Are Outdoor Cats Under Attack?

Patty Khuly
Are outdoor cats a danger to the greater wildlife population?Are outdoor cats a danger to the greater wildlife population?

Are you a cat lover? If so, you’re probably aghast at the notion that free-roaming cats should be eradicated. Yet that’s what several well-respected environmental advocacy organizations have hinted at not-so-subtly in the wake of several controversial studies detailing the widespread negative impact of feline predation on wildlife populations. But are these studies right? If so, what’s a bird-lover to do?

Turns out it’s true, cats are every bit as interested in hunting small, fast-moving prey as you might think they’d be. Trouble is, they‘re far better at it than most of us know or care to admit. Since most of the killing happens when they’re out of sight and presentation of prey isn’t the norm, most owners can’t keep track of the death toll. Moreover, most owners assume their well-fed felines are uninterested in hunting as much as their underfed brethren. But how motivated and effective are they really?

According to some studies, cats are shockingly effective killers. That’s partly because free-roaming cats aren’t just hankering for a meal. Rather, they’re instinctually compelled to kill other creatures and will do so whether they’ve enjoyed a full bowl of kibble ten minutes ago or not.

Enter the Smithsonian: Earlier this year, this grand old American institution released the results of new research that came down hard against feral and free-roaming housecats, arguing that “free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought.” According to the study, as many as “1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually.”

And because so much of the native American wildlife on the average cat’s menu is comprised of migratory songbirds and other sensitive species, the study advances the not-so-new notion that it’s high time we put a stop to this human-initiated massacre.

How? First on the list is the common practice of Trap-Neuter-Return. Otherwise known as “TNR,” this is a method of stabilizing and controlling the population of feral cats within communities by sterilizing them. The Smithsonian, Audubon Society, and The American Bird Conservancy, among others, seem unified in their opposition to this approach. All it does is perpetuate the problem, they claim.

Stabilizing a colony via TNR might keep cat populations at a level cat-devoted humans can manage (and the wider community is willing to tolerate), but it does nothing to reduce the kind of wholesale slaughter this study reports.

And they’re not wrong in their fundamental assessment. When viewed rationally, it’s obvious we’d be losing far fewer animals if we eliminated this significant, human-coddled predator. After all, our cats are not only one of nature’s most effective killers, we humans help keep them in top killing shape through nutritional niceties and healthcare services their unsung prey never get.

As such, it’s clear our cats are handed lots of unfair advantages beyond those Mother Nature bestowed. Which is, of course, the direct result of human intervention. So it is that the anti-TNR folks suggest that humans need to first stop interfering: no free-roaming owned cats, no feral feedings, no TNR, no colony management. When no longer artificially supported in this way, feline populations will naturally decline, it’s presumed.

What’s more, they argue, there will be less feline suffering overall should cat populations get capped. Fewer hit-by-car casualties, fewer mange-ridden, intestinal parasite infested felines, and fewer communicable disease carrying cats to contend with.

Factor in the rabies thing (stray cats as a disease reservoir) and add it to the credibility of the environmental heavy-hitters getting behind research like the Smithsonian’s, and it’s no wonder even the New York Times is getting in on the anti-outdoor cat act, too

Now, I’m an environmentalist and a cat lover. Which is why I recommend that all cats live indoors. I’ve even built an outdoor enclosure so my cats can get exercise, enjoy the out-of-doors and still refrain from killing and pillaging the defenseless. But here’s the thing: I also offer my services for free at local TNR events because I believe that TNR is the only politically tenable solution to the problem at hand.

But the Smithsonian study truly scared me. If cats are killing at such an alarming rate, I reasoned, I’m surely contributing to the extinction of many species by participating in any program that effectively contributes to the health and well-being of another.

Looking into the matter further, however, I ran into some credible reports debunking the study’s findings. (Here’s my favorite by Peter J. Wolf at PetFinder.com.) Turns out this study deserves some serious scrutiny of its underlying assumptions. Indeed, its death estimates seem impossible when viewed in light of total bird and small mammal populations.

Still, it’s food for thought. And while this current attack on outdoor cats won’t make me surrender my scalpel in the war against outdoor cat overpopulation, it will nonetheless see me pushing more clients to pursue outdoor cat enclosures as a viable solution to the problem of free-roaming felines.

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