Friday, March 29, 2013

Cats and Politics

I've been toying with this post all week, unsure how far to wade into this debate. Generally speaking, I don't put my views on display. My views are my own. If you ask in a calm manner and accept that I have formed my views over time and with sufficient research, on my part, I will tell you what they are. But I've left hot button items out of this blog as I find they are counter productive to making this space some place people want to return to. I've decided, however, that this topic warrants my wading into the fray, particularly as spring is here and with it, the return of songbirds to the Upper Midwest.

Of issue is whether the trap, neuter, release program (herein called TNR) of managing feral cat colonies really does work to manage those colonies or if we are only fooling ourselves. Critics of TNR cite a Smithsonian study which claims that billions, yes, that's with a "b", of birds are being killed yearly by "free roaming cats". (The link is to the online blog story of the actual study.) The release of this study kicked up a huge outcry that cats need to be eliminated from the environment altogether in order for the ecosystem to stabilize and recover. For an example of what happens when a predator at the top of the food chain is unleashed on an ecosystem that has no defenses against it, one only has to look at Guam and the brown tree snake or Hawaii and feral pigs.

We all like to hear bird songs, right, excepting, perhaps that robin who likes to sing outside my window at 5:30 a.m. in the morning when I'd rather be sleeping. If cats are killing billions of birds, we need to do something about this. I'm right there with you, except, this isn't the case and I'm going to ask you to do something rather radical about this.

New Mexico State University, New York City, Chicago, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, University of Hawaii, are just a few of the places who have approved, endorsed and implemented TNR for the control of feral cats. The venerable Humane Society of the US also endorses and promotes TNR as the method for stabilizing and reducing feral cat colonies. So why the controversy?

First some definitions. TNR should be used on "feral" cats. By definition, a feral cat is one that has had no interaction with humans. These are not the Mijas or Pilchards of the world. These cats are wild. They would not make good pets. They have not been socialized. Generally, they live in a colony, breeding at will. Any city or town can have a feral cat colony.

Second, cats are the #1 euthanized animal in shelters. Best Friends has said in publications that in some shelters, a full 75% of the cats brought into a shelter are killed, usually within 24 hours. There aren't enough people willing to adopt a cat out of the shelter so, due to space, a cat that comes in on a Monday, probably won't be there on Tuesday. This is particularly true of a feral cat that is not socialized to be friendly to humans.

Third, TNR is the process by which a feral cat is trapped, neutered and returned to the area where it currently lives. At the same time, a cat is given shots, and one of the ears is docked, meaning the tip is removed, to show that it has undergone veterinary care. Feral cat colonies that are managed by TNR have care givers who provide food and shelter but the cats are not removed from the area they call home.

As with any predator, a feral cat, and even a domesticated cat allowed to freely roam, has territories. They will hunt prey within that territory. Territories overlap and cats not neutered will fight. If you've ever heard two males defending their overlapping territories, it is one of the most awful sounds you'll ever hear. Cats that are neutered will not fight beyond the occasional spats that all animals have. They are healthier than their unneutered cousins, as well.

TNR will, if religiously practiced on a cat colony, over time, reduce the number of cats in that colony. Think about this. It won't reduce the colony immediately, but it will, as old age takes cats over the Rainbow Bridge, reduce their numbers naturally. Colonies with managers have people who notice if a cat is sick and remove it from the colony. A colony that grows up together is not that accepting of more cats moving in. And, if cats do join the colony, a manager of that colony will see to it that those newcomers are also neutered and vaccinated.

It would seem this is sound, logical animal management. But the controversy is when birds are added to the mix. Cats kill birds. Birds are on the list of prey items. In the nearly 30 years of having cats in my life in Wheaton, my cats, allowed to, up to Mija and Pilchard, roam free during the day, killed 3 birds; two grackles and a sparrow. More baby bunnies were brought home than birds. If I were to extrapolate those numbers, and that would be a huge leap into math where I'm not at all comfortable, that's hardly the billions of birds killed by free roaming cats that the Smithsonian study claims. Cats who are domesticated will still kill birds if the opportunity presents itself. Make no mistake about that. I saw it. Some cats will just kill because it triggers the predator nature in them. Some will kill and eat even if Iams is in the dish on the floor of the kitchen. It's hardwired into a cat.

