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Becoming Feral:

A Politics of Animal Sheltering and the Operationalization

of Ferality to Manage Free-Roaming Cats

Florida International University 
On embargo
  • Successful defense November 12, 2021

  • available online in 2023

Jacquelyn Johnston
Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies,
Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
For more information, please email me


Being labeled feral is a death sentence. Making animals killable is a process rooted in histories of control and situated within contemporary iterations of social, political, and legal frameworks. The bureaucratic designation “feral” is used to justify the financed destruction of millions of animals per year. Yet, the designation of ferality is less an objective, biological, or ethological determination than a political determination made within a contested field of power relations in particular spaces and at particular historical moments.

In Miami, the county-run animal shelter deploys ferality as a classification to structure their TNR program. This program, launched in the wake of controversies over shelter management practices, presents itself as a humane alternative that saves animal lives. However, this official narrative hinges on ‘no kill’ and ‘live release’ statistics. This dissertation will utilize work on assemblage and biopolitics in human geography, and specifically animal geographies, to question this narrative. Combining a more-than-human ethnography with a genealogy of ferality in Miami-Dade County’s animal shelter, I will show that ferality, as an animal management classification technology imposed on all cats, results in abstract generalizations about a heterogeneous group of animals and sacrifices individual animal well-being for the political goal of achieving high live-release rates. The result is a (failed) attempt to legitimize the liminal existence of ‘feral’ animals.

This dissertation contributes to the understanding and consideration for multispecies coexistence in a changing world by highlighting hitherto underexplored experiences of individuals engaging with the implementation of government policies to manage ‘feral’ animals. The genealogy of ferality that I offer here is particularly helpful since feral life, by definition, is situated across the remnants of the nature-culture and wild-domestic binaries. ‘Ferality,’ in practice, is formulated and operationalized by different actors and at different scales. This topological approach to ferality increases our understanding of human-nonhuman relations in an era where the boundaries between pristine nature and human impact are indistinct, yet categories rooted in binary thinking such as ferality persists. Finally, this research extends beyond academic literature and engages in discussions with policymakers, government agencies, legislators, and public conversations about human-nonhuman coexistence.

For more information, please email me
Notes and data from the research used to think through this paper
(not part of the published paper, sharing for transparency. If there is anything else you would like to see, please just email me) 

Data coming soon

Policy proposal doc also in the works. 
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