They present quite a challenge, but feral un-neutered cats still need a helping hand, as Simone Stanbrook-Byrne discovered when she chatted to the founder of a unique animal charity

The years of the pandemic have had a lot to answer for. All of us were impacted in some way, but one of the less-documented effects of successive lockdowns was the impact of Devon’s restaurant closures on the feral and stray cat population. Feline waifs, used to titbits, suddenly had their source of sustenance switched off. They had to start looking further afield, often haunting people’s gardens in the hope of free food, upsetting the resident cats and presenting a problem that needed addressing.

Enter cat-lover extraordinaire, Zara Oldfield.

Back in 2018, Zara’s beloved cat, Hector, went missing. From this point she became increasingly involved with cat rescue charities, during the course of which she realised that feral and stray, un-neutered male tom cats create a very specific kind of challenge.

So, in 2020, with the pandemic in full flow and a noticeable increase in the number of stray toms, Zara set up a new charity: Hector’s House.

‘Hector’s House was set up primarily to rescue and rehabilitate stray and abandoned tom cats,’ she tells me. ‘In most cases they are un-neutered, which means they are driven by their hormones to roam in search of a mate, be aggressive and fight, and urinate to mark their territory. When they come into a new area, they can cause problems by conflicting with the resident cats, which is often when we’re called in.

Great British Life: A heart-wrenching image of Lazarus, before help. Neutering cats can avoid so much suffering. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's HouseA heart-wrenching image of Lazarus, before help. Neutering cats can avoid so much suffering. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's House

Great British Life: Lazarus, after. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's HouseLazarus, after. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's House

‘Often charities struggle to accommodate toms’ needs because they can be difficult to handle, smelly, feisty, and are often suffering from the results of being outdoors for a long time, such as parasite infestations, injuries and diseases. These problems can be expensive and time-consuming to treat.’

Feral cats are distinct from strays, the latter having had human contact at some point in their life. With time and care, strays will usually once more embrace domestic bliss; ferals may be less inclined to, though I know from my own experience that young ferals can grow to enjoy a lap and a cuddle as much as any cat.

‘We have nine pens with heated pads at our base in Torquay,’ continues Zara. ‘Here the cats are assessed and looked after until they have been to the vet for treatment and neutering. They will then go to a foster home before being rehomed permanently, or if they are truly feral, will be found a suitable supported feral placement [such as on farms or in stables].’

In a foster home, the carer will work to gain the trust of the cat, provide him with comfort and safety, and teach him that he doesn’t have to fight for his next meal.

‘Although the work to rescue stray toms remains our primary focus, the charity has also rescued many kittens born in the wild to abandoned or feral females,’ says Zara. ‘The kittens are brought in to be domesticated, and the mothers are neutered and rehomed, or found a feral placement if appropriate.’

Great British Life: Olive, before. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's HouseOlive, before. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's House

Great British Life: Olive, after. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's HouseOlive, after. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's House

In the year to December 2022, the charity took in 561 cats and kittens. Zara explains the process: ‘When we receive a call about a stray, the first step is for a volunteer to attend the location and, if possible, scan the cat for a microchip, which may enable an owner to be traced. If there is no microchip and the cat is not in need of emergency vet care, it can be fitted with a paper collar with a message asking the owner to call the charity. The cat will also be advertised on social media, in an attempt to trace owners.’

If no owner is found the cat is then cared for by the charity, although efforts to track down owners will continue. If all efforts fail, or if the owner surrenders the cat to the charity, the rehoming process can start.

‘If there is one message I would like to get across,’ says Zara, ‘it’s the importance of getting your cat neutered and microchipped – and keeping the details up to date on the database. Neutering will avoid the problem of unwanted kittens, and the issues associated with un-neutered male cats.’

The simple procedure of neutering prevents so much suffering, and getting your cat microchipped means there’s a much better chance for the cat to be reunited with an owner or, if the worst happens, and the cat is hit by a car, the owner can be traced and informed.

And what of the lovely, black long-haired Hector, who was both neutered and microchipped before his disappearance in Torquay? Sadly, he has not been found, despite numerous appeals and searches. ‘But,’ says Zara, ‘I live in hope that one day, if he is still alive, he will be scanned and the database will show he is flagged as missing – so he can come home.’

Great British Life: Flea, before. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's HouseFlea, before. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's House

Great British Life: Flea, after. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's HouseFlea, after. Photo: Zara Oldfield/Hector's House