By Jim Coufal
(Cazenovia, NY) There has been much recent controversy about feral cats in the town of Salina. There seems to be no disagreement that they are a problem (Post-Standard letters and features), but there is disagreement how to treat the problem.
I haven’t seen anyone suggest suspending a town regulation to allow a hired professional hunter to shoot them, as has been done regarding coyotes. Some want to trap and euthanize them, some want to use a process whereby they are trapped, neutered and returned so that reproduction is reduced.
Much of this debate revolves around the ethical question is it right to kill the cats? Altering their bodies is OK and, to some, killing coyotes is OK, but cats are perceived as somehow different. Why?
In weighing these options, I’m surprised how little has been written about the impact of cats on wildlife populations. The Wildlife Society, the professional society of wildlife biologists and managers, has a statement on “Feral and Free-Ranging Domestic Cats.” It calls such cats “exotic species,” saying these “are recognized as one of the most widespread and serious threats to the integrity of native wildlife populations and natural ecosystems.”
Exotic species are often referred to as “invasive species.”
In dealing with the problem of many invasive species, killing and even exterminating the problem species is not an issue. Perhaps in dealing with an insect, the current emerald ash borer, or a disease problem, like Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight, there is a perceived difference in the kind of life and the value of that life as compared to a cat.
Sentience is often used as one measure of difference, but insects are sentient. Things that strike directly at humans or their food sources (e.g., smallpox or tomato hornworms) are also perceived as different and more liable to eradication (killing). Is this species-ism or logic?
Regarding cats, the National Wildlife Federation, whose members are wildlife professionals and interested lay persons, has a statement noting there are more than 77 million domestics cats in the United states, of which 65 percent are allowed outside without control, adding to the feral cat population of 60 to 100 million.
Such feral and free-ranging cats compete with native predators such as owls, snakes, weasels, bobcats and foxes and with their minimally territorial life style and fast reproductive rates, they exist in high densities and outcompete the native predators.
Unvaccinated domestic cats can transmit diseases such as rabies, toxoplasmosis and feline distemper to other domestic cats, native wildlife such as the mountain lion, bobcat and endangered Florida panther and sometimes to humans.
They can also be infected with deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease.
The NWF adds, “…scientific studies indicate that free-ranging domestic cats and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion other small vertebrates such as rabbits, squirrels, frogs, snakes, shrews, voles and chipmunks each year, along with a wide variety of songbirds and other birds, including a number of endangered species.”
How is this to be weighed in determining the control method used for feral cats?
The problem of feral and free-ranging domestic cats is widespread. In California, they are a major actor in eliminating pockets of the endangered California Least Tern. Australia is overrun with them.
Other organization, such as the Audubon Society, has similar statements. Many universities and state and federal research organizations have done empirical studies. Often, such organizations oppose the trap-neuter-return process because while it does curb breeding, a cat returned still kills wildlife.
A house cat allowed to roam free kills native wildlife – witness the “gifts” they often bring home that we blithely chuckle about. The mixing of feral and free-ranging cats also complicates the issue, as when one recent P-S letter writer said, “And rounding up people’s outdoor cats is totally unacceptable.”
Cats don’t generally wear collars and certainly don’t have licenses, so how does one separate the two?
And free-ranging cats are a big part of the problem of cats decimating wildlife populations.
Groups such as “Stray Pet Advocacy” often discount statements and studies as above, calling them ‘junk science.” Yet People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known for its radical defense of animal rights in such programs as “don’t slaughter the seals,” euthanize a high majority of adoptable cats and dogs in its care.
The studies of the impact of feral and free-ranging cats on wildlife populations are there to be investigated and analyzed and should not be ignored in discussion of the stray and feral cats problems of Salina or elsewhere.
Complicating the matter is that the free-ranging cats, so much of the problem, are basically family pets. Any control effort is likely to include trapping or neutering or euthanizing them just as the feral cats. This indicates how much of the problem truly is a human one.
We have separate rules for dogs and cats, with much less control of cats. People often do not have their cats vaccinated or neutered, and one of the sources of feral cats is house cats turned loose or abandoned.
It’s time to investigate the need for laws controlling cats in much the way current laws control dogs.
Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at email@example.com.