Volume 13, Issue 28 ~ July 14 - 20, - 2005

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Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com. Or e-mail us at: [email protected].
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

If We’re Catonic, We’re in for a Feral Catastrophe
What’s the big environmental controversy over feral cats?
Americans own more than 60 million domestic cats, according to the U.S. Census. But analysts estimate that another 40 to 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.

Roaming domestic cats also hunt birds and small mammals, but their feral cousins — beyond the control of human owners — take the brunt of the blame for reducing such threatened species 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, D.C.-based Alley Cat Allies. “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. Urban sprawl, deforestation, shopping malls, roads and golf courses, plus increases in pesticide use and pollution, are to blame. We need to put constraints on our own behavior, not the normal processes of nature.”

Alley Cat Allies 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 mainland birds 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, Alley Cat Allies 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 your 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.

Most importantly, people shouldn’t release unwanted cats into the wild. 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.

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