Background Switcher (Hidden)

Happy National Feral Cat Day!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

a feral photo from the Web; if I could find attribution I'd gladly give it.

Across the United States, perhaps 90 million domestic cats are kept, the majority of them allowed to roam and hunt outdoors. An additional estimated 70 million feral cats--nonnative predators that live by their wits outside-- annually kill hundreds of millions of songbirds and more than a billion small animals such as mice, voles, chipmunks and rabbits. The problem grows exponentially; one breeding pair of feral cats can produce produce 420,000 offspring over a seven-year period.
New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons

Various solutions have been offered; among them are shooting (South Dakota and Minnesota permit shooting of feral cats) and the popular trap-neuter-release programs, in which volunteer veterinarians have spaying clinics for trapped feral cats. After that, the cats are released back into the habitats where they were trapped. Hmmm. And that's because these exotic predators belong in the wild, preying on native birds and animals? Ummm...Because nobody knows what else to do with a wild, unsocialized cat? Because it's a kind thing to do? Because it's OK with us that they're living on a diet of warblers, sparrows and thrushes, chipmunks and voles, frogs and lizards? Because it makes us feel better? What am I missing here? Is there something right and good about allowing cats to decimate native wildlife that I just don't get?

A California study showed that neutered feral cats live an average of seven years after being released; seven years in which they will continue to prey on native birds, reptiles and mammals.

A good summary of the issue can be found at National Geographic's web site.

In an effort to become more informed about the problem, I subscribed to Alley Cat Allies. I get their e-mailings, and I've learned some things I didn't know about feral cats and birds. Apparently, I'm mistaken in my conviction that feral cats kill a lot of birds. My 45 years of observations of cat predation on songbirds, including the countless cat-bitten songbirds I've dosed with antibiotics and tried to repair, are wrong: They eat mostly small mammals, insects, and reptiles, according to Alley Cat Allies. Oh, that's OK. Whew. Nobody much likes mice, bugs, and snakes anyway.

And did you know that, according to Alley Cat Allies, human activity in the form of unregulated hunting is actually the cause of the precipitous, non-cyclic decline of migratory birds, and the reason that migratory bird protection laws were passed? Well, that may have been true of shorebirds, gallinaceous birds and waterfowl in the market hunting days around the turn of the 20th century, but I haven't run into a human hunting party that's after tanagers, sparrows, thrushes, warblers, and vireos lately. I have seen an awful lot of those that were killed by cats, however. Hunting doesn't even enter into it: Habitat loss, window strikes, and cat predation are the Big Three songbird killers, and the studies exist to prove it.

Outside of the trap-neuter-release programs, which allow feral cats to go on doing their native wildlife predation work for an average of seven more years, the life span of a feral cat in the wild averages two years. It's a short, brutish existence, rife with disease and peril. Because they become pregnant as kittens when they're a few months old, before they've even attained full growth, two years is plenty of time for a female cat to crank out four or more litters. Which crank out more, and more, and more...70 million and growing. Millions and billions and trillions of cats.
From Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

Living outside is rotten for cats, and feral cat predation devastates native wildlife. Cat predation is an unnatural, and most importantly, preventable cause of songbird and small mammal deaths. But people have to recognize the problem to do something about it. Education!

So, in celebration of National Feral Cat Day, this morning I sent a donation to the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors campaign. You can donate online here, or send a check to:

American Bird Conservancy
Cats Indoors Campaign
PO Box 249
The Plains, VA 20198.

Please write: In Celebration of National Feral Cat Day in the "Memo" line of your check. Tell 'em I sent you.

Happy National Feral Cat Day! Party at my blog.

Footnote: This post, from October 16, 2008, is enjoying a renaissance as of January, 2015. Huzzah! It's still pertinent, and the comments section is good reading, if you've got about 30 minutes. In the meantime, American Bird Conservancy is still doing a bang-up job fighting for the rights of those birds, mammals, insects and reptiles. In the U.S., kind-hearted people are still nurturing countless burgeoning colonies of feral cats. Australia, faced with the certain disappearance of some 124 endemic bird species, has gotten very tough on them, announcing a plan to eliminate 20 million feral cats by the year 2020. You can still have kitties, but you have to keep them inside. Sounds pretty good to me. When an endemic species is snuffed out, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one is made again. Feral cats, not so much.


So until the miraculous day comes that the American public, now having been fully educated, unanimously decides to keep their (neutered) pet cats indoors and not to dump unwanted cats, what's your suggestion? Personally, I think TNR programs are the best game going, since they (ideally) cut short the breeding of those 420,000 descendants. If I was going to make a donation to reduce the problem, I think I'd support a low-cost spay & neuter clinic, because I'd feel more hopeful about the outcome of that donation.

A small town near Hasty Brook in northern Minnesota actually contracts with a local trapper to try to reduce the large feral cat population there. They think most of those cats have lived wild for many, many generations.

I take your sarcasm and share it to some extent, Lisa. I live in a place where unwanted cats are dumped, often in our driveway, quite frequently. To keep them from killing the birds we protect, I'm forced to break out the tuna, live-trap them and take them to the Humane Society, with a $25 donation for each one, because I don't believe in dumping my problems without donating, even though someone just dumped it on me. It's annoying and darned expensive.

I still think that ABC's education work is of immense value in bringing the problem to light and offering convincing persuasion to cat owners who might not otherwise consider keeping Fluffy inside. The people who dump animals on country roads will continue to do it. Hence the problem.

I'm having trouble understanding why a returning a neutered feral cat to the wild to continue its depredation for years is preferable to euthanizing it. I know that sounds draconian to a cat lover, and I'm sorry, but I can't take a softer stance to spare their feelings. Can TNR programs really be wide-reaching enough to materially stem the breeding of unwanted cats, when one breeding pair has the potential to exponentially produce 420,000 more? And what is the gain--the greater good-- in supporting wild colonies of nonnative predatory cats, neutered or not, by feeding and sheltering them? Is it good for the cats to live like that, passing disease from one to another, and then to native wildlife and house pets? It sure isn't good for birds and small mammals, nor is it good for the native hawks, owls, foxes and bobcats whose prey base is being taken out from under them.

