Look What the Cat’s Dragged In…

Birds…baby squirrels…voles…crickets…usually intact, the warmth draining from them as they lay next to a hairball. I think it was the beautiful red cardinal that upset me the most, and that stiff body by the door was but a fraction of what Cleo caught or maimed during her periodic outings.

A study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (published January 2013) now show that Cleo and her fellow felines – housecats with outdoor privileges and feral cats – kills up to 3.7 billion birds a year in the United States. Wild mammals fare worse, with numbers estimated between 7-21 billion. You must admit: very large numbers to swallow.

Most of these “prey” go uneaten. Even well-fed cats kill out of sheer instinct, so their hunting doesn’t exactly fall into the “circle of life” narrative we might want to believe. Even belled and declawed cats kill with equal success. They’re predators par excellence.

But back to the numbers. I’m still chewing on them.

Cat hunted a birdApproximately 114 million cats live in the continental United States. Eighty-four million live in households, and up to 70 percent of those roam outdoors at least part time. They’re not just sunning themselves. Up to 80 percent hunt, and they hunt a lot.

Cats are not subject to the same laws of predation as are native predators, such as hawks and foxes. Household cats have the advantage of protection from diseases, competition, and starvation. They are not vulnerable to changes in prey population. Cats are not strictly territorial and can co-exist at much higher densities. Being non-native (i.e., introduced by humans), cats also have an advantage over animals that didn’t evolve with their threat.

Of course, these deaths are compounded by wild animals losing habitat to human encroachment, moving into smaller pockets of land that essentially corral the animals for easier pickings. Wild animals are also dying from air and water pollution, pesticide poisonings, and collisions with cars, windows, and communication towers. Still, by some estimates, deaths by cat outnumber the deaths by these other causes.  As a result, some of these animals are endangered. The loss of one of these can have serious consequences to the species’ survival.

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The cats also suffer. While they may “enjoy the freedom” of being outside, outdoor cats gets hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, and wildlife; get lost or stolen; contract fatal diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus and feline distemper; get poisoned; or, suffer during harsh weather conditions.

The answer – at least for indoor cats – is to keep them indoors. They needn’t be bored. Animal companions, interactive toys, cat perches, and scratching posts can provide stimulation in a safe environment. They also have you for loving attention.

Feral cats pose more complications. Abandoned, lost, or descendants of strays, these cats are ultimately victims of human irresponsibility and the failure to neuter and spay. These poor animals endure short, miserable lives, while producing three litters a year that average four to six kittens at a time. Homes are in short supply for these wild felines. However, trap-neuter-return programs can curb their population growth. It’s a tedious process, but if it boils down to loving both cats and the wildlife around us, perhaps it’s one that more of us should actively support with trapping or helping finance. Spaying one female will save thousands of wildlife from one year’s worth of litters alone.

That translates into more bird song. Food all around for other wildlife. More flashes of brilliant colored feathers in the trees. More squirrel chatter.

Humane animal care shouldn’t be limited to our domesticated friends. It should extend to the needs of wildlife too.

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First published in Pets in the City Magazine, August 2013

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