Feral cats: The government fix–or the humane fix?

www life with cats.tv

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

October 16th is National Feral Cat Day. That’s just under a month out, but forewarned is forearmed, and if feral cats aren’t on your radar now, perhaps they will be.

Feral cats (also called community cats) weren’t on my radar until my cousin Beth, a feral cat activist in Indiana, e-mailed to ask that I contact federal officials (via an action alert from Best Friends) about the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s role in undermining community trap-neuter-return–or release–(TNR) programs.

Yes, this is the same agency that claims the Northern Rockies wolverine warrants Endangered Species Act listing but is “precluded” (along with over 20 other warranted-but-precluded species and 250-some additional “candidate species” in need of protection) because the agency lacks resources and can’t make it a priority. Can’t list a rare carnivore who continues to be trapped in Montana–but can go after community TNR programs? This required investigation. I learned something about feral cats along the way.

I tend to think of feral cats as city cats, or maybe unsocialized barn-dwellers. Here in rural Montana, feral cats are otherwise known as mountain lions (ha ha). Wild domestic cats are rare to nonexistent, likely because they’re considered lunch by the predators in the ‘hood. But in other places, feral cats are the predators, and there’s the rub. More on that later.


My own two feline shelter stories, Larkspur and Juniper, never leave the house. Larkspur was on her way to feralhood when some kind soul caught her in a carport in Missoula and took her to the humane shelter as a wary, frightened sub-adult. Even after 8-1/2 years in our safe, loving home, she still panics and flees when we stride into the room too quickly. But she’s a purring love-sponge other times; imagining her as one of the wild legions helps put a face to the problem–helps me see that these aren’t just so many ferals, but individuals whose predicament we created and who deserve our assistance and compassion.

But compassion is not on the agenda when FWS teams up with The Wildlife Society (TWS), an international scientific and educational nonprofit (mission statement here), for the latter’s annual conference in November in Hawaii. A Fish & Wildlife Service-organized workshop description reads, in part,

“Feral and unrestrained domestic cats kill and estimated 1.4 million birds a day, every day—and at least as many small mammals and herps. This direct mortality is similar in scale to mortality caused by building collisions and far exceeds that caused by collisions with wind or communications towers, oil spills, or other sources on which conservation agencies invest time and money. Municipalities across the U.S. are being pressured by cat advocacy groups to adopt Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs in which voluntary caretakers feed cats 24/7 at feral/stray cat colonies, establishing populations of subsidized invasive predators that continue to depredate wildlife. ~Informing Local Scale Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Decisions (scroll down at workshop list)

It’s important (and fair) to note that TWS is not a conservative politics/property rights group disguising as conservationists. They embrace global warming science, the Endangered Species Act, conservation of old growth forests, voluntary restraint in human population growth, and wolf restoration (“Restoring populations…to suitable habitats represents an opportunity to partially reverse a long history of persecution by humans”). They are scientists dedicated to the conservation of native wildlife populations (see all of their position statements here).

But along with scholars and scientists, it’s also fair to note that their governing council includes personnel from state fish and game agencies (including Wyoming, home of the Northern Rockies’ most onerous wolf hunt proposal). Their definition of wildlife management includes goals that run the gamut from enhancement of endangered species to sustainable harvest of game species to elimination of destructive introduced species. They are all about management. Influencing state and local animal welfare legislation is also on their agenda.

Just one revealing example: While calling for “individual animals (to be) treated ethically and humanely,” TWS supports fur trapping for fun and profit, recognizing “…the economic and recreational benefits of trapping.” In their smarmy treatment of animal rights, TWS cites the Public Trust Doctrine, “…based on the premise that wild animals are a public resource to be held in trust by the government for the benefit of all citizens. Animal rights advocates philosophically oppose this concept of wildlife as property…”

Wildlife as human property. Property, we know, must be defended from threats. Feral cats are exotic (non-native), invasive threats, according to TWS: “As a domesticated animal, cats have no native range and, therefore, are a non-native species in natural systems worldwide. In addition, native prey species often have no evolved defenses against this exotic predator, making the domestic cat a potential threat wherever it is introduced.” Into this hostile milieu a discussion of feral cat control will take place.