TNR seems to me to be a feel-good solution to a problem that is well beyond its scope to control. It's better than doing nothing, for sure, and I believe the much-needed low-cost spay and neuter clinics deserve our full support. I think they have immense value in neutering household pets that would otherwise breed unchecked, and add to the problem of unwanted animals roaming the countryside. But I get off the train at trapping, neutering and releasing these unsocialized, ownerless feral predators to continue their destruction of native wildlife. To me, it seems like a waste of time, money, veterinary expertise, and native wildlife. I think it's clear from my writing that I have great respect for the sanctity of life. But what about the lives of all those songbirds who were here first, who belong here, and contribute to a balanced ecosystem? And who are declining at ferocious rates, thanks in part to predation by cats? As long as there are humans on Earth, I believe that there will always be cats. There may not always be wood thrushes.

I know that this is a touchy subject for many, and I get it. But the feral cat colonies are a direct result of human irresponsibility. It isn't a cat problem, it is a people problem... yet it is innocent animals (both birds and cats) who end up paying the price. Simply killing cats doesn't sit ANY better with me than feral cats decimating song bird populations does. Nor will it solve the problem, since at the rate that cats can reproduce, more will just move in and take their place. The trap-neuter-release plan, coupled with education on responsible pet ownership, may not be the instant fix that people may (mistakenly) think they are getting by shooting and killing feral cats, but it has a better chance of solving the problem over the long haul, through attrition. Just my opinion.

My brother rescued a feral cat and he's a wonderful kitty.

Julie - thank you for your voice of reason. You really do bring up good points that are both eloquent and evolved.

We all know invasive species wreak havoc on an ecosystem -- and unfortunately feral cats must be included in the growing list of species conservationists and biologists work hard to remove in order to repair and sometimes save an ecosystem. The removal of single cat increases biomass considerably.

Our trying to save feral cats make us feel good - but it really does little positive for the cat in question, which tend to suffer malnutrition, stress and disease in order to adapt to a wilderness it never evolved in. At some point, trying to keep feral cats alive in the wild becomes a selfish act on our parts. As conservationists we have subscribe to a bigger, selfless picture even if that means making hard choices. And yes, absolutely, the same goes for pack dogs. If the same public tolerance for pack dogs was given to feral cats -- there would be none.

We have wild cats at my office building. I've seen three litters born in the 1.75 yrs we've been here. The original mom isn't anywhere to be found now, but her latest three teenage offspring are still here. A lady a couple of floors down feeds them daily.

At one point there was a collection going around to pay for the spaying and neutering of all of them, but the person organizing that left unexpectedly.

I'm not sure what to do about them. :(

My "Kinglet Blaster 3000" has been wasting away in my closet since they banned hunting of migratory birds, but now I have an idea of what I can use it for...

There's no animal more destructive to native wildlife than the feral cat.
The only thing close to the feral cat is the nonferal cat whose owner lets it roam freely through the neighborhood.

There's no time for fluffy catch and neuter programs.
It should be an active extermination program for ferals and fines for cat owners who let them roam.

Hi Julie,

I think you choose to write about things because you feel passionately about them but in the couple years I’ve been reading your work, I’ve rarely seen you this angry. Perhaps the only other example I can think of is the chapter in your book about the animal caught in leg trap. In both cases, righteous anger.

I say that as someone who loves and feels the same profound bond with her cats as you and your family have with Chet. But, to draw on recent conversations here, Chet is not a poorly trained pitbull with an out-of-control owner and my cats are not “outside” cats, let alone feral cats. So personal bonds with individual animals are not really that relevant, or important, in a debate about how we seem hell-bent on biodiversity destruction.

What is important is that we understand our culpability and try to take remedial action. Now that I’ve seen, with my own eyes, the Boreal forest and wetlands chewed up and spit back out for oil, I’m making more changes in how I use oil. Now that I’ve learned that a TNR cat goes on to live –and hunt– for seven years instead of the one or two I would have guessed, I will rethink my old position that, while far from ideal, TNR was at least a kind of solution. I am not ready to support shooting feral cats, and I find the thought of euthanizing them very, very sad. But I know we don’t have enough kind and responsible people to give them good homes and we will never be able to build enough clean, healthy no-kill shelters.

Ultimately, this is a question of balance. It's not always raised or discussed in a helpful manner. Thank you for, in your usual clear-eyed way, making us think about and struggle with it.

Focus on the real problem. The first item on your list of threats to birds (and other wildlife) is habitat loss. If not for this, cat predation would be merely a footnote.

TNR programs are the only humane way to solve this problem. Over time colonies disappear, and Alley Cat Allies recently celebrated just such an event. (I too receive their newsletter.)

Yes, cats should be inside, as mine are. But I have a motion-sensor-controlled sprinkler to dissuade neighborhood cats (none feral) from hunting at my feeders.

Find a humane solution -- or risk losing your humanity. And encourage your readers to help all wildlife through conservation programs both here and in birds' wintering grounds.

Thanks for your enlighening view, Julie. My take on this - I've never encountered a feral cat problem - although I'm certain they exist all around me... This is coming from a lover of cats - someone who rescued a few kittens who would be feral and raised them in my home as indoor cats, but I think a program like TNR is like sweeping the sand from the desert. Why release a cat back into the wild to die a slow death? Now that's heartless. Makes no sense to me.

Julie, you have raised an ethical dilemma for which there is no easy answer. I have participated in TNR programs as professional help. I would not do that if I did not believe it helped a difficult problem. The reason it helps with the feral cat population is that the total population is dictated by the amount of habitat (or niches) available in the area for the feral cat. When a TNR cat is released, it returns to its original habitat (or niche) and no new feral cats move in. The population then declines. This, however, does not address the continued predation on songbirds, etc. problem except that there is no increase in the total feral cat population with a resultant decrease in songbird predation. The problem is basically a human problem. Education will help but there will always be feral cats and something needs to be done about it. Extermination does not work. We have been attempting that for years. I am glad you and others like you are passionate about songbird and small mammal loss. Let's keep the dialogue going!

