Cats are responsible for killing more birds than previously expected, according to a newly released report, "The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States," published in the Journal Nature. This report and the response have caused all sorts of media attention and corresponding emotional responses by those who love cats, and also those who disdain them.
According to the report's findings, domestic cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Authors write, "Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals."
Coincidence, or not....This report's results were released on the heels of a New Zealand conservationist making international headlines expressing serious concerns about cats killing birds there, and even suggested banning future cat ownership in New Zealand.
Every few years some scientific report is released - backed by bird groups, which vilifies cats. Why is this one report different?
Well, for one thing these estimates of cats related wildlife fatalities are higher than in most previous reports. Bruce Kornreich, associate director for Education and Outreach at the Feline Health Center of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca released this statement, “The impact of both owned and un-owned domestic cats on wildlife is an important ecologic issue, as highlighted by the recent manuscript in Nature Communications. We commend the authors of this study for their efforts to shed light on the magnitude of this problem, and it is clear from their work and the work of others that domestic cats have a considerable impact on wildlife in both the U.S. and abroad."
Lots have weighed in on this. Becky Robinson, co-founder and president of Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy group which supports humane treatment of cats gets to the heart of the matter. “This so called ‘survey of research’ seems just another misguided attempt to draw attention to the decline of wildlife by manufacturing a fake debate. The study conveniently sidestepped the primary culprit of decline of wildlife populations which, of course, is human activity including habitat destruction."
Let me go one step further. Scientists, outside the cat debate, make it clear that habitat loss, pollution (light pollution and air pollution) and even climate changes have significantly impacted wildlife, including songbirds. They make little mention of cats....Do cats play a role, perhaps even a significant role toward diminishing wildlife? Sure, they do. However, cats are hardly the most significant factor.
Feral cats (as well as owned indoor/outdoor cats) do eat. But lets use some common sense - despite their extraordinary hunting skills, cat don't fly. Many of the adult birds they catch are ill. Also, many feral cats (and many - likely most indoor/outdoor owned cats) live in large cities. In these places, for feral cats, trash (in garbage in alleys) and rodents (including city rats) are on the menu. Owned cats here may take some animals outdoors, but studies show being well fed as they are - they may not even have the athletic prowess to catch birds. Also, in some places birds may sadly not be in sufficient numbers to even catch.
Also the reality is that feral cats may not have it so easy....they are predators, true. But they are also prey to coyotes, birds of prey, cars, infectious disease, extreme weather, etc.
For study after study to target cats does little - except to stir an emotional fervor which bird groups use to raise money. And to pit birds vs. cats. This idea of one species vs. another is truly unfortunate - and does neither birds or cats any good.
Reading through the report in Nature and comments from organizations and individuals responding, though many 'pile on cats,' few offer a solution.
That "solution" in recent decades has been trap, nueter, return (TNR) feral cats. Volunteers humanely trap the cats, which are spayed or neutered, vaccinate for rabies and they are ear-tipped for identification (so people know which cats have been TNR'd). Any very ill cats are euthanized. Very young kittens are adopted into homes. All others are released back to live our their lives without reproducing. When supplemented with food, they may not to as fervent about taking birds (though it is true many cats will still hunt). In some instances, when cat colonies live near particularly prone species (such as rare ground-nesting birds), all the cats are relocated.
Those involved in the study published in Nature do suggest that that, far from diminishing the population of unowned cats, trap and release programs may be making "it worse, by encouraging people to abandon their pets to outdoor colonies that volunteers often keep lovingly fed."
These comments seem to be based on personal feelings rather than data. And they are simply divisive (which this entire discussion really is).
No one has come up with a better idea. They only complain about current programs and ideas.
The only alternative plan (to TNR) that I've seen in recent years is to legalize aiming and shooting at cats. Really? You're kidding. Proponents are dead serious about this. Never mind concerns that people will shoot their neighbors or spouses in error; hitting a moving target (mostly out at night or at least in low light) as small as a cat isn't easy. I do have oncerns that shooting and not killing is hardly humane. Bottom line for centuries feral cats have lived alongside humans - with benefits and with detriments. That's a fact. Another fact is that eradication efforts from using guns to poisons have never worked.
I would be no better if I didn't offer a solution.
1) TNR: A part of the reason TNR hasn't worked as effectively as some might want (though clearly TNR - given a chance - does work) is simply a lack of volunteers. Absolutely, there are legions of cat lovers - thousands across America, who are involved with TNR. But if there were more volunteers and more cats were TNR'd, and more TNR'd cats were supplemented with even more pet food. Instead of the co-called 'bird people' hollering about all the cats, why don't they volunteer and call for others to be a part of the solution themselves?
2) Indoors Only: America is moving in this direction but perhaps not fast enough. For their own safety, cats are better off living in an enriched indoor environment Indoors only, cats tend to live longer. Indoors only, cats are not using neighbor's yards as litter boxes or catching anything, except toys. Outdoors, cat fencing, catios (enclosed cat-friendly patios) and even walking cats are harness and leashes are all great ideas for those who want to give kitties outdoor time; in these controlled situations, everyone is safe.
3) Bird people vs Cat people: This mentality has to stop. I've called for a summit bringing everyone together. The Humane Society of United States did host an event, I don't know all the details, I wasn't invited. That's a part of the issue - all the appropriate players weren't there. Both "sides" must agree to at least attempt to work together. However, at least for some groups, it appears in their best interest to stir the emotional catnip pot every year as an apparent effort to fundraise to save the hapless birds (without making mention of other factors which we know more greatly endangers birds), but those are apparently less emotional.
Tell me what you think....
Tags: Alley Cat Allies, banning cats New Zealand, Becky Robinson, cat enrichment, cats as predators, Cornell Feline Health Center, feral cats, free ranging cats, indoor-outdoor cats, owned cats, Steve Dale, Steve Dale archives, stray cats, TNR, trap neuter return