Cats and Wildlife

(A shorter version of this column first appeared in the October 5, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Many of my bird watching friends dispise cats; I admire them. Notice that I only admire them: I am not like those Garfield worshippers at the other end of the love-hate spectrum who idolize cats.

    But I would like them more if they didn't make me uncomfortable. My worst experience was with a friend's Siamese. Docile when its owner was nearby, it sharpened its claws on my leg when it found me alone. A L'Heureux poem expresses my ambivalence very well:

       A cat is not a conscience; I'm not
          saying that.
What I'm saying is
             why are they looking?

Can that disdainful cat somehow sense how often I teased our neighbor's kitten when I was seven?

    Cats deserve our respect for their remarkable independence. In "Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name," Vicki Hearne tells how behaviorists have trouble with them. "It seems that under certain circumstances," she says, "if you give...cats a problem to order to find food, they work it out pretty quickly, and the graph of their comparative intelligence shows a sharply rising line. But...the trouble is that as soon as they figure out that the researcher...wants them to push the lever, they s top doing it; some of them will starve to death rather than do it." Hearne tells of hearing a venerable scientist react to this kind of behavior by advising a young researcher, "Don't use cats, they'll screw up your data." Bully for the cats, say I.

    I must state, however, that my regard for the many cat owners who allow their pets to roam free is not nearly so positive. What they fail to recognize is that the sleepy feline of their windowsill is, outside the house, a supremely efficient and relentless carnivore. Bells and even declawing do virtually nothing to suppress this instinctive behavior.

    The effect of out-of-doors cats on the natural world is disastrous. Estimates of the number of birds killed annually by the 40 million North American domestic cats allowed outside range from a conservative 55 million to well over a billion. That first estimate derives from an average of hardly more than one bird killed per year by each cat. The second, almost three million birds per day, just represents each kitty pouncing on a bird every two weeks.* The killing is, of course, not evenly distributed across bird species; ground feeding and nesting birds like meadowlarks and grassland sparrows suffer most.

    Your cat may only kill an occasional bird but that damage is more than outbalanced by the 40 to 60 million cats living in the wild. Evidence suggests that some feral cats kill more than one bird a day. And the misguided practice of feeding these wild animals exacerbates the problem. Predation by cats is not driven by hunger but by an inborn drive: well-fed cats continue to kill. Feeding stray cats maintains artificually enhanced densities -- up to hundreds per square mile -- and encourages the form ation of colonies that remain extremely efficient predators.**

    Add their annihilation of chipmunks, flying squirrels, rabbits and frogs, and cats practically define the word catastrophic. Yes, they do kill an occasional mouse -- rarely a rat -- but that scarcely makes up for the damage they do to other wildlife.

    There are, it is widely agreed, two reasonable responses to this problem that all cat owners can make: alter your cat so that it won't contribute to the overpopulation of this species and, more important -- keep it in the house.

    Cat owners do their pet a favor by confining it to their home. A house cat is protected from a wide range of health hazards, the long list including feline leukemia and distemper, roundworm, hookworm, rabies and even plague, many of which may be transmitted to you or your children. You triple its life span, also keeping it safe from cars, coyotes, traps, poisons -- and pesky seven year-olds.

    Interested readers should send for more information from the "Cats Indoors!" Project, 1250 24th Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20037. Or you can explore the American Bird Conservancy website.

    And please let your cat make its passes at wildlife from behind a windowpane.

* "On the Prowl," a 1996 study carried out by J. S. Coleman and S. A. Temple and reported in Wisconsin Natural Resources 20(6):4-8 provides an estimate of 39 million birds per year killed by free-ranging domestic cats in Wisconsin alone.

** The United States Humane Society opposes feeding feral cats, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals oppose releasing captured strays and a practice known as TTVAR (for Trap, Test, Vaccinate, Alter and Release) is opposed by American Bird Conservancy, the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, the American Ornithologists Union, the Cooper Ornithological Society and the National Association of Public Health Veterinarians. The National Audubon Society provides additional information about the "Cats Indoors" project. Unfortunately programs that support feral cat populations continue to be mounted, even in or near wildlife refuges where the results are devastating for other fauna.