Well, good for you! I just hope you don’t get the spew I got from those who seem to think cats ‘belong’ outside. My post about Feral Cats (where I used the exact same photo you did! LOL) got some pretty interesting mail sent to me…rather than postings on the blog (thank god…some were pages long!)

At any rate, I thought you’d like to see the “Cats Indoors!” graphic I put in my sidebar and linked to information about just what you and I are trying to get spread around. Feel free to copy it and do the same! It’s easy to link a graphic to a website!

As far as the cat photo; I used the same image; I got it from Wikipedia…where it is has been released into the public domain. You can find more information on the photo here.

As to feral cats in my yard…I tried to trap some kittens a female had in my yard (!!!); but she moved them before I got ‘em. Not before teaching them to hunt at my feeders, however! Ugg Sadly, I found the little orange one, about half grown, not far from the river. I suppose some dog got it…a wild animal would have eaten it, I’d imagine. Poor thing! I’m looking forward to the day people must keep cats on their own property or leashed. It’s coming…

The sad thing about trapping wild cats is…they’re wild! I live in a rural area too; where people toss out cats and dogs like empty hamburger sacks. I’d have to drive nearly 100 miles, round trip, with a wild, thing half out of its mind, in the cage…only to drop it off and know they will euthanize it anyway. Wild cats generally don’t make good pets…unless you can find them very young. (yes, I know there are exceptions to everything…please don’t try to correct that statement. It’s correct).

The sad, painful life of a feral cat does not justify neutering it and setting it right back out in the wild. It doesn’t belong there and I find it inhumane to do that to an animal! I like cats, I’ve had cats…perhaps I’ll have another someday; an INDOOR cat. I too rescued a very young wild kitten that made the best pet cat I’d ever had. In the meantime, I’m not going for the ‘feel-good solution’ which implies I’ve got to keep my head stuck in the sand about what these feral animals go through to live their short lives and what they do to our wildlife in the meantime. It’s not fair to the cats; it’s not fair to anything. TNR is not the solution; removing cats from wildlife is.

Thank you Julie for spreading the word; I’m right beside ya.

Lisa, Northern Birder and Beverly, Little Orange Guy, T.R. Dog-geek, Jessica, Mary; all of you, in fact, your comments are precisely what I was looking for when I got a wild hair and opened this discussion today. I want to learn. I want to struggle with the hard stuff, stretch my mind and let the reins loose from time to time. I raise the questions to see what you think, and I consider your thoughts carefully. I'm here to say my bit, and then listen, incorporating your thoughts and feelings into my own.

Northern Birder, the niche concept makes sense to me, and it's something I'd not considered in the big picture. Yes. And you raise a good point--extermination efforts are often unsuccessful. Start trying to eradicate a species, and they get wise to you. Disease is a powerful force; I've been known, while cleaning up strewn garbage and broken feeders, to holler, "What this state needs is a good EPIDEMIC of RACCOON RABIES!!" I holler it ironically, of course, but sometimes disease can be a savior. I've seen it take out the huge flocks of house finches that once crowded feeders. They start turning up with swollen eyes, and then they stop turning up at all. There were too many of them, and now there aren't. Tough bird to get around here, in fact; where once there were tweeting mobs of 'em.

I do think it's pitiful that we allow the draconian vectors of disease, cars, dogs, coyotes, poisoning and shooting to limit free-roaming populations of what is essentially still a domestic animal. An animal that, were it not for our introducing it to our environs, would not exist. An animal that is not a natural part of any ecosystem, and that by all rights should still be under our control, and not allowed to wreak havoc in the wild. Thank you for widening my horizons, and for contributing your wisdom and passion to what has been a satisfying, if wrenching, day.

I'm particularly glad that not a single person protested that it's "natural" for cats to kill birds--which was the prevailing opinion (and hollow defense) when I was a child, when I first became aware of the immense damage that housecats do every day, when my passion for the subject had its genesis. We have progressed!

My two cents:
TNR programs are half-useless. Why does the "Cats Must Live At All Cost" population of humans stop caring about the cats after the surgery?

"Well, Fluffy will probably die a horrible death, ground to pulp under the wheels of a truck, but at least he will die neutered."

Sure, it's a half-way decent idea in theory...reduce the number of cats being born out in the "wild", but it seems to me that if these programs really worked, wouldn't they be obsolete in 10 years or so?

Oh, HELL NO. We have every Billy Joe Jim Bob dropping off the family cat (in Julie's driveway!), a cat whose humans were too lazy to neuter or spay. And people who say, "We can't afford to fix the cat" make me want to scream.
I can name half a dozen or more very low cost spay/neuter clinics just in Clermont County, Ohio. If you can't afford the vet, you can't afford the pet.

We have a TNR program nearby (and very near good bird/reptile/amphibian habitat) and it very nearly sets me to screaming every time I am in the area.
One thing that I make sure to include in my presentations is: There have been Great Horned Owl pellets found with CAT hair in them. At least nature is picking off a few here and there.

And to comment on Jessica's comment: Um, Julie DOES bring up the issue of habitat loss. All the time. Here's what I do to cats in my yard:
1. If they have a collar, I win their trust (not hard with treats or the irrepressible aroma of tuna), and then place a note on their collar and tape it down. The note lists all the horrible ways a cat can die in the wild and the impact they are having on not just birds, but the whole ecosystem.
2. If they don't have a collar, they go to our local shelter with a $5 donation for dropping it off. (Wow, Julie, you have an expensive pound! $25???) It gets them off the streets. At least for a little while.

Thanks, Julie, for putting this on your blog. Since you have about a zillion readers, maybe this can help spread the word. It's not a cat's a HUMAN one.

*from Susan, an admirer/lover of cats...honestly.

It seems this "argument" can be simplified by asking the question,"What is the natural condition and how can we best restore it?"
So much of what we humans have created for our own enjoyment has driven us far from what nature had intended.
If we truly are stewards of the earth, the earth's best situation should be our goal.

Have a cat, or have 20.
But turning it loose from your door into an environment it was not designed for is not without consequence.

Ohhh… I so want to be a good writer but I’m just not able to come up with the passionate, knowledgeable and still polite or even poetic prose that both Julie and Nina are able to accomplish.

