Posts Tagged ‘feral cats’

Trap, Neuter, and Return? (TNR)

September 23, 2009


Millions of feral, free ranging house cats kill birds by the hundreds of millions every year.  In the United States as many as 120 million cats are feral.  In addition, many of the 80 million pet cats also roam outdoors. On any given day, about 150 million cats are out there killing songbirds. Everybody, cat lovers and bird lovers, agree that is a bad thing. Cat owners wish their pet cats weren’t so hard on birds, but cats are superb hunters and they hunt whether they need food or not.  Even well-fed cats kill birds in huge numbers. Nor do cats distinguish between birds, like House Sparrows and Starlings which are abundant, and Kirtland Warblers, Piping Plovers, and all the other endangered bird species which aren’t.

Humans come to this problem, like so many others, laden with good intentions.  It is not a new problem either.  Here is the famed ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush, writing in 1916:

Questions regarding the value or inutility of the domestic cat, and problems connected with limiting its more or less unwelcome outdoor activities, are causing much dissension. The discussion has reached an acute stage. Medical men, game protectors and bird lovers call on legislators to enact restrictive laws. Then ardent cat lovers rouse themselves for combat. In the excitement of partisanship many loose and ill-considered statements are made.

The problem is especially acute on islands where feral cats can devastate an ecosystem.  Implicated in the extinction of several island bird species, the cats have been removed from some islands and in not particularly humane ways.  Some islands, such as Ascension Island, got rid of all of the cats and seabirds are returning to nest.  But that may be an isolated success.

Ascension Island

Ascension Island

One attempt to deal with the problem of feral house cats is known as trap, neuter, and return.  (TNR) The theory behind the attempt is simple and beautiful.  If we can catch all those feral cats and neuter them, they won’t breed and, eventually, the feral cat population will dwindle to zero.

But we can’t catch 120 million cats. There are too many of them, most are solitary and nocturnal, they are remarkably fecund, they live a long time, and they don’t want to get caught. Even the ones that live in colonies — a colony of feral cats, by the way, is known as a “clowder” — don’t lend themselves to getting caught.  There is a reason for the old saying that it is impossible to herd cats.

This quarter’s Bird Digest, the journal of the American Bird Conservancy, reports on two pilot TNR projects, one in Ocean Reef in the Florida Keys and another in Miami.  In Ocean Reef, 500 or so cats — down from a peak of 2000 — range freely even after 15 years of a program that includes paid staff, weekly veterinary attendants, and limited public access.  At a public park in Miami, the cat population is actually increasing.

In other words, it’s a pipe dream to think that we will ever get control of feral cats this way.

As alternatives, bird lovers suggest that the programs should become trap, neuter, and relocate, moving trapped feral cats to cat sanctuaries where they will be kept indoors and put up for adoption.

That too is a nice idea, but there are 120 million of them! The problem is daunting.

But there are some things that cat owners can do to diminish the avian slaughter. We’ll have more on that in a later post, but one of the simplest and best loved by cats is to make them indoor pets.  They live longer, are exposed to less danger, and probably purr more.  Here is a brochure about how to make an indoor cat happy.
More information about cats, from birders’ perspectives, is available at the American Bird Conservancy website.  They also have produced a nine-minute documentary on feral cats.

Piping Plovers v. Feral Cats

November 17, 2007

By now you probably have heard about the criminal trial in Galveston, Texas in which the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society was indicted and tried for shooting a stray cat that was about to kill a Piping Plover. pipingplover01.jpgThe jury deadlocked yesterday with 8 members in favor of convicting and 4 against. The District Attorney must now decide whether to try the case again. [1]If convicted, the birder could get up to two years in prison. Texas now outlaws the killing of any cat; but, at the time of the shooting, it was only illegal to kill a cat that belonged to somebody else. The deceased lived under a bridge in Galveston and the maintenance man there fed and named the cat although he had not purchased it; it did not live with him and he did not have it vaccinated.

No one knows how many feral cats there are in the United States. Somewhere between 60 million and 100 million. We do know about how many Piping Plovers are left. About 6,000. In the entire world. They are on the Endangered Species Act. The plovers are native to North America, the cats aren’t. Cats are an exotic species in North America brought and kept here by humans. Plovers are ground nesters and defenseless; having evolved in a North America free of cats.

The case caused an eruption among animal activists who are against killing feral cats. Wait. Before you birders stop reading, we’re going to say a couple of nice things about those people. They make two serious arguments, one of which is undeniably correct. And they profess to have pretty much the same goals as birders: the humane elimination of outdoor cat populations.

For instance, Alley Cats Allies, “. . . is dedicated to advocating for nonlethal methods to reduce outdoor cat populations.” The folks at Feral Cat Network believe:

the safest place for domestic cats is indoors; cats who are lucky enough to have a home should be kept strictly indoors. However, because of the overpopulation crisis, there are not enough available homes. The next best thing for homeless feral domestic cats born outdoors is a managed colony where food, water, shelter, and medical care are consistently provided.

Their first argument is: “Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), the only humane, effective method to reduce their [feral cats] population.” They believe that an adequately funded program to trap all feral cats, neuter them and return them to their homeless outdoors will end feral cat colonies.

Science disagrees. Such programs have been studied in at least two Florida counties and one California program invested $9.5 million in managed cat colonies. Scientific studies demonstrated that less than five percent of feral cats were trapped and neutered. In the meantime, all the rest were doing what cats do, breeding. Cats, especially in warmer climates, breed year around; producing six to eighteen kittens each. For TNR to work, we would have to grab 60 to 100 million cats and neuter them all on the same day.

But feral cat lovers also argue – correctly – that the biggest single cause of the precipitous decline in bird populations isn’t cats, it is humans destroying bird habitats. If you don’t believe them, just look at this range map. piping_plover_na.gifPlovers used to live all over North America.

The Alleycats put the best face on this argument:

Considering the vast scale of human destruction of bird habitat, arguing about “cats-versus-birds” trivializes the critical issues facing bird populations today. Cat lovers and bird lovers can agree: the real danger to birds is humans.

The problem for the cats with this argument is that it overlooks the salient fact that the cats are a part of the human destruction of habitat. If Western Europeans had not colonized North America there would be no cats here in the first place. Not only are the cats killing the birds – and cats kill even when they are not hungry and do not eat their kill – they also kill other prey species which makes it harder for the birds to get enough calories.

Humans created this problem; it is up to us to fix it. Just because cats don’t kill as many birds as humans is no reason not to stop what killing we can. Nor should we overlook the fact that feral cats live short, brutish lives. No one argues that the status quo should continue. The status quo is not humane.

We should also note that feral cat organizations believe with birders that cats are lovely INDOOR pets which should stay indoors. Much of the feral cat population problem can be laid at the doorstep of lazy cat owners who let their cats roam free, do not neuter them and – in some instances – simply abandon them and their kittens.

The question is what can we do? Obviously one shooter in Galveston can’t kill 60 million cats. Especially if he is in jail for killing just one of them.


[1] We wonder: Of all the tourists who travel to Galveston each year and collectively spend millions and millions of dollars in the local economy, how many go to see the birds and how many go to see the feral cats? Perhaps Galveston’s District Attorney has decided not to continue a career in elective office? Why re-prosecute this case? Another hung jury is the most likely outcome. We doubt that local businesses are thrilled about his decision to prosecute this case amid national publicity and ridicule. It is not easy to irritate a birder but once you do, your tourism industry is in trouble.

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