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Killer cats? Not so fast, animal welfare groups say

by Lyz Hoffman
Feb 20, 2013

Cats now face charges that they are the biggest killers of wildlife. We’re not talking about lions and tigers, here, but neighborhood cats hunting birds, rats and squirrels.

Well, it’s not that simple, animal welfare organizations say.

Cat advocates are calling foul in the wake of a scientific article published in Nature Communications that claimed felines both domestic and feral kill billions of birds and small mammals every year, more than any other single source.

The article, compiled by scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, surveyed more than 100 studies on bird and mammal deaths as well as estimates on the number of cats roaming outdoors.

The analysis classified the killings as a human problem since cats come into human environments as pets even though many end up as feral cats, living on their own. The authors of the article argued that the most popular method of reducing feral cat populations — TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs — neither solves the problem nor benefits other forms of wildlife.

The article called for “management actions,” but many animal welfare groups interpreted the criticism of TNR as a call for euthanasia. And killing cats so that cats don’t kill other animals doesn’t make sense, critics said.

“I don’t want to see any bird get caught. But I also know, as humans, sometimes we have to stand back and let nature take its course a little bit,” said Jenny Schlueter, the development director and manager of the Feral Friends TNR program at Chicago’s Tree House Humane Society. “Cats were brought here a long time ago. They’re here today. I don’t think we should kill them.”

While the paper claimed that feral and stray cats were responsible for most of the killings — which the scientists estimated to be as many as 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals per year in the United States — Schlueter said that isn’t accurate.

“Pet cats are more likely to kill another animal,” she said, explaining that domestic cats that are occasionally let outdoors see that as “a window of opportunity for an adventure,” whereas feral cats know how to conserve their energy and only kill out of absolute necessity.

Schlueter stressed the long-term benefits of TNR programs, both for the cats and their potential prey. The TNR programs, used by many animal welfare organizations including Tree House, humanely trap the cats, neuter or spay them, and release them back in their neighborhoods. Cats that are fixed, Schlueter said, can’t reproduce, which goes on to limit the number of cats — and predators — over time.

TNR is also more cost-effective, she said. While it costs Cook County taxpayers upwards of $100 to have Animal Control capture and euthanize a feral cat, Tree House doesn’t charge anything for its TNR services.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also advocated TNR over euthanasia: “We realize that free-roaming cats can pose a threat to birds, which is why we recognize the importance of collaborative partnerships that help to reduce abandonment, encourage spay/neuter, increase effective TNR efforts, and place the most socialized cats out of feral colonies and into loving homes.”

Those associated with the article, though, insist that this one article wasn’t meant to end the discussion about how best to navigate the issue.

“This wasn’t a specific attack on cats or cat owners,” said Gavin Shire, the public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was involved with the article. “It was a broad scientific look into the human causes of bird mortality. There are other papers forthcoming.”

The authors of the study couldn’t be reached for comment.

Stressing that she thinks both sides can be advocated for, Schlueter said she thinks the mortality figures are perhaps somewhat overblown.

“How many rats are there? How often do they reproduce? Do we have a shortage of chipmunks or squirrels or backyard birds?” she said. “None of that’s being discussed. It’s really one-sided and also kind of absurd.”

And cats as killers? Schlueter suggested another publication that could publish such a finding. “So cats actually are hunters and they kill things? It almost seems like this article should be in The Onion.”