I spew information…that’s about it. [sigh]

Having said that…what about the statement: “If you shoot for the moon, perhaps you’ll hit the stars”? I agree with the fact that cats do NOT belong loose in our environment. I just had a co-worker argue with me today that TNR is better than nothing. But why not shoot for the moon? We’d sure save a lot of the beings which evolved and belong in our natural environment.

Susan…I like your style, too! :)

Like Julie, I live in an area where cats are dumped with alarming regularity. The lake supports a massive and diverse pool of life, so people seem to believe their cat(s) will survive just fine and will have plenty of food to eat.

Three of my own feline family members were rescued from that overwhelming colony of felines. While feral in the sense that they lived in the wild, they were obvious abandonees in that they were trustworthy of people and were acclimated to other cats (which was necessary for a successful adoption into my home). They didn't have to die; they simply needed a humane person to come along and take them off the streets.

Truth be told, extermination programs work well only in those cases where we also allow extermination of free-roaming dogs, invasive bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species (let alone plants), and fines and jail time for any human caught exacerbating the problem (including responsibility for any animal molesting or otherwise bothering native wildlife, or responsibility for the release of any animal, insect or plant that is non-native).

Then lets not forget Jessica's poignant and superior point: habitat loss is the greatest threat, and that boils down to humans and their activities. Imagine the consequences if we start treating ourselves the same way we treat every other species we call "invasive"... Personally, I see no difference.

Unfortunately, most feel strongly one way or the other (for or against cats and for or against dogs), but few want to own up to the whole mess we humans create with our indifference to the big picture. It's very much like politics in that manner, and very much the same as politics in that it stems from the unfortunate, uncomfortable view that "I am right and anyone who disagrees is wrong."

The solution starts and ends with us, with people. It's not a dog-versus-cat thing. It's a human thing.

I for one am trying to make a difference by supporting adoption programs equally with education programs equally with TNR programs--for dogs and cats. To me, taking the life of any creature is reprehensible unless its done for the welfare of the life involved, so I act accordingly.

Well, I hear the "Fluffy(dog or cat)just won't be happy unless he/she can roam" arguement all the time. Nonsense. I am the boss of my animals. I say they aren't allowed outside, and since 80% of them are ex-feral, AND happy and well adjusted.....

Alley Cat Allies also states that feral cats are unsuitable for adoption....HOGWASH. They take some time to win over. But they can be. 5 of my 7 cats are former ferals, i.e., born and raised outside, and none of them were taken in before they were 2 years old.

Missus is a feral(we fed her feral mother, Eartha Kitty)we took in as a 2 year old with her litter of 4 kittens. We kept 2 of her kittens, the other 2 found good homes. The kittens rapidly acclimated to human contact, they were young enough to be malleable to our human ways, LOL!

Anyway, when Missus came in, we kept her isolated in our den for a long time. She was completely wild. She hid for the first 3 months. We sat on the floor and read out loud to her,(to get her used to the sound of human voices and human activities) we gave her wet food(kitty mcdonald's!) and snuck in a pettin' here and there, when we'd set down the yummy wet food. It took 18 months, until she let us full out pet her, a switch must have flipped in her brain(or it was Stockholm syndrome)...because ever since then, she is a total love..a face sniffer, head rubbing love bug. We also trapped and tamed Missus' feral half brothers, Volya and Boo. We did the same thing with them, too. Worked well.

Boo waits for my DH at the back door every night...

We got very low cost spay neuter through Orphans of the Storm. $25 to spay, and I think $10-$15 to neuter. My DH was un-employed at the time.

Alley cat allies does a great dis-service to feral cats by claiming they can't be tamed.

I love cats. But they are non-native invasive wildlife, and, much like wild horses, they do a lot of damage to native flora and fauna that have evolved here over millenia. They don't belong roaming around, willy nilly.

We do this stuff because we are concerned about native flora and fauna...and I see, first hand, the damage the non native flora and fauna do to the ecosystem.

The cats are not to blame...they are trying to make a living. To hate them for trying to do so is silly, IMO. People are to blame for this problem, period.

I also believe that for birds, habitat loss is a larger problem than non-native predators.

National Feral Cat Day: The Book. Look for it at a bookseller near you. I love the tomes we are bringing in. Pam, yours was terrific. Everyone re-read Paragraph 3, please. If I could reel my post back in, I would add that enlightened statement:

"...The people who really love cats (and are responsible) are the ones who volunteer and raise the money to try and help with the problem. You really can't expect them to come up with the solution of off with their heads!"

And, even more importantly, "Give them their due before you beat up on them."

TNR programs do have a negative impact on feral cat populations. And Pam's right: People who love cats are materially addressing the problem, even if their efforts go unacknowledged or are scoffed at by those who desire a quicker fix. Even if you tried to eradicate cat colonies with a "final solution," you probably could not, at least not safely. There's nothing wilier than a cat put on alert.

No wonder the two camps are so contentious, all puffed up, barking and hissing at one another. One is on the attack; the other is working as fast and as best as it can to do something about it, spending enormous amounts of time and money and effort.

At the core of the argument, there is a disagreement on the inherent worth of a feral cat's life --this comments section shows that quite clearly--and unfortunately, it's unlikely that eradication advocates will ever see intrinsic worth or a place in our ecosystem for these "domestics gone wild." But it's important to value and acknowledge the people who do hold cat lives in esteem, and honor their efforts. After all, they're the ones doing something, anything to address the problem, instead of shooting from the sidelines.

I have a dear friend who has for years been neutering, sheltering and finding homes for the unwanted cats in her neighborhood. It's not cheap, and it's tough when a teenage pregnant cat shows up and promptly gifts her with four kittens; the last getting stuck in the birth canal and requiring an emergency Caesarean (Oh, great. Ch-ching!). And then, she finds homes for each and every one of them, including spayed Mama cat. Can she afford to do that? No, but she does anyway. That's commitment made real; that's valuing the lives of animals, coming up with the money to support them, and working to make things better. There is an endless flood of cats out there, just waiting for someone to take them in and spend money on them. When all is said and done, they are still domestic animals that need our support, subsidy and help. Spaying and neutering is an answer, perhaps the only one for people who love cats like my friend does. She can't look away from a cat in need, and I admire her for that.

