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Birds and Outdoor Cats: Protecting Both

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In Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us you find some remarkable ideas about cats and dogs. Dogs, despite their brave and resourceful image, would vanish swiftly in a world without people, Weisman theorizes. They’re just too adapted to human society -- and too far from their wolfish survival talents. No people, no dogs, asserts Weisman.

But cats, he says... cats are different. Unless declawed, what he calls humanity’s “purring mascot” would reassert its predatory instincts and go forth and multiply, hunting birds and small creatures just as it does today and has always done. And the newly human-less ecosystem would have to respond, seeking its new balance.

It’s an interesting theory but I raise it not to pile onto the anti-cat discussion -- haven’t you read enough headlines about KILLER KITTIES the past few weeks? -- but to touch on the complexity of animal management. And how bitter. If you think Democrats and Republicans get into it, you haven’t seen what cat people and bird people and dog people are capable of saying to each other.

Another Weisman idea illustrates that complexity: “Unknown to most people, except for a small circle of scientists who have been connecting the dots for decades, our TVs, cell phones, and even our cars have wreaked unprecedented avian slaughter.” In other words, even without cats, birds smash into speeding cars, plate glass windows, radio towers with glowing red lights, and wind turbines. They encounter poisons and ruined habitat, DDT and lead shot, antennae that scramble their delicate internal compasses. Researchers find them scattered like snow around electrical towers. And like every living thing, birds face the unknown threat of the biggest game-changer of them all: climate change.

In a world with people, it’s anthropogenic threats that run wild.

We live in a world where mountain lions pad around the San Jose suburbs, Cooper’s hawks patrol neighborhood bird feeders for easy pickings, and coyotes snatch Chihuahuas from backyards in Los Angeles. Burmese pythons -- people’s cast-aside pets -- slither through the Everglades. In this intertwined world, simple answers to problems like cats killing songbirds elude easy solutions.

I wish it were as simple as putting a bell on the cat (which is actually a good place to start, at least for housecats). People involved in animal welfare are working on many fronts to reduce the amount of abuse, unwanted pets, and undesirable societal impacts, ranging from bites to disease to the killing of birds. Some things work. One of the best tools, in our view, is TNR: trap, neuter, and return. TNR is the catching, vaccinating, spaying or neutering of homeless cats and returning them to where they came from. There they live out their lives without creating new ones, and without spreading diseases, and the community avoids having to round up these essentially wild animals and slaughter them, something that a vast majority of Americans vigorously oppose.

TNR keeps feral-cat populations from growing because it builds on the broader strategy of aggressive spaying and neutering -- the absolutely essential link for animal welfare. Spay or neuter as many animals as possible, teach as many people as you can to be responsible guardians of animal lives -- and you start to sense progress being made.

Shelters must make spay/neuter programs more accessible in targeted locations where they can have the most impact. This year, cat intake at the San Francisco municipal shelter is down, and our analysis indicates it’s likely due to targeting ZIP codes that don’t have a vet and have had the highest intake rate for years. 

Let’s look at the possible options for “unowned” cats, including ferals.

  • Do nothing; watch populations explode and animals suffer.
  • Round up and kill 30 million to 80 million cats; the extermination option almost everybody rejects and which no scientific study suggests would even work.
  • Employ aggressive spay/neuter campaigns for both companion and unowned animals--the only option that suggests a solution.

Feral cats are already “out there” -- thanks to your neighbors who let their cat have kittens, the student who left his cat on campus or dumped it at the local park, your friend who didn’t get her cat microchipped and now it’s missing -- they created ferals. TNR just makes sure these cats don’t reproduce. It plucks them out of their environment for a day and sterilizes them and cat colonies diminish by attrition.

This isn’t a call for a fight -- it’s a call to action. Birds deserve protection just as cats do. Cats that kill rats and mice will always have a role -- that’s how they proved their value to humanity in the first place, no doubt -- but cat lovers need to take responsibility for acknowledging their pet’s predatory instincts and acting accordingly. We have to shoulder the burden of caring not only for companion animals but for their ecosystems, and for wild populations they prey upon.