Are Feral Cats an Environmental Threat?

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We mentioned the problem that feral cats are causing in regard to the burgeoning coyote population in urban areas here recently – where it is reported that as much as 50 percent of the urban coyotes’ food source is feral cat. Now, an article written by Ted Williams for AudubonMagazine.org rips apart the notion that trapping, neutering and then returning (aka TNR) these cats back into their environments is anything but harmful.

There are an estimated 150 million feral free-ranging cats in America.

On the pro-feral cat side, advocates believe that cats will die out eventually, as a result of sterilization, and these cats will be spared the insensitivity of euthanasia. To that end the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) often contributes free spaying and neutering to TNR programs – which plays right into their agenda of eventually ridding all of us of the burden of domesticated pets anyway.

On the anti-feral cat side, wildlife biologists suggest that feeding feral cats violates federal law, because according to the article, “it facilitates ‘take’ of species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and/or the Endangered Species Act.” The article continues and states that 150 million feral cats kill 500 million birds a year in the U.S. In fact, the article cites a study published in Conservation Biology that claims TNR causes “hyperpredation” – where well-nourished feral cats continue to pounce on birds and other species, such as reptiles and amphibians – and reduce those numbers, too.

The cat people appear to be winning. The article reported, “Last year, for example, it squashed federal legislation to remove exotic species from national wildlife refuges because feral cats might be among them.”

According to the article, Wisconsin is home to 1.4 million feral cats. In 2005, a majority of the public supported efforts to place feral cats on the “unprotected” list along with skunks, starlings, etc. The press there reported that the state wanted to add a hunting season for cats. Some cat lovers responded by asking for an open season on the researcher who conducted the study. Wisconsin eventually shut down any attempts to control the feral cat population.

Over in Hawaii, where the basis for this article began, the president of the Hawaii Audubon Society, John Harrison, hosted a presentation by the state’s seabird, shorebird and waterbird coordinator. She showed the crowd photos of cat feces full of bird bands, along with photos of Hawaiian birds that had been decapitated. She suggested that cats be kept indoors. She was met with angry cries and insults fromt the cat folks, demanding that if the birds were so important, they be kept inside, too.

The problem isn't just with cat predation. They also infect birds and other animals with toxoplasmosis. In California, one study concluded that toxoplasmosis – which is only carried by cats – was found in 42 percent of live sea otters and 62 percent of the dead ones. Toxoplasmosis damages human embryos and can cause infant mortality, along with blindness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and other defects.

We must deal with feral cats because they are killing endangered wildlife and also, because they could harm humans. As the article points out, it’s not only a wildlife issue, it’s an environmental issue. But it’s also emotions vs. science. I don't  know about you ... but I'm getting tired of emotion having anything to do with managing our environment.