All of the comments here are excellent, thought provoking and exhausting. I've been back about five times.

Thanks for the open forum, Julie.

Wow, you people are fantabulous. Thanks for all this reading (which will require another cup of coffee for me). I never really gave much thought to feral cats and I certainly didn't think their numbers were this large or wide ranging or so easily maintained or increased. Astonishing.

I have this vague recollection of learning that cats were domesticated to protect grains in storage? I think my non-scientific brain is struggling with and wondering at the whole premise that cats have no natural ecosystem. Where did they come from in the first place...they must have had a natural habitat at some point otherwise they wouldn't ever have been here in the first place, right?
Like the rest of you, I don't know exactly what the right solution to this conundrum is, but I'm quite certain that a group of people who cares and thinks deeply about it can't hurt!

Off for a 2nd cup of coffee now - will be back later to dig into all this info:)

I've been deciding whether or not to jump in and I don't think I have anything to add to this except some limited experience with TNR. I'm a BIG cat lover and have taken in a number of strays from 2001 to the latest in 2006. (The actual number of cats I have remains a state secret)

First, Pam's comment really echoes my own. Great, great comment.

My neighbor and close friend has been retired for five years now and devotes her life to rescuing and fostering cats and dogs, along with helping with TNR in my area. She even sends her social security check to a local spay/neuter clinic every month.

I believe if you are going to get involved with TNR you are in it for the long haul. Somewhat like the saying if you save a life you are responsible for it for life.
In that respect I am troubled with TNR that just dumps cats back into the middle of nowhere to have them try to survive.

In my city area we truly have colonies that are "alley" cats and "behind large supermarket" cats. After the cats are neutered or spayed they are returned to the location, along with a number beautiful hand-made wooden, insulated cat shelters (again my neighbor pays a carpenter friend to make these). Then, the volunteers take turns driving out and feeding and watering the cats. Trapping those who end up with injuries or appear sick. They trap either all the kittens or the pregnant females and socialize the kittens and put them up for adoption. In the 10 years I have lived in my little town, three colonies have died out. My neighbor is now working on a colony in a VERY dangerous part of inner DC and asks me to go along with her for her own safety. So, again, per Pam's comment, please, please don't disparage these folks.

Education is the KEY here. Do you have low cost spay/neutering in your local area? If so, announce it on billboards in stores. In my area we now have two local shelters that have NO cost, yes that's right, NO cost spay and neutering available for anyone. I'm always trying to get the word out about that. These shelters also have wonderful education departments that rely on volunteers to go into inner city schools to teach children empathy towards animals and the importance of neutering or spaying their pets.

Education, Education, Education.

Now, I must be off to deliver pain medicine and antibiotics to one of the strays I took in in 2001. Sweet Pea just got back from the vet after having FOUR teeth pulled!

I've been donating to a local TNR program for a while, and I'm also sending this post to my little sister who's firmly convinced that cats should be indoor/outdoor. Thanks for this, Julie!

Hi Jen--Excellent question. Cats descend from the European wild cat, Felis silvestris, which looks like a huge bruiser gray tabby, and which is having a tough time in the wild, ironically enough, thanks in part to interbreeding with...feral domestic cats. Whoops. It's native to W, Ctrl and E. Europe, Scotland and Turkey, but has disappeared from much of its former range. So a "wild type" housecat is the gray tabby. I know people who swear that gray tabbies are the best cats of all.

Did the Egyptians start the domestication process? Anyone care to chip in?

Christine, thanks for your input--good to hear from someone in the trenches, and know that we've managed to discuss this without completely alienating the crazy cat ladies (and I say that affectionately) of the world!

Delia, you can change the world, one temporarily p-ssed off pussycat (and sister) at a time. You go!

The Dog Lady of Whipple

Julie - My apologies for the from-the-hip snark yesterday - I blame it on an already pissy hormonal no-good-very-bad mood and a distinct lack of coffee.

I guess that what I had missed from your post was the subtext - that it's more humane to euthanize feral cats than to neuter and dump them back into the "wild". Not sure that I don't agree with *that* - goddess knows I've seen too many scrawny, rheumy-eyed little ghosts in the city over the years - although how such a task would be accomplished I'm not sure. And you're right - it was indicative of my mindset that the thought of euthanization as a realistic alternative never even occurred to me.

I've never understood why animal control officers' jurisdiction/"the pound" is so often dogs-only, but I would assume that the task of rounding up and euthing masses of feral cats would likely be assigned to such a body?

By the way - is there actually a "National Feral Cat Day"? and is it an awareness kind of thing (letting cats go feral is bad) or a support thing (we love feral cats and think they're swell)?

Lisa, the moon was full, as if we all couldn't tell, when I posted and everyone responded--no worries. I was as jumpy as a cat in a roomful of fiddlers to start with or I'd probably have let the subject rest.

I'm afraid the answer to your last question is b. Check out Alley Cat Allies, an organization which scares me, especially when they successfully and very publicly press charges against nuisance animal control people, as happened in Richmond, VA not long ago. Cat worship didn't stop with the Egyptians.

The Egyptians didn't start the domestication process for cats as has long been believed. Recent findings show it goes back much further--all domestic cats can be traced to a handful of female wildcats who transitioned to living with people as a means to protect their young and gain ready access to shelter and rodents (see this article for the details). This is the basis for why cats are the (as yet known) sole domestic animal to have domesticated themselves rather than being domesticated by people. And that explains a lot about their personalities methinks!

Another thought...just in case there are any lurkers about who let their cats out, here are a couple of things to think about you might not be aware of. Besides cars, predators, chem lawn and other poisons, your odd psychopath in training, and the diseases you vaccinate for there are some other lovely diseases out there.

Raccoons carry a roundworm called Baylisascaris procyonis. Eggs are found in the scat. This parasite is a bad actor! The larva cause a condition called larva migrans where they migrate to organs, the eye, or central nervous system (the brain folks!). In the brain it is referred to as cerebralspinal nematodiasis; it is a nasty form of encephalitis. Once clinical signs are present there really isn't a cure for Fluffy or Rex or little Johny JR or you either. Makes you wonder what your cat or dog who has been roaming free has its nose in and is passing on to you eh?

