What”s the big environmental controversy over feral cats?

What”s the big environmental controversy over feral cats?

—Johanna Berg, Brooklyn, NY

According to the U.S. Census, Americans own more than 60 million domestic cats. But analysts estimate that another 40-60 million formerly pet cats and their offspring roam free. These so-called wild or “feral” cats are blamed for wreaking havoc on already stressed populations of songbirds and other small animals.

While roaming domestic cats also hunt birds and small mammals, their feral cousins—since they are beyond the control of human owners—take the brunt of the blame for the decimation of threatened species such as Least Terns, Piping Plovers and Loggerhead Shrikes.

Cat advocates, however, say the real problem is not feline but human. “Cats are not the primary culprit in dwindling bird populations,” says Becky Robinson, co-founder of the Washington, DC-based Alley Cat Allies (ACA). “The Worldwatch Institute and other environmental research groups verify that the decline in bird and other wildlife populations is directly linked to the loss of natural habitat,” she says. “Urban sprawl, deforestation, shopping malls, roads and golf courses, and increases in pesticide use and pollution are to blame. We need to put constraints on our own behavior, not the normal processes of nature.”

ACA cites a number of scientific studies on feral cat diets which indicate that their impacts on bird populations are negligible. These studies conclude that cats are rodent specialists. Birds comprise only a small portion of their diets, and cats can prey on birds on large land masses without destroying their populations. Cats are opportunistic feeders, and live mainly by scavenging and on handouts from humans.

Feral cats are also blamed for transmitting new diseases to wild animals, and this is probably a legitimate charge. Cats have spread feline leukemia to mountain lions and may have recently infected the endangered Florida Panther with feline panleukopenia (feline distemper) as well as an immune deficiency disease. Some cats also carry diseases that can transmit to humans, including toxoplasmosis and rabies.

Despite these issues, ACA endorses sterilization and long-term management of feral cat colonies, as opposed to removal and extermination programs which they deem ineffective, costly to taxpayers and wasteful of scarce animal protection resources.

Regardless of one”s personal beliefs about feral cats, individuals can play an important role in keeping cats off the “most-wanted” list. Most veterinarians recommend neutering pet cats, and keeping them well fed and indoors as much as possible to limit unwanted reproduction, predation and the spread of disease.

Perhaps most important, people shouldn’t release unwanted cats into the wild. According to the Colorado-based Cat Care Society, this practice enlarges feral cat populations and is inhumane. Cats suffer in unfamiliar settings, even if they are good hunters. Contact local animal adoption organizations and agencies for help if you need to give up a pet cat.

CONTACTS: Alley Cat Allies, www.alleycat.org www.alleycat.org; Cat Care Society, www.catcaresociety.org.