Saturday, September 5, 2009

In The Battle Between Feral Cats And Wildlife, The Cats Win

Recently a woman dropped off an injured robin at our front desk for the local wildlife rehabilitator to pick up. It was in a roomy box and I simply set it aside until the rehabber came, knowing the animal was already under stress and didn’t need me peeking in at it. A couple days ago I asked the rehabber how the bird was doing.

“It was a cat attack,” she said. “It was badly injured – broken wing, head and neck injuries – it didn’t survive.”

I expressed my condolences, but instead of wanting sympathy, she exclaimed “People shouldn’t let their cats outside! We need to tell them this!” So here I am, passing the word along.

Cats are natural predators, and birds, as well as mice, squirrels, snakes, baby rabbits, and insects, are on the menu. We may not think about it much if Fluffy brings home a sparrow once a year, and if it was only that, it might not seem so bad.

But, coincidentally, Audubon Magazine just came out with an article by Ted Williams about this very topic and the statistics are staggering! In one study in rural Wisconsin it was determined that there are at least 1.4 million cats running loose in the wilds of that state, and on average they are each eating about six birds a year. If you do the math, that comes out to almost eight million birds! And chances are they aren’t starlings or English sparrows, invasives we could well do without. No, these are often warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers…neotropical birds that spend the summers breeding in the north. Birds whose futures are already on shakey ground thanks to habitat loss. Birds whose populations may already hang in the balance.

Much of the article focused on the Hawaiian Islands, where feral cats (and the introduced mongoose) are wreaking havoc on the native birds, many of which are endangered species.

Well, we say, the solution is easy: trap out the cats. And it would seem easy, except cats have a huge and powerful lobby. Cats? A lobby? Yes – believe it or not, feral cat advocacy groups have sprouted up all over the US (and its territories). Their philosophy is to trap the cats, spay or neuter them, and then release them back into the wild. In theory, they will not be able to reproduce and over time the colonies will disappear. In reality, you’d have to trap and fix 70-90% of the cats in any wild population to even make a dent in the population (and that doesn’t factor in other feral cats, or newly dumped pets, joining the existing colony). Cats are difficult to trap, so in reality, that percentage is rarely reached. But let’s say 90% get fixed and are all turned loose again. Those cats may not be able to breed, but they can still hunt, and that is the problem.

So the advocacy groups put out kibble. Fluffy will be fed, then, and won’t be hungry. Well, if you have a cat, you know that Fluffy doesn’t necessarily hunt for food. Fluffy hunts for the thrill of the stalk, the joy of the capture, the pleasure of playing with the prey.

While reading the article, I was horrified to learn that the cats’ lobby is so strong that Fluffy and his friends have more protection than endangered species! It’s hard to believe.

Nationwide, millions and millions of birds lose their lives to cats. Many of these cats are feral, but many are also pets, pets that are let outside so they can “do what cats are supposed to do.” In rural areas, the numbers are high, for farmers like their barn cats, and we rural folks like to believe that cats should be able to hunt. But the truth is that the wildlife cannot support Fluffy’s habits. Not only are the birds suffering, but in some places Fluffy has reduced the wild prey to such levels that the natural predators don’t have enough to eat. And then there’s the spread of disease, things like toxoplasmosis, which can be deadly.

When I walk around my neighborhood, I often see my neighbors’ cats out for a stroll or a hunt. And recently I’ve seen young cats, no doubt feral, that are lurking around bird feeders and garages, looking for small mammals and birds. And I admit, I let my own cat out occasionally in the summer, but my yard is fenced and he’s too old, fat and lazy to chase a bird. Or so I tell myself.

The upshot of this story is a plea to folks to think twice about letting Fluffy outside to hunt. Most domestic cats are content to live the life of Riley indoors, where food and comfort are in plentiful supply. If you feel Fluffy needs to hunt, there are plenty of cat toys out there that you can supply, and this will also give you the opportunity to spend quality time with your cat. And if you know of a feral cat, or a feral cat colony, consider the impact it is having on the wildlife. Instead of maintaining it, look into capturing the offeder(s) and getting it/them into an animal shelter. Remember, there are plenty of cats in the world; it’s the wildlife that is in decline.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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