Celebrity disease/protozoan number two: Cytauxzoon felis! Another lovely disease! This is a case of the wildlife striking back. Usually it is our livestock and pets that give devastating diseases to wildlife, but Cytauxzoon is a gift from wildlife. It is commonly called bobcat fever. Haven't heard of it? You will, it is becoming a more common disease seen in cats. Bobcats can have subclinical infections (be reservoirs for the disease). There are some recorded instances of it killing bobcat kittens, and killing adults in lab conditions, but in the wild bobcats mainly go on their merry way. It transmitted from Bob the Bobcat to Fluffy the pet via ticks. Clinically, this one is nasty and painful: blood cells rupture, vasculutitis occurs and organs are starved of blood, life threatening hemolytic anemia, and many other clinical signs that can be confused with other diseases. The chances of Fluffly living is next to nil. It is fatal in cats. Yes, a few survive only with heroic veterinary intervention and big, BIG bucks spent. I do not know what kind of life the survivors have, and they would now be carriers of the disease. There is no cure for this people! It is a horrible way for your pet to die! At least you can't get this one...well as far as I know...

On the good news front about 40-50% of household with cats keep them indoor in the US (depending on what poll you read). The message of keeping Fluffy inside is getting out there. Unfortunately, in Great Britain only about 10% of cats are kept in; the English have real cultural inhibitions to keeping cats inside, and will scorn and mock Americans who do keep cat inside. So take heart we are way ahead in this battle.

As to what cats kills...25% of kills are birds. Cats will hunt what is most numerous and easy. Birds aren't easy to hunt. Mostly they kill small mammals which we don't seem to care about-but are important to the ecosystem nonetheless. I suspect rural cats are more destructive than urban cats. Urban cats have access to more exotic species (rock pigeons, english house sparrows, starlings, house mice and norway rats etc.); the rural cats would probably have more access to natives-just my opinion I have no data to back that up.

Since Julie is an Ohioan, follow this link to recent research on Ohioan attitudes, cats, and the feral cat problem. After reading that it is very apparent to me that there really isn't one answer!

This is just another consideration I mentioned in my piece about Feral Cats:
“Cats are the only species to shed the parasite toxoplasma gondii in their feces. According to the CDC, this parasite can live in the environment for many months and contaminate soil, water, fruits and vegetables, sandboxes, grass where animals graze for food or any place where an infected cat may have defecated (your garden…your kid’s sandbox…the grammar school play ground?) Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by this parasite and can cause severe illness in infants infected before birth (when their mothers are newly infected during pregnancy), or in persons who have a weakened immune system. That would be why pregnant women are cautioned not to clean the family pet’s litter-box! Cats get Toxoplasma infection by eating infected rodents, birds or other small animals, or anything contaminated by feces from another cat that is releasing the parasite.”
The CDC recommends cats be kept indoors so they do not become infected…to keep kids’ sandboxes covered, that one wear gloves while gardening and wash hands afterwards, and to avoid stray cats and especially kittens. Seems like something to consider to me…as far as the part about turning cats loose after a spay or neuter.
Julie, I appreciate the way in which you are able to keep the dialogue going…I’m too brash. I feel loose animals should be euthanized unless responsible owners can be found for them in a timely fashion…period. Owners who keep their animals contained. But then…I’d have a DNR-order on my chart if hospitalized and infirm or terminal.

If I still can't get the links right here they are:

I have read some of the TNR lit and have 2 comments: If a feral cat lives significantly longer (7yrs v 2 yrs) after being neutered and released back into the wild, it stands to reason that it will learn more about hunting prey and avoiding dangers, and will thus become more effective at killing wildlife. Secondly, do TNR adherents have research to support the positive claims of the practice?

Oh, I meant to mention, if it is worth anything that both the ASPCA and the HSUS endorse TNR and I think they look out for all animals and not just dogs and cats.

On one of their websites they do mention Maricopa County as a success story that for years they routinely rounded up ferals and killed them. That didn't lessen the numbers. They then adopted a TNR approach and say it has been a success. What that means is anyone's guess.

One of my rescued kittens was found by my young niece and nephew in 1978. They heard a litter of kittens mewing inside a large dumpster behind a strip mall, climbed inside and rescued four kittens that had crawled from a garbage bag - no mother present. Three of them were dangerous and I'm sure the shelter euthanized them. I rescued a good cat that lived with us for 17 years. So folks, as long as humans stay(stupid) ignorant, irresponsible, and lack respect for life in general, there's no fix. Sorry. TNR? I just can't buy it.

My last two cents.

Thanks, all.

Wow. I love that I found your blog, JZ. It is so refreshing to read what you and others have to say about topics I am passionate about. This cat issue is a big one with me. Everyone who knows me and has a cat has said stupid things like, "Well, I know she kills a couple of birds a week, but she really keeps the mice under control." (which is not the case.) "If only those stupid hummingbirds wouldn't fly where she can reach them." And my neighbor! "Our cat loves sitting on the wall and watching the birds at your bird bath." (right, it got one the first week. it was the last one it got.)

I would love to see cats substituted for animations of birds in all cartoons and commercials. I would love to see the reaction of the general public if Fluffy smacked into the Windex window instead of a useless, smart talking bird. And what Disney does to birds? Why, they are just animated feather dusters.

We can just keep trying to educate people, one at a time.

My heavens! Julie, you sure know how to get people riled up! There is a lot of passion around this issue and I am thrilled that you started this discussion. I’ve been planning to post about cats, too. I’ll still post, but I’m glad you beat me to the punch. Your knowledge, research, and most importantly, eloquence, are desperately needed to help the unaware understand that cats must remain indoors.

I am one of the “crazy cat ladies.” I can not remember a time in my life when I did not adore feline companions. I grew up with horses and we always had house cats and barn cats. That was normal. I didn’t see anything wrong with having an outdoor cat until I began to learn about birds. Education is always the key to changing attitudes and behaviors. Now, I rescue stray cats, and I teach workshops on creating backyard habits where I emphasize the importance to NOT allow cats outdoors.

