Kitty the Killer? The Raging Debate Over Feral Cats

Revered and reviled, pampered and persecuted, the domestic cat (Felis catus) has stirred up passionate sentiment since it first came to live among human beings 4,000 years ago. Though it may no longer be worshipped as a god or burned as a demon, the cat continues to evoke feelings ranging from adoration to hatred. The hunting prowess that made it so valuable to farmers and sailors has landed it on the most-wanted list of some wildlife advocates who blame the world’s most widespread predator for accelerating the demise of imperiled species from tiny beach mice to the majestic Florida panther.

Cats’ defenders, however, exonerate them of ecological wrongdoing, some even arguing that cats won’t hunt when well fed. Thousands of individuals and organizations care for feral cats in the U.S., trapping them, neutering them, then returning them to the colony. Cat advocates say the real problem is not feline but human: urban sprawl, pollution, habitat degradation and over-hunting. “Feral cats are an easy scapegoat,” says Donna Wilcox, executive director of Alley Cat Allies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that endorses “trap-neuter-return,” or TNR. “It’s easier to say, “Let’s wipe out all the feral cats,” than, “Let’s not wipe out forest for a new subdivision or a new mini-mall.””

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), for one, says it recognizes that native species such as beach mice, the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, terns and other ground-nesting birds, as well as hatchling sea turtles, wouldn’t be endangered if only people had managed the Earth more responsibly. But it claims that feral cats are aggravating an already desperate situation by hunting smaller creatures and possibly spreading feline leukemia and feline panleukemia to Florida panthers. In light of these findings, documented by staff scientists, the FWC enacted a new policy last spring calling for the humane removal of feral cats from the lands it manages.

Angie Raines, an agency spokesperson, insists that it will not be killing cats. “If there is a feral colony near where the FWC is trying to bring back ground-nesting birds and they’re having a negative impact, we will work with TNR advocates and the local government to relocate the cats or fence them off,” she explains. “We have to take the side of wildlife, but that doesn’t mean we have to call for killing cats.”

But Alley Cat Allies, which filed a petition challenging the policy, says the agency does in fact plan to euthanize or even shoot feral cats. The study prepared by FWC scientists does suggest “trapping followed by adoption or euthanasia,” but the policy as adopted only calls for “the elimination of TNR colonies,” without elaborating how this would be accomplished.

Aside from being “inhumane,” Wilcox says the policy would be ineffective and costly to taxpayers compared to TNR, “the only method proven to work.” Over time, the theory goes, the population of a colony declines as the neutered felines die off naturally without replacing themselves. Indeed, upon discovery of a colony, a caretaker reduces the population immediately because strays and kittens are not returned to the wild, Wilcox says, but placed in shelters.

But Linda Winter of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the wildlife organizations supporting the Florida policy, asks if it is truly compassionate to “re-abandon” feral cats after they are trapped and neutered: “Is it humane to die of disease or under the tires of a car or attacked by other animals?” And she says study after study shows TNR does not work, because colonies are not closed systems and new cats join them all the time.

Winter directs ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, which urges people to keep their cats inside where they can’t pose a threat to birds and other animals. Her group estimates that 48 million of the nation’s 73 million pet cats are allowed outdoors, and 40 to 100 million more are stray or feral. All those cats have a devastating effect on wildlife, especially species already imperiled by habitat loss and other, more direct human causes. Though no conclusive numbers have yet been established, research in the U.S. and abroad has implicated cats in the deaths of tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. “The “R” in TNR ought to stand for “remove,”” Winter says.

Alley Cat Allies disputes ABC’s numbers, noting the small sample sizes in many of the studies. And not every cat hunts, Wilcox adds, saying there is “no evidence” feral cats have an impact on wildlife.

But Scott Craven begs to differ. The chairperson of the wildlife ecology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Craven coauthored a 1997 paper documenting the ecological impacts of feral cats. “Whether they’re neutered or not, they still hunt and they still kill things,” he says.

Wilcox says her organization does not oppose relocating colonies “if feral cats are in an area where there are endangered species and there is evidence that the feral cats are a problem.”

Donna Sicuranza, executive director of Tait’s Every Animal Matters (TEAM) in Westbrook, Connecticut, argues that “cats are fierce hunters.” Her organization promotes TNR, but she says she understands where wildlife advocates are coming from. “My pet cats will wreak havoc on songbirds if they’re left outside,” she says. But, Sicuranza adds, blaming cats for environmental woes ignores the real source of the problem: people.

Indeed, if there is any common ground in the feral cat debate, it’s around the idea that humans started this whole mess by abandoning their unwanted pets. “The fundamental problem is people,” Craven says. “That kind of abject stupidity has got to stop. It’s not the cats” fault.”

Wilcox says cat and wildlife advocates could work together on the feral cat issue “if they agreed TNR is the only proven method.” But Craven responds, “There is no justification for a domestic animal in a wild area.” The controversy rages on.