Friday, August 26, 2011

Cat conundrum

A couple of weeks ago, I walked down to the trail to Angler's Pond on my lunch break, and as I stared out across the water, noticing how there was not one single bird swimming within view, not even a Canada goose, I noticed the most horrid reek in the air, and turned to see the corpse of a cat.

It didn't look like a stray, as the body was intact enough to show that the deceased had been quite portly; the cat was gray with black stripes across its back, and I could easily picture it (in life...for once I wasn't imagining zombie cats or the other bizarre stuff I come up with) curled up on someone's couch or draped across a lap. But I quickly took off, because the smell was absolutely nauseating and the dead cat was kind of weirding me out. I couldn't see any wounds on it. Exactly how had it died?

Today, as I strolled around the pond after work, I saw a few signs posted that cleared up the mystery. Apparently someone has been poisoning the local cats. Which brings me to a topic I've been wanting to address for several months now, but have been too timid to broach: the problem of stray and feral cats.

The rest of this discussion is a summary of what I've read on the topic, and my own opinions, but it's all off the top of my head. If you're interested in learning more, the positions of both sides of the debate are easily found with a quick Internet search, which is why (along with a bout of laziness), I'm only providing a limited number of links.

I first became aware of the issue after reading an opinion piece in Audubon magazine, which discussed the problems caused by the millions of feral cats that exist in America, and how initiatives to curb their numbers, such as an attempt by the state of Wisconsin to kill them, have largely been halted by the protests of those who feel compassion for the cats and object to the killing of an animal that is usually thought of as a beloved pet.

This issue is relevant to a birding blog because of the potential impact of feral, stray and free-roaming cats on bird populations. Defenders of feral cats state that the number of birds killed by them is overstated, and since most of their lives go unobserved, exact numbers of birds killed are impossible to state. But here's my take on it: cats kill birds. Some people state that their particular cat does not kill birds, and that I can't answer one way or the other. But in general, cats do kill birds; in fact, back in the day, before I knew better, the cat I had when I lived in Hawaii loved to stalk, and sometimes kill local birds...luckily for my conscience, they were all the introduced common myna. If she had been killing the native honeycreepers (which did not live in our neighborhood, absolutely no habitat for them there...another sad issue, but off the topic), I would never forgive myself. At the time, I shrugged it off, "Cats kill birds.... It's part of nature."

For the sake of argument, let's say that the millions of feral cats don't kill "that many" birds. Maybe they only kill one a day or one every other day or even one every week. If I do the math, that is still a potentially huge impact on bird populations, since there is no way to tell the cats to only go after house sparrows and starlings. I would imagine how deleterious the effect really is would depend on the location and status of local, migrating or breeding birds. Maybe in some areas it wouldn't be too bad, but in others it could be devastating to an endangered bird with a limited range.

Another argument against the feral cat and bird issue is that compared to other factors impacting bird populations, the number of kills by cats is negligible. And I would agree, pesticides, window strikes, loss of habitat, etc., are all probably worse for birds than the effects of feral cats. But that doesn't make a good argument for doing nothing. The effects of cats are all the more damaging because they are being inflicted on populations that are already on the brink because of all these other factors.

As I used to feel, many people insist that cats are just doing what comes naturally, and this is true. But that does not mean that feral domesticated cats are a "part of nature." I have become more and more aware of how damaging introduced, invasive species can be to our ecosystems, be they garlic mustard crowding out native wildflowers in the woods, European starlings forcing woodpeckers from nesting sites, or Asian carp muddying up our rivers.

So I guess I'm coming down on the environmentalist side of the equation here, and saying that domestic cats really don't belong outside (as the American Bird Conservancy explains in their Cats Indoors program). I know they like to be outside--I've had many a cat in my youth, some of which I was very fond of -- but there are just too many negative consequences to letting them roam (especially if they are not spayed or neutered!)

Just for the record, I would like to state that I am NOT a cat-hater. If I were, I'd try to convince people to let their cats out! Because cats that are allowed to roam die years earlier than those that are kept inside. Outside, they are subject to being hit by traffic, getting into fights, getting hurt by dogs or wild animals, becoming ill, wandering off and not returning home, or being hurt or killed by unscrupulous humans...the photo at the top of this post being just one example. All those cats I used to have as a kid? Either disappeared one day or died young. Meanwhile, the cat my parents currently have, an indoors-only feline, is approaching his twentieth birthday!

With pet cats, I think the issue is not too complicated. It's better for the cat and the birds if the cat is kept inside. But what about all the strays?

Here is where I stumble. What I would like to say is that all the feral cats should be trapped and taken to a shelter, either to find a loving home or to spend the rest of their lives safely taken care of. I know that is not possible. I also don't think that the well-intentioned Trap, Neuter, Return program, where volunteers neuter feral cats so they won't keep having more kittens and then return them to the outdoors, is feasible as a solution.

Overall, I would prefer that everyone err on the side of compassion if there are two sides to an issue. And I am a huge animal lover, not just of birds. In fact, I was a vegetarian for a decade because I couldn't stand to think of how animals suffer with factory farming. (Now I do eat meat again, but I try to get it from local farmers that raise the animals humanely. I'm not entirely comfortable with that either.) The sign that I saw today, imploring the poisoners to "please, please" stop, really struck a cord with me.

But compassion can be tricky. For example, the Buddha warned against "idiot compassion," which is basically enabling someone or making a situation worse because you feel sorry for them. Allowing large populations of feral cats to roam free is not really all that compassionate if it causes bird species to suffer, and if the cats are hungry, sickly or suffering themselves. (There are some excellent discussions of this on the Audubon magazine blog.)

And here's where I run into my conundrum. There are millions -- MILLIONS -- of feral cats. I don't advocate killing animals, and I could never poison one. I wish that all these cats could find a home. It makes me indignant that so many people treat pets as disposable, tossing them outside or abandoning them when it's no longer convenient to keep them. But for me, to paraphrase Mr. Spock, the good of the many has to come before the good of the few, or the one. And to me, the environment is "the many." No power on earth can bring an extinct species back. We'll never see another Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, or Bachman's warbler. I don't want any other bird species added to that list.

That's my priority. If we can balance it with compassion, all the better. In the meantime, I support keeping domestic cats indoors, faithfully spaying or neutering, and never abandoning an animal. If people had always done these steps, we wouldn't have a feral cat problem now.

I know this is an emotional topic for some people, and I'm sorry if I've offended. As usual, any respectfully stated disagreements are certainly welcome in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. That sign broke my heart! This is a human created problem, and humans bear the burden of responsibility for doing as much as they can to "fix" it. Ultimately, it is a local problem, and has to be addressed on that level. As the companion human of a very elderly, indoor-only cat, I add my plea to yours: if you care about your cat, keep him inside, or take him out on a harness and leash for his fresh air time! If you care about birds, read the proceeding sentence. This was a brave and thoughtful post. Mom