Feral Cat Problems


(This 1255th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 12, 2015.)


My wife woke me. "You must have been having a terrible nightmare," she said. And indeed I had. In my dream someone had released all the lions and tigers and leopards from the Buffalo Zoo and I was running from them.


I know why I had that dream. I had been upset by recent local activities supporting feral housecats: referred to as TNVR for trap, neuter, vaccinate and return. That process is wreaking havoc on the populations of birds and small mammals. My dream served as a perfect metaphor for what was happening to these defenseless animals.


David Suzuki's March 19 television program, Songbird SOS, addressed serious problems faced by songbirds today. He offered four examples of the steep decline in numbers of songbirds over the past 20 years: wood thrush down 62%; Baltimore oriole 46%; bobolink 64%; and purple martin 67%. The program identified problems related to migrating birds such as building strikes, forest loss, neonicotinoid pesticide effects and problems related to climate change.


Professor Bridgit Stutchbury of York University in Toronto, who has been using radiotelemetry to determine songbird survival, worries that we may be reaching a tipping point after which these already severe declines will steepen and we will begin to face extinctions.


Most important to the concern I have raised, one section of Suzuki's program spoke to the problems cats create. Here is what Peter Marra, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had to say: "Cats have been around and part of human civilization for a long time. That said, it doesn't mean that they have been moved to places where they are natural components of this fragile ecosystem. They are as invasive as kudzu vines or zebra mussels."


And Marra went on to detail the extent of the problem this alien species creates:


* An estimated between 30 and 80 million feral cats (those are housecats living in the wild)


* An estimated 80 million pet housecats, a substantial portion of which are allowed to run wild


* Based on the most conservative estimates, a resulting 1.4 billion birds killed annually by these cats


That 1.4 billion per year is a very large number so consider it translated into a number you can better understand. It is equivalent to over 2500 songbirds killed every minute day and night all year long.


What does that have to do with TNVR? Increasingly today, responsible housecat owners are keeping their cats indoors or allowing them outside only in enclosures. But meanwhile well-meaning cat lovers are creating situations that support numbers of feral cats. These free-roaming cats are often fed by their sponsors, but this does not in any way reduce their hunting instinct.


Carefully designed studies that use tiny cameras called KittyCams hanging around cats' necks show that even well-fed pet cats that are allowed to roam kill more than two animals per week. (Only about one in four of these birds and mammals are brought home.)


The American Veterinary Medical Association policy states, "All free-roaming abandoned and feral cats that are not in managed colonies should be removed from their environment and treated in the same manner as other abandoned and stray animals in accord with local and state ordinances." The association also encourages state and local agencies to adopt ordinances that prevent the establishment of managed cat colonies in wildlife-sensitive ecosystems.


Okay, so what is happening locally? TNVR supporters are browbeating local politicians into supporting their programs. So far they have won over the Erie County Legislature, the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Amherst and the Village of Williamsville, the University at Buffalo Law School, the Erie County SPCA and the Niagara County Board of Health. (Thankfully the Health Board has since withdrawn its support.) According to TNVR proponents the City of Buffalo has gone so far as to budget $50,000 to the support of such programs. Only Lackawanna has held out and as a result council president Hank Pirowski has been the subject of ad hominem attacks and a petition has been circulated to fire the city's animal control officer, Frederick Grasso.


Why is this happening? Because our representatives have been led to focus only on these stray cats. They are not told about the other species affected.


All support for stray cats should be withdrawn except where they are maintained in well-designed enclosures.-- Gerry Rising