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February 08, 2013

Talk Back: More on the Controversy of Cats and Wildlife

The Nature Communications report attempting to quantify the toll that cats take on wildlife made front-page news this past week. The HSUS weighed in strongly, as an organization deeply committed to wildlife and to cats. We have closely examined this very question and suggested best practices for years (see our white paper on the topic). Two editorial writers from the Los Angeles Times had decidedly different views on the controversy (here and here), and their different framing puts on display the divided opinion that exists on the topic.

270x240 moxie cat - credit liz bergstrom
Liz Bergstrom

In the interview I did earlier this week on WHYY’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, I challenged the criticism, leveled by some wildlife biologists and other wildlife advocates, that Trap-Neuter-Return programs are part of the problem and should be ceased. I underscored that cat rescuers are participants in one of the biggest underground movements in the United States. These self-sacrificing individuals would never participate in a mass trap-and-kill program for feral or free-roaming cats; instead, so many countless numbers of them help and lead TNR efforts. Without them, there would be no volunteer labor pool for trapping cats, so the very notion of trap-and-kill on a large scale is fantasy. It’s better to work with TNR advocates and other cat allies so they can continue to invest countless productive hours in humane control and cat care and carry out their work in a way that stabilizes or reduces cat colony populations.

TNR practitioners did not create the outdoor cat problem – but they are the tip of the spear in attacking that problem. To blame them seems like an inversion of reality and culpability. 

For decades, the humane movement, and particularly The HSUS, has been urging pet owners to keep their animals indoors – for the sake of both pets and wildlife. The percentage of cats in homes that are not let outside is increasing, and that suggests our campaign is working. Let’s continue that effort.

As a movement we should continue to promote spay-and-neuter, keeping cats indoors, using collars and visible ID and TNR programs for outdoor cats. Those are the best strategies for attacking the very real problem of cat predation on wildlife. 

Lots of you wrote in to me on this topic, and I’m happy to share a sampling of your opinions on the blog:

Thank you for writing this. I was rather dismayed by the media coverage of the published study because it did seem to place the issue squarely on the shoulders of the cats, demonizing them in the process. Cats who are allowed outside or who have no choice but to be outside are acting like cats – natural predators. We should be advocating keeping our cats indoors, spaying/neutering and TNR programs.
- Tina Barbour
I have always kept my cats indoors. I want to protect wildlife from them, but I also want to protect them from other predators and humans. This is also another reason why it is so important for people to spay and neuter their pets.
- Kelli Hall
I actually looked at the original "systematic review" by Marra and am finding that the authors are using estimations of the overall feral cat population. This includes large numbers of managed city cats with no access to songbirds, and all unfed country felines whose survival depends on catching protein & calories with the least amount of effort and the most meat. This must have led to an inflation of the actual numbers and I wish Marra would have collaborated with a behavioral ecologist who could have pointed out some errors in (animal) 'logic.’
- Zeitentgeistert
Wayne, I agree with your conclusion that domestic cats are a major cause of small wildlife predation, and I won't quibble with the numbers. I'm glad you reminded everyone of the problem. However your blog did bring up an interesting point: can cats be "owned", or "semi-owned", or perhaps not at all? I've lived with cats my entire life (50 years) and have never considered myself an "owner" of them. At best, I’m a guardian – at least for the younger ones. In fact, sometimes it seems like they're the ones who are masters of the house – and of me!
- Dave Bernazani
By all means you better get the word out and get the same front page headlines with your white paper that the anti-cat folks did. Their report is all over the news, and from what I'm reading it gives the haters just the excuse they have been looking for to kill felines. The HSUS has a lot of clout, now is the time to use it.
- Diana
I object to the notion that keeping indoor cats happy, healthy and entertained requires "hard work." No one wants to do anything that requires "work," let alone "hard work." Providing a cat-friendly indoor environment, with lots of vertical options to perch, tossing crumpled up receipts on the floor, letting them play in empty boxes – none of that is hard work. Plus it's a chance to bond, have fun and admire your cat's acrobatic talents. Adopting in twos is a great way to avoid work altogether, since two cats of approximately the same age will romp, frolic and play all by themselves. Converting a cat from outdoors to indoors may require some effort to prevent door-darting and more play sessions, but most cats adapt quite well. With cats, very little effort provides tremendous rewards in affection, entertainment and companionship.
- Andrea
After hearing the report yesterday, I was deeply concerned about the numbers involved in this issue of cats who hunt prey. I realize accuracy is difficult, but I immediately questioned the reality of these numbers. I have indoor cats, most of whom once lived outside. My family and neighbors also care for a feral colony and we have employed the Trap-Neuter-Return program. Because of our relationships with these cats, we have been able to observe their behavior carefully. Much to our surprise, most of them are not interested in hunting. They have catnip mice that they love to play with instead. Also, we feed squirrels and birds and the cats never hurt them. I wanted to share these observations with you because I'm sure that these are not isolated situations. It's clear that not all feral cats are killing birds and small animals. Thank you for the wonderful work you do.
- Patricia Moran

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