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Article on feral cat colonies

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 
There's an interesting article on feral cats and cats killing wildlife in today's online nytimes.com (science section). Some of the figures given are mindblowing.
post #2 of 6
you have to be a member to read it but heres the article

NY Times article

Bird Lovers Hope to Keep Cats on a Very Short Leash

Gary Bogdon for The New York Times


Every afternoon that she can make it, Dorothy May rolls her wheelchair down the road to a big thicket at the boundary of her condominium complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Then the cats come running.

"I'm just meals on wheels," Ms. May said. In fact, she is a lot more. She takes the cats to a veterinarian for spaying, neutering and vaccinations. She tries to find homes for them and offers unlimited ear scratches. She is well aware that many people, including some neighbors, disapprove. But, she said, "I'm taking care of them and I love them."

Dr. Christine Storts is the vet who treats the strays because she sees what they mean to Ms. May, but she is dead set against maintaining such colonies. She is also dead set against letting house cats roam free.

Dr. Storts wants to see all cats indoors or on leashes all the time, and no feral cat colonies, even if that means trapping and removing strays, many of which will inevitably be killed in shelters. The environmental damage the cats cause and the diseases they can spread are too important to ignore, she said.

Her views have brought her personal attacks and accusatory leaflets. "It's been a struggle," Dr. Storts said.

Ms. May and Dr. Storts are on opposite sides of the debate, but they are unusual in that they can talk to each other. More often, the serious disputes break out when cat lovers square off against bird lovers, environmentalists against animal defenders and veterinarians against veterinarians. Town meetings erupt in shouting, and otherwise mild suburbanites trap neighbors' cats and drop them at shelters.

The problem, or one problem, is that cats are killing birds, perhaps in the millions, perhaps in the hundreds of millions. Cats that roam free can also spread rabies, feline leukemia and other diseases.

So a movement has begun to stop the comings and goings of America's favorite pet. The goal, in essence, is to take the final step in taming Felis catus, the domestic cat, and confine it to a life that is truly domestic.

The United States has 73 million pet cats with homes of their own, according to a survey in 2001 and 2002 by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Many "owned cats" spend some time running free, and millions more un-owned cats prowl urban alleys, rural fields and suburban yards. Estimates of the feral cat population run up to 100 million, but can hardly be relied on. Counting cats is only slightly less difficult than herding them.

If cats spent all their hours stretched on divans, licking their paws and manipulating their owners, the numbers would not matter much. But cats love to hunt as much as they love to preen, and they are good at it. The American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society want them stopped.

For those groups, the cat is no mere pet, but a dangerous invasive species, a non-native predator that is creating havoc for certain native species. The bird conservancy, after noting that no one really knows how many birds are killed by cats, puts the number of cat-killed birds, based on "reasonable extrapolations from scientific data," at hundreds of millions a year.

A vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, Martha Armstrong, said other estimates were as low as seven million. "I don't think it's well documented," Ms. Armstrong said.

Dr. Julie Levy agreed. She is a veterinarian who teaches at the University of Florida and runs a program to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release stray cats. But she has no interest in joining a numbers argument. "It is somewhat unproductive to see what number we put on how many birds cats kill," Dr. Levy said. "If we can stipulate it's probably a lot, then let's see what we can do about it."

Six years ago, the bird conservancy started a campaign, Cats Indoors, with the goal of keeping all cats indoors all the time. Linda Winter, who started the campaign and still directs it, said feral cats should be trapped and removed to adoptive homes, one of the rare sanctuaries for feral cats or to shelters. That approach is sometimes called "trap and kill," by critics, because when it is carried out many of the cats that go to shelters are killed.

Ms. Winter has cats that she keeps indoors. Cats should not run free, she said, and they are "not wildlife, not native to North America."

But unlike other invasive species, cats have political teeth, as well as real ones. They have their own foundations, lobbyists and grass-roots support. The Humane Society supported Cats Indoors at first, but has begun its own campaign, Safe Cats, to urge owners to keep cats confined and controlled. The society does not endorse trapping feral cats.

The group supports, in some cases, volunteers' managing feral colonies, an approach that has been promoted for 10 years by Alley Cat Allies in Washington, a group that says it has 80,000 members dedicated to the welfare of feral cats. Colonies, which can range from a handful of cats to hundreds, are maintained by volunteers, sometimes officially, sometimes surreptitiously.

