there is a surplus of feral cats in Canada and the US, there are not a lot of feral domestic dogs. I know the terms seem contradictory, but bear with me. There are a lot of feral canines – the grey wolf, coyote, red wolves and foxes among them. As all domestic breeds descend from the grey wolf (99% of their DNA is the same), it stands to reason that they are very similar in their behavior, much like the domestic cat is so similar to their wild counterparts. Domestic dogs, however, have been bred for so long for certain traits that they have lost their ability to return successfully to the wild. In short, they have been bred to be too dependent on us. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the exact length of our dog/human interdependence, but we can safely say that it has been thousands and thousands of years. In this Psychology Today article, the differences between the wolf and the dog are outlined, including the notation that “When wolves were raised in human homes, they were a great deal more aggressive and less respectful of human rules. Although wolf cubs are cute, they quickly mature into wild animals who have little interest in their masters”. If wolves are the benchmark for defining feral (wild) behavior, it would seem that domesticating a feral dog would entail more than a roof over its’ head and a few square meals.
So, what about the feral dog claims made by rescue organizations? On further investigation, it seems that the term is used for dogs who: a) have been emotionally or physically neglected (puppy mill and reserve dogs for example) , and b) dogs who attack and bite when approached by humans. As far as the former goes, none of the dictionary definitions can apply unless the dog is hunting for its’ meals and living wild, which would eliminate any dog being cared for by humans (puppy mill dogs). This would refer to a dog who avoids all human contact, hunts for his/her meals and resists attempts to trap it. A domestic dog that goes to those lengths would not easily be rehabilitated, and since you would tend to only see these dogs only at distance if at all, it is unlikely that these truly feral dogs would become a target for capture by a rescue or shelter organization. The time when these dogs may come to the attention of humans is when they have puppies. These pups would be identified as feral, and are at a high risk of developing feral behaviors and be less successful in adoptive homes if they are left with their mothers past 2 or 3 weeks. Best Friends, in this article, explain the best way to help these feral dogs and their pups. TNR is the accepted form of management for the feral adults as their behavior is unsafe to successfully acclimate to most home settings.
The latter identified dogs, those who attack and bite when approached by humans, fall technically into the third definition of feral – ” of or characteristic of wild animals; ferocious; brutal”. Or do they? Even though the dogs described in the above paragraph would fall into this category, there are a wide range of triggers and a number of reasons dogs bite. Apart from having a mind altering illness such as rabies, on of the biggest reason dogs bite is fear. Reputable rescues who do puppy mill and hoarding seizures know to move slowly, wear protection gear and talk softly to calm the dogs they are removing. Still, they are often shocked at the number of animals in these situations who respond with kindness and affection because they believe them to be feral. This is put up as evidence of the fact that the animals are better than humans and are responding with love to humans who have never done anything but harm them. However, if you understand that these dogs are domestic, not feral, and that they don’t have the same understanding of their needs as humans do, and that all of what little food and care has come from humans (albeit cruel humans in our understanding), it stands to reason that they still view humans as necessary for their survival. This is in direct contrast to truly feral dogs who make no such connection.
In short, the connection that many rescues are making between dogs with fear-aggressive issues, or aggressive issues – or dogs that have been neglected and the term ‘feral’ is not well founded. The exception would be when a truly feral dog has produced puppies that were removed from their mother. It would be best, as always, to get details of what has been done to help rehabilitate the pup, what problems could arise in the future, and whether or not the rescue or shelter provides long term support. As you will be sharing your home and life with this animal for potentially years to come, it is important to ask the hard questions up front and understand as fully as possible what you are signing up for.