Backyard Cat Ghost and the Vacuum Effect

I set the trap Sunday night for Fireheart. I was all set to get him, bring him to the clinic on Monday, and to his forever outdoor home on Tuesday.

So imagine my surprise when I checked the trap and saw this guy:

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Well, hello there!

This is Ghost, so named because we first saw him as a white apparition on the deck a little more than a year ago. It was around Halloween, and he looked spooky in the moonlight. He’s been a less-visible regular at our feeding station for more than a year now, mostly coming to eat late at night or early in the mornings when the humans aren’t afoot.

I’ll admit it — I panicked. This was not the cat I wanted to trap. I didn’t have a plan for him!

Luckily, I have some smart friends in rescue. My experienced rescue friend Jenn told me that setting him free in hopes of catching Fireheart was not a good idea. Let this unneutered guy go, she said, and he would never set foot in my trap again. He’s a huge tomcat, likely the father of many of the kittens that had come through my yard over the last year. To quote my mom, neutering him would be “doing the community a great service.”

But then what? Well, Jenn and I talked some more, and she helped me to see that this neighborhood is Ghost’s home. He is a longtime resident here. Neighbors have told me they’ve seen him for a while, which means he has managed to survive a few years here. This is his home, and he deserves to go back to it.

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Ghost after surgery.

But there’s another reason for keeping Ghost here. Ask anyone with some feral cat expertise to remove unwanted cats from their neighborhood, and they’ll tell you about the vacuum effect.

The gist is this: There are cats in your neighborhood for a reason. They’ve got food to eat – whether they’re being fed by humans or hunting – and they find adequate shelter from the elements. They feel safe. They were attracted to the neighborhood for a reason.

So when you remove all of the feral cats from an area – whether through relocation or worse, killing them – you leave a vacuum. You know the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum”? It’s true. In time, your cat-free area will be inhabited by cats again. Neighboring colonies will find the food, shelter, and safety that the previous group was attracted to.

It’s a vicious cycle, and that’s why most animal organizations advocate TNR, or trap-neuter-return. Keep the colony in place, but make sure they can’t produce any more kittens.

Being a large tomcat, Jenn said, means Ghost is probably the alpha male around here. Transferred somewhere else, he might cause problems in another colony. He’ll be much happier patrolling the neighborhood — and maybe helping to keep other cats out.

So, that’s what Ghost will do. On Monday, he was neutered, microchipped, and given a rabies shot. He also got his ear tipped so people know he’s being cared for. He spent the night in my garage to make sure he was recovering from surgery well and eating OK. Later today, I’ll set him free.

And then, I will keep feeding him in my yard until it’s time for us to sell our house in the spring. But before I move, you can be sure I will recruit someone else in the neighborhood to take care of Ghost. After all, he lives here, too.

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