Like Ms. May, the volunteers feed the cats, search for adoptive homes, arrange for neutering and vaccinations and return the cats that are too wild to keep to where they came from. That approach is called Trap, Neuter, Release or T.N.R.

"The ultimate goal is that there should be no more feral cats," said Donna Wilcox, executive director of Alley Cat Allies. As cats are neutered, she said, the colonies decline.

As with everything else involving cats, others disagree.

Though some studies show colonies that have declined in numbers or even disappeared, others show they just keep going. Harold Mitchell, a biologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who spends much of his time trying to protect endangered beach mice and birds like the piping plover from free-roaming cats, said trapping and neutering cats worked in theory, but not in practice.

"If it were a closed system," Mr. Mitchell said, "definitely it would work."

But, he added, new cats keep arriving, and "people use state parks as a dumping ground for unwanted pets."

Florida has some of the biggest feral colonies and some of the most emotional fights. In the summer of 2002, a woman who was feeding feral cats on Singer Island in Palm Beach County was bitten by a feral cat that was found to be rabid. For public health reasons, the county decided to eradicate all the stray cats on the island, causing an uproar. The woman who had been bitten was one of the cats' most vocal defenders.

In another part of Florida, at the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, a feral colony, more than 500 strong, lives next to the habitat of the endangered Key Largo wood rat.

Florida has a particular problem, because a number of wild species are in trouble. Natural land is dwindling, often abutting residential development (read: cat habitat), and a large population of transient northerners, the snowbirds, may abandon pets when they go home for the summer.

Dr. Lorna Patrick, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Panama City, works in coastal environments on the recovery efforts of endangered species like sea turtles, beach mice and shore birds. Because of the popularity of houses near the coast, she said, "We are starting to see lots of feral cats and free-roaming pet cats in the beach and the dune system, mostly in the dunes."

The cats will, of course, prey on the birds and mice and baby turtles. Dr. Patrick does not blame them. "The cats aren't the problem," she said. "It's people."

The cats themselves often suffer, from illness, automobiles and predation. Coyotes are particularly attracted to cats. There are even studies suggesting that in certain canyons in San Diego coyotes help native birds because they prey on cats and other small predators.

Of course there have always been free-roaming cats, and they have always hunted birds. One reason for the intensity of the current debate is dwindling habitat for wild creatures. Dr. Margaret Slater, a veterinarian and an epidemiologist at Texas A&M, spent a year traveling around the country talking to people about cats and produced a pamphlet, "Community Approaches to Feral Cats," for the Humane Society. The biggest problems occur where cats move into wilderness areas or parks, she said, "especially places where things are already fragile."

Another factor, she said, is "a fundamental shift in the way people view nonhuman animals." Not only are many more people concerned about the fates of birds and beach mice, but also trapping cats and taking them to shelters where they are killed offends many people.

Dr. Slater said many laws were on the books for dogs, but fewer for cats. "Cats are not dogs," she said. "They don't run in packs and kill livestock. They don't run across the street and bite your child."

In parts of the world where feral dogs are still a problem, nobody worries about cats. "Once you get rid of the dog problem, then you get into this cat thing," she said.

Dr. Harriet Ritvo, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the relationship of people and domestic animals, said: "The habits of cats have always been perceived as less vulnerable to human control" than those of dogs. "It would have been unheard of in 19th century to imagine a cat under constant control."

Even now, Ms. Ritvo said, the idea meets resistance, adding: "It is perfectly easy to keep cats inside. But people haven't processed that."

Everyone involved in the debate over cats agrees on the fundamental importance of teaching pet owners that cats cannot thrive on their own and should not be abandoned. The lesson has not yet been learned.

"People think there's all these cats here," Ms. May said of the Cape Canaveral colony. "Why don't we just leave our cat here when we go back north? For some reason, people still think that cats can handle themselves out there, and that's just not the case."

Until human behavior changes, Ms. May's goals are small. There is one particular cat that she thinks is ready to be adopted. "If I could just find a home for Teddy," she said. "I really would like to find him a home."
post #3 of 6
A strange article from the New York Times. Their journalism is usually better than this. I say "strange," because it refers to no research (of which there have been over 60 studies on cat predation) and cites "extrapolation."

