Hunters and birders may seem unlikely allies, but they share many of the same conservation goals. One is maintaining healthy populations of birds and mammals for viewing and hunting.
Free roaming feral cats pose a serious threat to this objective. The University of Nebraska Extension service has just published a review of the feral cat problem (www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf”>www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf).
Free-roaming feral cats are not pets. They stalk the edges of woods, they patrol rural roadsides, and they thrive in suburban neighborhoods. They are at least one generation removed from domestication, and they roam wild because someone irresponsibly abandoned their ancestors.
To survive, feral cats prey on small birds, small mammals, and even small reptiles and amphibians. The ecological toll free-roaming feral cats take on small wildlife species is staggering.
The Nebraska report puts the U.S. feral cat population at 60 million and estimates that they kill 480 million birds every year.
The American Bird Conservancy (www.abcbirds.org) estimates that feral cats kill more than a billion small mammals annually. Such levels of predation by an exotic species are unsustainable. During the nesting season cats concentrate on flightless chicks of ground nesting species such as quail, grouse, turkeys, waterfowl, and shorebirds.
At this time of year, cats stalk birdfeeders for easy meals. Often piles of bloody feathers are the only evidence left behind.
Ending this slaughter is simple. State wildlife agencies should declare a 365-day open season on feral cats with no bag limit. The feral cat population would plummet quickly.
But that won’t happen.
State wildlife agencies don’t want to deal with the feral cats. I haven’t found a single state wildlife agency that claims jurisdiction over feral cats. In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, for example, cats are considered domestic animals, and generally under the jurisdiction of county police departments and dog catchers.
This is particularly problematic because, though dogs must be licensed, the cat lobby has successfully avoided mandatory licensing.
This raises the question of how to identify feral cats. I’d say any cat without a collar roaming on private property would quality as feral and fair game. That should even satisfy farmers who argue they need free roaming cats to control rodents in the barn. As long as cats stay on the farm, they’re safe. If they wander down the road to a neighbor’s bird feeders — it’s open season.
But then there’s the TNVR crowd. Their solution is to trap, neuter, vaccinate, and release feral cats. The good news is that they cannot breed. But they’re still killing machines.
And the feral cat problem is exacerbated by cat owners who insist on letting their cats outside for a few hours each day. They say cats need fresh air, or that it’s not natural for cats to be indoors. That’s simply not true. Cats are domesticated animals that thrive indoors. Outdoors, their life expectancy shortens considerably. That’s a fact.
The risks that outdoor cats face include:
• Attacks by dogs, other cats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes that can result in puncture wounds, infections, rabies, distemper, and other diseases;
• Death by hungry coyotes;
• Unspeakably cruel treatment by sadistic people; ask local animal shelter workers how often they see cats that have been shot, stabbed, or even set on fire;
• Infestations of fleas, ticks, and other parasites, which can be passed on to family members.
The simple, though unrealistic, solution to all these problems is to eliminate feral cats and keep pet cats indoors. Conservation organizations, veterinary associations, and humane societies all agree that outdoor cats are a social and ecological problem that needs to be addressed.
One option for those who insist their pet cats must get fresh air is to enclose the back porch in chicken wire and install a pet door so cats can move freely in and out of the house.
Finally, don’t label me a cat hater. I love cats. My family’s last house cat lived for 17 years. Keeping cats indoors is a no-brainer. It’s what’s best for cats, their owners, the neighbors, and the environment.