Priorities

 

(This 886th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 16, 2008.)

 

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Protective cage around a piping plover nest

 

Sometimes our priorities get reversed in what seem to me to be unfortunate ways.

 

Perhaps the worst example of this happened a few years ago when a mountain lion attacked and killed a jogger in the west. Two separate collections were initiated: one for the dead woman's family, another to defend the puma from being killed. The amount collected for the lion far surpassed the amount collected for the young mother.

 

Just this past week we have had another example of this kind of priority reversal.

 

First some background. Last summer I visited two widely separated ocean beaches set aside to protect rare piping plovers and least terns, both species seriously threatened with extinction. Piping plovers are tiny birds related to our common killdeers but scarcely more than a third their size. Their gray and white plumage makes them hard to see against the beach sand and the adult male's partial black necklace even contributes to this camouflage. Least terns are similar to the common terns that nest on our Lake Erie breakwall but they too are like miniatures of the local species.

 

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0     File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

 

One of those areas where I saw these species was on Long Island, the other on Amelia Island in Florida. In both areas signs warned bathers and beach walkers to avoid the section where the birds were nesting. And in each case temporary fences were erected around a single plover nest.

 

I was especially fortunate to see these birds. On Long Island the plover nest still held eggs but on Amelia Island one bird had hatched and the precocial youngster was already teetering about on its tiny legs. In each area the terns were doing better: there may have been as many as a dozen tern nests on each beach.

 

My friends and I were thrilled to see these rare birds apparently making it through at least one more season.

 

With that background consider the situation in Cape May, New Jersey. The Cape May beaches are recognized as one of this nation's finest migration areas. They even serve as the base for the annual World Series of Birding. More important, they are also noted as nesting areas for those same piping plovers and least terns.

 

But impose on this situation Cape May cat lovers. They have located one of those Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs for feral cats very close to those beaches. TNR seems like a good program until you consider the result. Indeed, the wild cats are given good medical care: they are treated for diseases including rabies and they are neutered before they are released. Then food is provided. Thus, the cat lovers claim, the released felines live out their lives as contented tabbies.

 

Unfortunately, it has been long established that this simply does not work because cats are natural predators. It does not matter that they are well fed; each of these protected cats regularly kills birds and small mammals.

 

Thus Cape May has a large cat colony close to and endangering rare birds.

 

In an attempt to get the city to address this problem the federal government threatened to withhold funding for beach servicing if TNR was not moved to more than a mile from the beaches.

 

The result. You guessed it. City officials were deluged by communications against this proposal. They were subjected to a well-organized national campaign by groups like Alley Cat Allies. Deputy Cape May Mayor Neils Favre reported receiving 600 emails in a single day from cat supporters, and almost 100 protesters attended council meetings. Among other things the cat backers claimed that no proof had been provided that any birds at all had been killed.

 

Sadly, no similar effort was mounted on behalf of the endangered birds.

 

Finally, the Cape May City Council approved what they called a compromise proposal for relocating the feral cats to colonies a half mile from its beaches. That is about the distance I walk many mornings to our local market. It takes me ten minutes; it might take a cat fifteen.

 

It seems clear that federal and state officials backed down in the face of the storm of protest from cat lovers, because the half mile was also the city's original proposal.

 

Sometimes our priorities are indeed difficult to understand.-- Gerry Rising