Creating a Safer World for Cats and Wildlife
There’s a lot of attention to the age-old conflict between cats and birds this week, with the release of a new study of cat predation on native wildlife species. The limited study tracked only a few dozen cats (less than one feline subject for every million pet cats in the U.S.) but found that a majority of kitties in the group did not stalk, chase, or kill any songbirds or other wild animals while they were roaming outdoors.
But no matter how you look at it, as advocates for both cats and wildlife, it’s time to find solutions that are safe for felines and reduce mortality of songbirds and other native creatures. One important strategy is to keep pet cats indoors—it’s better for neighboring wildlife, and the housecats have longer average lifespans since they’re at less risk from cars, dogs, coyotes, disease, and other threats.
Another critical strategy is to support the method of trap-neuter-return (TNR) to humanely manage community cat colonies. More than 1,550 organizations and tens of thousands of individuals manage cat colonies in the United States and Canada, and they constitute a large and indispensable volunteer labor force to reduce the numbers of cats outdoors. More research and validation work is needed, but it is already clear that 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 The outdated strategy of trapping and killing feral cats is simply inhumane and ineffective, since it doesn’t address the sources of the problem.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.
Fortunately, public officials around the country are bringing community members together on this historically divisive issue, and are finding innovative, effective, and lasting solutions to the conflict. At the municipal level, a number of improvements have been made to cat-related ordinances, allowance for TNR programs and feral cat caretaking, or general policies from cities and towns endorsing TNR. Several municipalities, colleges, and housing associations have recently adopted pro-TNR policies and are working toward effective and humane community cat programs. In Harrington, Del., city officials are working with The Humane Society of the United States, Delaware SPCA, and community volunteers to get a handle on free-roaming cat colonies as well as seeking to educate community residents about proper pet care. City officials are adopting pro-animal policies in Laurel, Md., Santa Ana, Calif., and other communities across the country.
At the statewide level, many cat-related laws are vague or non-existent. There is little consistency, and in many states, domestic cats fall into a legal gray area. A state bill to address non-native wildlife this year in Delaware was successfully modified through the work of cat advocates, to ensure that feral and free-roaming cats would not fall under the definition of non-native wildlife and be subject to lethal control. A bill in Maine this year originally would have eliminated a tax check-off program that directly funds low-cost spay and neuter surgeries, including for TNR of feral cats, but the final bill left the check-off program intact.
Federal agencies, too, often deal with cat-related issues in a variety of ways. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently worked with The HSUS to relocate feral cats from San Nicolas Island to a permanent sanctuary at The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center. Even the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not immune, and cat advocates are now asking OSHA to remove feral cats from a definition of vermin for shipbuilding workplaces and harbors.
In Hawaii, as part of a promising collaboration, The HSUS has been working with a variety of state, federal and local agencies to bring together the diverse public and private interests that will be necessary as the complex and controversial policies and programs needed to reduce the presence of cats outdoors become a reality. You can read more about it here.
There is so much at stake, and we need to work even harder to craft and implement solutions that are acceptable for both cat and wildlife advocates, however great the challenge. This December, the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy is organizing, together with the Found Animals Foundation, a conference in Los Angeles, to examine and discuss the science and policy landscape of the issue. The aim of the conference is to reduce polarization around the issue and to increase the chances of finding policy options that both cat and wildlife advocates can support. It’s a great goal.
We have a long way to go to ensure that all cats have a loving home and to bring about an end to cat overpopulation, but signs of progress are all around us. With community involvement, leadership by decision-makers, and sound public policies, we can create a safer world for cats and wildlife alike.