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November 21, 2011

Finding Common Ground: Outdoor Cats and Wildlife

The Humane Society of the United States advocates for the protection of all animals, and that includes domesticated animals and wildlife. It’s often a clear case of right and wrong, and the moral path is clear. There are times, however, when the protection of one species appears to conflict with the protection of another. Perhaps the most common example is the case of outdoor or feral cats and wildlife.

Feral cats typically don't live long lives; they're at risk from other cats, dogs, coyotes, cars, disease, and other threats. At the same time, during their lives, they may kill songbirds, small mammals, and other native wildlife, since predation is built into their DNA.

A rescued cat from San Nicolas Island relaxes at the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center
Alanna Bennett/The HSUS
A feral cat at our Fund for Animals Wildlife Center.

This presents a conflict, since cats are products of human design and they are a non-native predator. There are some folks who side with the wildlife, and want the cats eliminated; a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution’s Migratory Bird Center, with a history of condemning cats in her research, was recently found guilty of attempted cruelty to cats after poison was placed atop food intended for feral cats living in a managed trap-neuter-return colony in Washington, D.C. Though she was scheduled to be sentenced today, it appears the sentencing has been postponed.

Others side with the cats, and rightly observe that they are important and cherished companions who depend on us and share our communities; we humans created this circumstance and by killing them, we are compounding the original error of abandoning them or allowing them to become homeless in the first place. 

As an organization with major departments to protect companion animals and wildlife, The HSUS cares about all of these creatures at risk—and so should any animal advocate. We work for the protection of both feral cats and wildlife.

The HSUS and many other animal protection organizations support the method of trap-neuter-return to humanely manage feral cat colonies. More than 1,400 organizations and tens of thousands of individuals manage feral cat colonies in the United States, and they are an indispensable volunteer labor force in reducing the numbers of lost and abandoned pet cats and feral cats. By using TNR responsibly and finding homes for kittens and adoptable cats, this strategy can help reduce reproduction while improving the lives of existing ferals. The outdated strategy of trapping and killing feral cats is simply inhumane and ineffective, since it doesn’t address the sources of the problem. And if that were the only alternative, we'd lose overnight the enormous investments in cat management made by TNR practitioners and cat lovers, since they would never participate in a round-up and kill approach.

We’re working to find innovative, effective, and lasting solutions to this conflict. Most recently, we have focused our efforts in Hawaii, an ideal environment for free-roaming cats and a global hotspot for threatened and endangered wildlife. We have been meeting with local humane societies, state and federal wildlife officials, non-governmental organizations, and university staff to find solutions to humanely manage outdoor cat populations and ensure the protection of Hawaii’s unique wildlife. We’ve also surveyed local residents about pet cats and ferals to begin developing a public education campaign.

When a group of feral cats living on San Nicolas Island, part of the Channel Islands in Southern California, was going to be killed, we stepped in and offered a better solution. The cats were humanely trapped and transported to our Fund for Animals Wildlife Center near San Diego, where we built a brand-new habitat for them to live out their lives in peace and safety, without causing impacts to wildlife. You can watch our live, interactive webcam and see what the rescued cats are doing now.

Here are a few tips on how you can help cats and birds:

  • Keep your cat indoors. Indoor cats live almost four times longer than cats allowed to go outdoors.
  • If you feed feral cats, also practice trap-neuter-return. This includes spaying or neutering every cat in a colony, treating sick cats, and removing kittens and friendly cats for adoption. Find more information here.
  • Use humane removal and relocation strategies if feral cats are in a sensitive wildlife area.

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