Alley Cat Allies has an excellent factsheet written on this very topic. It is located here: Cats and Predation - you have to have an Adobe Acrobat reader to download the article (to download a PDF reader just takes a few minutes, even on an analog line ).

Basically, the summary of the many studies done around the world come to the same conclusion:

1) Cats are opportunistic feeders and will rely on scaps and food provided from humans over hunting;

2) Cats are rodent specialists, and birds make up a small portion of their diet when they rely on hunting alone for food

3) Cats do not destroy a population when preying upon it - we would have no mice if that were the case.

Though most of us love the hunter-nature of our cats, most of us hate the killer aspect of our feline friends. But the fact of the matter is that England, an Island with many cat lovers and most cats indoor-outdoor, would have no bird population left if the "extrapolation" cited in the NY Times article actually held true.

Florida may pose a separate problem because of the threat of the extinction of several (or many?) bird species - but the most serious threat comes from the loss of the birds' habitat by the expansion of humanity into the birds' territory than from the feral cats.
post #4 of 6
I seem to remember seeing a documentary, that said that feral cats have nearly wiped out some species of birds, in Hawaii. It was a long time ago and I can't remember which birds.

There is also a species of snake, imported to Guam, that eats birds' eggs and is wreaking havoc, there.

There have been many cases, in which introducing non-native species have caused problems: rabbits in Australia, walking catfish in Florida. In Arizona, it is plants: Russian thistle (tumbleweeds), tamarisk, olive and mulberry trees.
post #5 of 6
Aren't Maine Coon cats native to the Americas? If I recall correctly, Maine Coons are the only native long haired species - implying there were other short-haired species native to North America.

Yes - introduced species can wreak havoc with native populations - especially on islands, and the smaller the island, the worse the problem.

On the other hand, killing isn't necessarily the answer either. And as regards cats, it doesn't work. I refer you to this article, "Why Feral Eradication Won't Work," by Sarah Hartwell: Why Eradication Won't Work.

The example of Marion Island, south-east of South Africa is telling. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"Marion Island, south-east of South Africa, is a small inhospitable island (approx 20 km x 13 km [ 12 miles x 8 miles]). In 1949, a group of scientists left the island, leaving behind 5 unneutered cats. By 1975 there were 2,500 cats on the island preying on ground-nesting seabirds. Deliberate infection with feline enteritis killed around 65% of the cats but the remaining 35% developed an immunity to the disease and continued to breed. Jack Russell Terrier dogs were used to flush out the remaining cats and between 1986 and 1989 further cats were exterminated by hunting. It still required poison to eliminate those cats which had eluded the dogs. There appears to be no information on how many seabirds ate poisoned bait and died themselves.

"It took 16 years to eradicate 2,500 cats from a small island so how can eradication be successful anywhere that new cats can move in and recolonise cleared areas? The "vacuum effect" whereby cats are attracted into an unoccupied area with an under-exploited food supply can result in an area becoming more densely populated with cats than it was previously. "

I obviously believe that providing food to feral cats is the only solution to the "bird-killing" problem. Further, I obviously believe that practicing Trap-Neuter-Release so that the cats cannot further repopulate is essential. And obviously I also believe that most importantly of all is the education as to the importance of spay/neuter, and that it is absolutely critical that local, state and even national government participate in providing low-cost (or even free) spay/neuter services. It has been proven in many communities around the country that when TNR and low-cost spay/neuter programs are in place, that feral cat populations stabilize and decline, and that the cost-savings to those communities (as opposed to existing trap and kill policies in most communities) has literally been in the millions. It is a win-win situation on many levels.
post #6 of 6
IMO Cats will get the blame because they are easier targets than industrial pollutants, big corporations etc. A true feral that is not getting a steady supply of food cannot hunt a bird, a rodent or anything else unless it is wounded or already dead. They need the energy they get from food to hunt.

It isn't that the outside cats kill that many birds, it is that they affect the migration patterns for if birds consider themselves to be threatened they will find an alternate place to roost.

More pesticides and farmers who spray their fields are responsible for the deaths of songbirds than are cats.
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