by Kay Charter –
Twenty years ago, I watched in horror as a relative’s pet cat pulled first one, then another and then another lesser goldfinch from the feeder. Before she was done, the cat had killed ten of the tiny, bright yellow and black birds. She didn’t actually eat the birds because she wasn’t hungry. She killed them because it’s in her genes to kill. I asked my relative to take her feeder down. She would not, she said, because she liked to watch the birds that came to take seed.
I would need all my fingers and toes – and yours, too – to count the number of times I have witnessed such heart-breaking episodes. Cats are prolific breeders and they are exceptional hunters. An estimated cat population of one hundred and fifty million (pet and feral) presents an enormous challenge for a bird population that is already under serious threat by everything from habitat loss to plate glass window crashes. A recent study by Smithsonian estimated that cats kill more than a billion birds a year. Clearly, something must be done.
With numbers like that from one of the most highly regarded institutions in the world, you would think there would be no argument about the issue. But you would be wrong; there is an enormous divide over the issue of free ranging cats – especially feral cats. There is even a significant contingent questioning the validity of the study.
Among them is “Alley Cat Allies,” one of a number of groups around the country promoting feral cat colonies, which are regularly stocked with food by local organizers. These groups support the notion that if all cats in a colony are spayed or neutered, the problem will ultimately solve itself. But all the cats in such colonies are never neutered, and even if they were, they are bird killers as long as they live. Such groups fight for the “rights” of feral cats and have promoted legislation against dispatching them. One conservation-minded birder in Texas nearly went to jail for targeting feral cats that were killing endangered piping plovers. Feral cat supporters simply disregard such facts. Some have said that instead of focusing on the damage done by cats, we should actually be looking at damage done by birds.
Earlier this year, Audubon magazine “Incite” columnist Ted Williams was asked by the organization to write an op-ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel about the damage done by cats to our bird population. Officials in this popular Florida city were being pressured by feral cat supporters to pass a law mandating that such animals must be protected. He was the right person to ask; the title of his September 2009 column was “Felines Fatales,” in which he reported on the decimation of Hawaii’s bird population by free ranging (particularly feral) cats. According to his prepared statement, he wrote the piece for the Orlando Sentinel because he wanted to help Audubon (this despite the fact the paper doesn’t pay for op-eds). Immediately upon publication,
Audubon received tens of thousands of vicious attacks from feral cat supporters. The least nasty thing he was called was a cat hater. Williams has written that he is fond of cats and has had three pet cats, two of which were strays that adopted him. But he is a dedicated conservationist who cares deeply about wildlife in all its glorious forms and believes that every native species deserves protection. Such is the nature of this dispute that Audubon fired Williams for writing the column they had requested when the complaints jammed its email Inboxes. (Massive support from conservationists quickly brought about his reinstatement.)
Here are my questions: Why on earth don’t the people protecting feral cats refocus their energies and finances on creating shelters where the animals can be taken care of and prevented from killing birds.
Although many sportsmen/conservationists fear that an open campaign to encourage the hunting of feral cats could damage public support for hunting traditional game species, it is clear that hunters could play a more important role in controlling their numbers. It would also seem that this alternative should be pursued before anti-hunting advocates further disseminate their mistaken belief that sterilization alone is a realistic means of free-ranging cat control.
Kay Charter is Executive Director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat and co-owner of Charter Sanctuary for breeding and migrating birds. She also sits on the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance committee.