It's this hardwiring which, I think, causes people to view TNR with such a jaundiced eye. It's not going to matter what you do to manage a feral cat colony, they are still going to kill birds. Part of this is truth. We cannot change a cat's nature. They have to have meat in their diet because their bodies do not produce taurine, vital to life. Cats get that from meat sources. It's added to cat food and it comes naturally in the bodies of their prey. Just providing food to a cat colony is not going to stop them roaming about and killing birds. The only way to save the birds is to remove the cat.

On the face of this, it seems logical. But what happens is that when a colony is removed, a new colony moves in. There are millions of cats with no home. There are not millions of people willing to spend the time to socialize feral cats and give them forever homes. A British study, which I can't find, but I have read, found that rodents made up 80% of a feral cats diet. Only 4% was birds. The rest of the diet was miscellaneous food, either cat food or garbage. That's a lot of bunnies and mice and moles and voles. Vermin. Those creatures we consider to be pests because of their destructive habits to our gardens.

Farmers have long had cats to keep the mouse and rat populations in check. They might nab the occasional pigeon in the process, but here's something else to consider. A bird that is caught by a cat was probably not well to begin with. I watched as my cats would try to stalk a healthy bird. If one of the cats was outside, I always knew where she was by the sound of the chickadees yelling at her. Cats have a burst of speed, but it's nothing compared to a healthy bird.

This all comes back to what is the best way to manage cats and birds. First of all, and I feel very, very strongly about this, if you have house cats, don't let them go outside except under highly controlled situations. I used to just throw open the back door and let the cats go. This is not healthy for the cat. Fresh air and sunshine is good, but they can get that by sitting in a window. If you do take them outside, you need to be with them at all times. And don't toss the cat out at night and let it in in the morning. I just want to throw you outside and let you find shelter overnight. Your cat will adapt to sleeping at night instead of trying to survive. I can't tell you how many times I've been awakened by a cat and a raccoon arguing over someone's garbage. The cat is going to get the worst of that fight.

And, if a cat is caught, unless it's microchipped, it's going to a shelter where you may never see it again. Even the most social of cats isn't going to be social when tossed into a cage where there are sounds and smells it has never experienced. Just don't let your cat out, okay? Are we clear on this?

Second, support TNR efforts. I've read everything in this debate and I agree with Best Friends and Vox Felina, both to the right, that studies showing cats kill billions of birds, introduce rabies or toxoplasmosis into the human population are flawed. I had one cat with fleas and he got them from being outside where, did you know this, he got them off the ground where squirrels are. Fleas and squirrels go together in great symbiosis. (Cats can get ticks, too. Do you want to deal with that? No? Then don't let your cat out.) Managed feral colonies have caregivers who take care of the area where the cats live to reduce flea and tick infestations. As I said before, sick cats and that would include cats who may have been exposed to rabies or toxoplasmosis, are removed from the colony and are given veterinary care. This includes shots for distemper and feline leukemia.

Lastly, the National Audubon Society came out in support of a gentleman who advocated poisoning and killing cats to remove them from the ecosystem. This harkens back to the days of poisoning wolves to get them out of Yellowstone. We have long discredited that type of animal management. Why would we condone it here? If you are a member of this organization and you love or even like cats and want to see them cared for properly, then write them AND remove your support. I am appalled that such an organization would latch onto studies with huge flaws in them and ask that one whole animal class be exterminated. Managed cat colonies are not the biggest threat to songbirds. Habitat loss is. Instead of focusing on the real problem, the Audubon Society has chosen to focus on this small part, which, in reality, doesn't have anything to do with the loss of habitat.

Yes, I am a cat lover but I'm also a bird lover. Everything I've read on this subject leads me to conclude that managed cat colonies do not harm the bird populations as much as human fragmentation of their habitat does. Read the Best Friends blog. Read Vox Felina. (Again, both are to the right and, in full disclosure mode here, I support, financially, Best Friends for a number of reasons. TNR is just a small part of their advocacy for animals; cats, dogs, horses, pigs, rabbits, etc.They were one of the leading advocates for the dogs seized from Michael Vick's dog fighting compound.) Google TNR. Visit Alley Cat Allies, the oldest managed feral cat advocacy group in the US.

I leave you with one thought. If this were a discussion about dogs, what would the outcome be?

Beverage:  Dunkin Donuts tea


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