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.
Approximately 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.
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.
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, August 2013
Imagine having to cut off a pinky finger because 1) it’s unnecessary, 2) it might get injured during your lifetime, and 3) a four-fingered hand is the height of beauty. No? At least you have some choice in the matter.
Now imagine newborn children must have a pinky cut off within a few days of birth. With no anesthesia. Without pain medication afterwards.
Little imagination is required. Only 25 years ago, doctors performed surgeries on newborns without anesthesia, believing their nervous systems were too immature to sense pain. We don’t believe that today but persist in believing it true for other animals, such as puppies…even though the number of nerve endings may exceed those of an adult.
Over 130,000 newborn pups are subjected to unnecessary cosmetic surgery in the U.S. each year, including docking. When only two to five days old, their tails are amputated,removing nerves, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, sections of arteries, spinal cord, and a good portion of backbone (6 to 23 vertebrae) which comprises one-quarter to one-third of their total length.
Some bleed out or die of shock. Even if the docking is done “properly” (many aren’t done by veterinarians but by breeders and puppy mills), the pain may not diminish with time. As with any amputation, there is serious risk of infection and swollen growths of nerve bundles in scar tissue that may cause chronic pain for life. The compromised back muscles (that were attached to the tail and still anchor to the pelvic area) can lead to urinary or fecal incontinence and perineal hernias.
The loss of the tail affects the dog’s balance and agility too, as well as its means of expression with other dogs and humans, conveying its mood and intentions. A docked tail can’t clearly be seen tucking under when fearful or raised high when aggressive. Lack of a tail can lead to misunderstandings.
So why, oh why do it? Most developed countries (e.g., bulk of Europe, Australia, Israel, and Brazil) ban docking altogether or, in a few cases, permit with restrictions. Veterinary associations declare docking to be painful, unnecessary, and unethical. Many veterinary schools no longer even teach how to perform docking. However, in the United States, with the shameful influence of the American Kennel Club (AKC) mandating artificial breed standards for its canine beauty pageants, docking continues to be standard procedure for some breeds.
“Tradition” is one argument the AKC uses to justify docking, although the original reasons for amputation are antiquated. Docking fails to prevent rabies or increase a dog’s speed, as once believed. Since most dogs are pets now, docking is unnecessary to remove possible grips in dog fighting or when cornering a cougar during a hunt.
Some claim docking prevents tail injury. However, statistics do not support this. In multiple reviews of veterinary records, serious tail injuries are rare. In the largest study yet, the incidence of tail injury was 0.23%. Infection and mangled tails are more common with docking.
Even for working dogs supposedly “prone to injury,” the argument falls flat because of the inconsistency among breeds targeted for docking. For example, among the similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer, and German Shorthair Pointer, only the Shorthair is routinely docked. Plus, many hunting and working breeds, such as Labs, Border Collies, and Shepherds, keep their tails.
Others argue docking is hygienic, so hair won’t trap fecal matter. Again, the inconsistency among targeted breeds poo-poo’s this claim. Short-haired breeds (e.g., Dobermans) don’t have this issue, and many long-haired ones are undocked and proper grooming addresses hygiene.
Ultimately, the reason dogs continue to be mutilated is for cosmetic reasons, to fit some “ideal” propagated by the AKC since the mid-1950s for some breeds. Isn’t it time we caught up to the 21st century and recognized the blatant cruelty of chopping off dogs’ tails? Dogs should be able to wag more than a stub.
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, July 2013
Enjoy bird song? The brilliant flash of butterfly wings? Or practical considerations like natural insect control? Then invite wildlife into your backyard.
Birds: Bird seed and suet will entice a surprising variety of birds to your yard. Provide a mixed seed collection to appeal to different palettes, and the birds will flock. Don’t worry about seed falling on the dirt. Ground feeders, like California quail and juncos, will gladly “clean up” after the messy eaters. Birdbaths, bird houses, and trees will also lure the feathered creatures, providing water and shelter.
Butterflies: Plant flowers* in sunny locations to provide nectar and the sun’s heat to warm these beautiful insects. In return, they’ll pollinate your flower garden. Butterflies like bright blooms that are flat-topped, clustered, or short tubed. Sow different plants to provide blooms for the whole of summer. Particular Utah favorites include butterfly bush, milkweed, verbena, clematis, salvia, lavender, and daisies.
Rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks: As you may recall from Peter Rabbit, long-eared rodents like lettuce and French beans. Rabbits also like broad-leaf weeds, berries, clover, and grasses. Squirrels enjoy a delicious blend of corn, sunflower seeds, and peanuts in the shell. Chipmunks are more omnivorous, chowing on bird eggs, worms, and frogs, as well as grains, nuts, and fungi. In addition to food, these skittish creatures need places to hide and nest. Dead wood and brush piles provide such enclaves of safety.
Bats: Did you know bats control insect populations? A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 insects in one hour. Seventy percent of bats are strictly insectivores. However, because of chemical insecticides and habitat loss, the number of bats is plummeting. Invite bats to your yard with bat houses to provide them safety. Then, come dusk, sit back and watch their aerobatics as they swoop to catch their prey.
Bees: Bees are easy to entice: flowers, flowers, and more flowers and NO INSECTIDE. Bees are intricate to the pollination of most of the world’s flowers, herbs, vegetables, and fruits, yet they too are threatened. Plant a flower, if only to help save them.
*When planting, native flora is best. Natives are hardy and already adapted to our high desert conditions and soil, requiring less water, fertilizer, and general maintenance. Plus, native animals co-evolved with native plants; it’s their food of choice.
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, June 2015
This year, with the heavy rains, the California deserts were abloom. Absolutely gorgeous. I had a chance to catch them in their glory at Anza-Borrego State Park, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, and Carrizo Plain National Monument.
As the title suggests, here are some photos from Anza-Borrego. Click on a pic for identification.