My neighbors and I have been feeding a colony of feral cats for about 2 years; all are spayed and neutered.
I have never owned a cat or been around cats (besides the cat that savagely attacked me years ago as I unknowingly walked past it) other than at work at the vets office until we began this project. This is all new to me.
I put food out in the front yard and the back yard which means I have a group of backyard cats and a group of front yard cats.
Though they come running when they know it's feeding time they are not pets! Some of them will get very close and even wind around our ankles, but only a couple will allow themselves to actually be touched.
Some of them eat exclusively in my yard some in my neighbors and they switch yards now and then so that the numbers stay pretty even for both of us.
About 6 months ago one of the cats we call Tiger that had been feeding at my neighbors, completely took over my back yard. At first he was extremely shy and stayed far away until he heard the door close behind me just like the others did in the beginning.
Since Tiger has taken over, all of the other cats stay well away until he's finished eating even though their dishes are quite a distance from his.
I always talk to them in a calm voice while putting the food out, telling them things like they don't have to be afraid, I won't hurt them etc.
Little by little Tiger began coming in closer as I put the food down. One day he came up to me and wrapped around my ankles and I thought "this is great; we're making progress".
He did this for about a week. Then one day he sat right in front of my hand as I reached to set his dish down. I was talking to him as usual but made no effort to touch him.
The next thing I knew he'd taken a vicious swipe at my hand. Thankfully my reflexes are still pretty good and he didn't do as much damage as he might have, though he did draw blood. I had the water pitcher in my other hand and as I pulled my hand away a few drops of water splashed on him and he backed off a foot or so. We went through the same routine with every dish I put down.
Since then he's becoming increasingly threatening in body language; stiff posture, tail lashing back and forth and hair standing up all over his body. I've been getting him to back off when I set the dishes down by taking a non threatening step or two in his direction. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
Tonight when I went out to feed them he blocked my path just short of sitting on my foot and wouldn't give an inch. He also added a deep fearsome growl to the already threatening body language. This cat meant business and he scared the beejeebers out of me!
All thoughts and suggestions on how to handle this situation would be greatly appreciated.
Please bear in mind, this is a completely feral cat and can't be taken to a vet or seen by a behaviorist. He doesn't appear to have any injuries or illness, his eyes are bright and clear and his weight is perfect--even a little on the heavy side.