As for TNRs - it is wrong to release a cat back into the wild. To do so is destructive to birds and habit. It is also cruel to the cat. I want to see the cat tamed, adopted and loved. Realistic? Probably not, but I’m an optimistic idealist and I say we make the decision to make it happen.

Wow! Thanks Julie for writing about a subject that needs to be addressed. We have had TNR groups want to drop off kitties in our park because it would be a great place for them to live. No, sorry!

Don't get me wrong, I have two cats that were strays, myself. I raised three kittens in my bathroom that were "wild" feral, not even approachable at first. It took 4 months of working with them everyday to get them to be adoptable. They now have good INDOOR homes.

If anyone could see what a coyote does to a feral cat, they would keep their cats indoors. I have seen the aftermath. Not pretty. Nuff said.


I'm so impressed with the number of people who comment who have taken in feral cats, and put in the work to make them loving and beloved pets. It's humbling. It makes buying a puppy from a breeder look like a walk in the park.

What comes through strongly to me in this discussion is that housecats are domestic animals, and expecting them to live as wild animals is both cruel and unfair. They need, seek and desire our subsidy and care, and while they come naturally equipped with an impressive skill set that unfortunately includes bird-catching, they still fare poorly when set loose. I'm not at all sure that TNR programs, though they may seem like the humane route at first blush, are fair to the cats. I get an image of a skinny cat in the snow, hunched over something it has killed in the dead of winter, and it sends a chill through me, both for the bird and the cat.

If you're going to neuter all those cats, build shelters for them and feed them every day, what is the point of keeping them out in the wild where they can continue to kill native wildlife? How exactly is that a humane thing to do?

With what you're spending to house and feed them every day, you might as well adopt them all out if you can and be done with it. Is the problem that no one wants them, and keeping a feral colony is preferable to cat lovers to euthanizing them? Is maintaining feral colonies worth the sacrifice of native wildlife, just because it feels better for our consciences? As Nina says, what is the natural state of things? How do we achieve that? By removing the nonnative predators, I'd submit. When TNR colonies become dumping grounds for unneutered pets, as they apparently often do (Hey! I know a place where people come and feed cats, and build houses for them--let's take our teenage pregnant kitty there!) we're adding to the pet-dumping problem, and putting ourselves in the unenviable position of nurturing growing populations of cats, whether or not that was our original goal. Egad. Is that what we should be doing?

An interesting link for your consideration:

This one really got me:

Note in reading these materials that when a feral cat is neutered, the tips of its ears are removed so as to identify it as neutered, hence the term "ear-tipped."

Writing from Columbus, having lots o fun,

After careful study I have concluded that the TNR (Trap, Neuter & Release) program was adopted only after the TBR (Trap, Baste & Roast) program failed to achieve its hoped-for success.

JZ - one last thought (how long can this thread go on). You might have to point out to a few here, as only you can do, how much habit loss and habitat fragmentation actually occurs as the direct consequence of invasive species.

I can only speak for myself, Julie, but let me at least answer your questions from that point of view.

I've adopted three feral cats who made fine additions to my family. That brought the number to seven, and that's regrettably as far as I can go right now (lack of space for more, plus the cost impact).

I also financially support the local no-kill shelter with monthly donations. I adopted two cats from there years ago and make a few trips each month to visit with the hundreds they have under their care (many with FIV, FeLV or other ailments). Regrettably, few of them will be adopted yet they need love and companionship like everyone else. That also happens to be where many trapped feral animals wind up since all of the other shelters--the SPCA included--will kill them before trying to rehabilitate them for adoption.

The biggest issue with adoption, I'm afraid, is that most people will not adopt an adult animal. The hundreds of dogs and cats at the shelter attest to that. Kittens and puppies will go quickly--especially if they have no major problems (health or personality). When it comes to feral cat populations, those kittens who do survive quickly grow up (within the first year their size makes them an adult to most human eyes), so mostly the cats living outdoors are considered unwanted by most.

I do provide food both directly and indirectly (by contributing to the local feeding effort). That said, this lake supports a population of cats that's well over 100--and those are the felines I've seen. In as much as the lake supports well over 200 bird species year-round (even more in the winter), the cats appear to have little impact in that regard (although I'll add I've never seen a mouse or a rat here, but I have seen plenty of other wildlife that survive alongside the cats).

I do not believe in taking a life unless it's the humane thing to do (to end suffering), but mass culls to prevent possible suffering is anything but humane IMHO. I see that as a selfish human endeavor to solve a problem in the most expeditious manner--even if the solution isn't the best answer at all.

Keep in mind all of this is based on my observations while living here for almost 40 years. I'm sure mileage will vary by the observer (accepting that some see horrific violence against native species only because that's what they've been told they should see, not because they've actually seen it).

Dear Jason,

Thanks for your report from the front lines of feral cat concern and care. Again, I'm humbled by your commitment to them. Living with 7 cats is an enormous commitment in itself--that's a lot of litter boxes and feeding and working around individual personalities to do.

The studies on cat depredation to which I refer have nothing to do with wishful thinking. Cat owners were asked to bag and freeze their cats' donations--and these are the ones that wound up on the front stoop, not the ones that were consumed afield, or were injured but got away. Every month, researchers showed up to collect the frozen remains of birds, small mammals and reptiles. In the state of Wisconsin alone, the most conservative projection of native wildlife killed by cats was 7.9 million yearly. The most generous projection was 219 million birds and animals. In one state, in one year. Is this acceptable? Shall we trade our sentiment for feral cats for the lives of all those native birds and mammals? Remember that this predation highlighted in Temple's studies is committed by cats that live indoors part of their lives, that are fed, that have owners who were willing to participate in the study. (Similar studies in Britain got similarly shocking results. No one dreamt the damage was that great until they bagged up the dead). Imagine how many birds and small mammals feral cats must kill to survive.

In all our concern for cat welfare and humane treatment, I insist that we not close our eyes to this reality, borne out by collection studies, and the purpose of this open forum is to bring this question to the forefront. What is humane about allowing nonnative domestic predators to decimate native wildlife, while living badly themselves?

Feral cat advocates have, as far as I know, no data to support their claims that feral cats eat "mostly rodents and insects" or "There are still plenty of birds around cat colonies that I've seen." Their claims are in stark contrast to the data on hand.

Jason,I respect your work on behalf of feral cats. It's much more than I'd do. But I'm afraid the data bears out my contention that feral cats do a great deal of harm, and that it is our duty as stewards of the environment to find effective ways to reduce their impact.

I'm sorry, Julie. I wasn't trying to say feral cats aren't a threat to wildlife. Cats are cats--predators--and they hunt even when they don't need to eat. It's just what they do. Watch a cat play and you can see that clearly.

I was, however, trying to point out that we spend a great deal of time considering--and even advocating--culls of feral cat populations, yet people will just keep dumping them. The problem neither starts nor ends with the cats themselves.

More importantly, all bird populations (like the rest of nature) are threatened more by humans than by cats, especially via habitat loss. Perhaps I'm playing devil's advocate, but my real point is that I see us focusing on something we can get rid of rather than on the one thing that could make a global impact even in areas where no feral domestic cats exist.

Keep in mind I'm an avid naturalist. Birds happen to be a favorite pastime of mine--especially for photography (along with pretty much everything else, I'll admit, but birds really intrigue me--only slightly less so than insects). So I have a vested interest in solving the cat question.

For my part, I do what I can on the feline front (adopt some, trap some and ensure they're put up for adoption at shelters, get medical care for those who need it, and try not to cause too much harm along the way). I can't argue with the statistics--and again, please understand that wasn't my intention, although I did a moderately poor of job making that clear--but I can argue with the idea that we should kill cats to solve a problem we humans create over and over and over again. I'm concerned we won't take action to resolve the really big problem--us--that can do literally a world of good, but we will act to harm feral dogs and cats to save a fraction of the life we threaten. It's almost as though we want to save the birds from the cats so we can push them to extinction ourselves.

Education and responsibility. I know that's the answer, although I wish I knew how to make it a reality.

Hey Julie, glad you finally decided to take up this subject!

Jason, thank you. I understand you perfectly.
I have to admit, I'm about ready to let the subject curl up on the couch for awhile. It's been a wild ride.

Here's a link to an organization that has a viewpoint I can really get behind.

TAP stands for Trap, Neuter and Protect.

Peace to everyone. My next post will be all sunshine and light.

Lordy I wish I had your patience, Julie!

Anyway, thas been a lovely thread and an interesting conversation. I'm most impressed with how polite folks have been.

I like discussions, even dissagreement; but not snottiness (of which I have been guilty).

It’s nice to see how grown-up people can be. I always learn from that…even at age 60! Thank you all.

One way of being a responsible cat owner who wants their cat to have some outdoor time is to train them on a harness/leash! My cat, Jocque, was trained from an early age to wear a small dog harness and go out on a lead for the last 14 years. He has enjoyed much outside time with us and has brought much companionship without preying on birds and mammals (maybe a few bugs have been harmed). However, he enjoys a longer lifespan and we enjoy his company. Just a suggestion...

Sorry I missed this day. My back yard is a major cat hotspot. The toms come through and spray. I also had a female and her offspring that lived in my yard (and the next door neighbor's).
They all disapperared one day. I miss those cats.

I'll try to remember it next year & post my photos of 'my' cats.

In the meantime check out my latest post. The Great Star Count has begun and I highlighted your comments about light pollution from a comment you made on a previous post of mine. I hope to spreadd the word about the perils of light pollution on urban wildlife.

Hi DNLee--nice to hear from you again. Ah, yes. Disappearing. One of the many things that happens to feral cats. Whatever brought about their sudden end, it was probably not peaceful.

Wandering feral tomcats move in and kill kittens that they did not father in order to bring the queens into heat again. That could have been what happened to the kittens. It's not pretty, but it's what they do. I've never been able to understand why a queen would mate with a tom who had just killed her litter, but that's hormones for you. People have been known to behave that way on occasion, as well.

I'll keep an image of Waxwing's harnessed woods-walkin' kitty in my mind. Happy thoughts.

There was a comment made regarding birds being threatened by humans more than cats. What folks do not seem to realize is that cat predation IS a human-induced cause of wildlife mortality.

Whether a person allows his or her pet cat to roam the neighborhood or someone dumps/abandons a pet cat or someone releases/returns a cat to the wild through TNR, all of those actions are the result of human choices and they all further degrade habitat.

Feral Cat Colony Management IS habitat loss. You can clear cut an acre of trees or you can artificially sustain dozens of cats in the same spot - either way we have impacted habitat.

Habitat loss is by far the primary threat to native wildlife, but that is precisely the reason we should not be placing a further strain on wild animals by subjecting them to the presence of free-roaming cats.

I could not in good conscience release a cat to the wild knowing the risks to wildlife and to the cats.

Julie...the "mosquito covered kittens" are living in an area of the US with world record sized mosquitoes, apparently...or that photo has been shopped.

I'm still not gonna blame the cats.

Spay/neuter/keep indoors is the best thing for cats.

TNR is better than doing nothing, because lots of imbeciles won't spay/neuter/keep indoors. IMO.

We should not do 'nothing', but what we do should not come at the expense of native wildlife, public health, the environment, etc.

We won't convince people to be responsible for their animals by condoning TNR. As long as we say that cats, at least some of them, can and should live and die outdoors, people will not change their behaviors.

TNR provides a convenient dumping ground for irresponsible pet owners.

I think we need as much video evidence as possible. People can't imagine the damage that's done by the cats nearly as well as they can image the cats being put down in the shelter.

This is such a touchy subject. I live in a small town in Minnesota and nobody leaves their cats indoors. I am an avid birder and feed everything in my backyard. Being a wildlife artist, it is fun and a great chance to gather reference. There has been a chipmunk that hangs out with me on my studio porch for a couple of years. Last month, while sitting there with him, my neighbor's cat grabbed him and ran off. I was devistated. No amount of talking to these people will change their minds about keeping him in.

I have two cats of my own, but they stay happily inside. Thank you for the post, I can approach these people armed with more information and maybe they will listen.

[Back to Top]