Forewarned is forearmed. If thwarting community TNR programs and replacing them with eradication is the goal, TNR supporters had better be on top of that game. (It’s likely that feral cat advocates already know this–it’s the rest of us who might need educating.) A purely emotional response (save the wild kitties!) won’t cut it when bird mortality, avian extinctions, and disease transmission are laid at the paws of feral cats and presented as scientific fact by a federal, taxpayer-funded agency.

Enter Vox Felina

According to its website, Vox Felina provides “…critical analysis of claims made in the name of science by those opposed to feral/free-roaming cats and trap-neuter-return (TNR).”

The impetus for Vox Felina was a series of events (the details of which will be the subject of numerous posts) that revealed (1) the lack of rigorous research related to the efficacy and impact of TNR, (2) the flawed science promoted by many TNR opponents, (3) the unbalanced—often dishonest—nature of the feral cat/TNR debate, and (4) the disastrous consequences of these circumstances.

On what basis is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service presenting a full-day workshop to discourage community TNR programs? Many figures are cited by opponents of TNR–1.4 million birds a day killed by ferals and free-roaming domestic cats–the number cited by TWS; 160 million estimated feral cats killing about 500 million birds a year; at least 33 species of birds driven to extinction by feral cats, and so on. Vox Felina challenges these oft-cited numbers and assumptions in well-researched, heavily-footnoted posts. For starters, read the post titled “TWS + USFWS = WTF” here.

Who’s succeeding with TNR?

You’d think New York City would have the granddaddy of ’em all when it comes to feral cat issues, yet according to the New York City Feral Cat Initiative website, two private nonprofits–the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals and Neighborhood Cats–are successfully implementing TNR: “Our New York City Feral Cat Database shows that in neighborhoods throughout New York City, TNR is proving effective in humanely managing feral cat colonies and reducing their numbers over time.”

If The Big Apple can begin to get a successful handle on it, it should come as no surprise that other U.S. cities large and small are doing the same, from Dallas to D.C. to Ithaca, NY to Gainesville, FL to Portland, L.A., and Stanford.  Best Friends lists a few of the many successful TNR programs across the country and around the world here.

We should note that Hawaii, site of the TWS annual conference, has its own unique problem with abundant feral cats and endangered birds in a closed (island) ecosystem. Still, the Hawaii Cat Foundation is addressing the issue through TNR and–let’s be honest–Hawaii’s singular situation has no bearing on the many successful TNR programs elsewhere.

Still, it behooves us to acknowledge that exotic, invasive species can and do wreak havoc on native ecosystems. Asian carp threaten Lake Michigan; wild pigs (native to Eurasia)…nutria (South America)…zebra mussels (Eurasia)…the list is long. Their presence, whether introduced accidentally or through human folly, creates severe, sometimes catastrophic consequences for native plants and animals in ecosystems unequipped with biological controls. (When sentient, their control poses additional ethical problems.)

But cats aren’t zebra mussels. Cats, who’ve been associated with humans for at least 9500 years, are domesticated companions whose circumstances–those that bring them to feralhood–are a human moral failing. Some five to seven million companion animals (cats and dogs) enter shelters every year, and four million are euthanized–70% of cats, according to ASPCA. This is a betrayal of epic proportions. To advocate for treating feral cats as a plague to be exterminated is simply wrong, especially when TNR programs are good for cats and communities, and proven to work.

According to Laura Nirenberg, legislative analyst for Best Friends’ Focus on Felines campaign,

“TNR significantly reduces shelter admissions and consequently, operating costs; and fewer community cats in shelters increases shelter adoption rates as more cage space opens up for adoptable cats. TNR is the only method proven to effectively control community cat population growth. If trapping and killing cats truly worked, we should have been able to stop doing so years ago!”

Offer your objection, if so moved, to the the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for squandering taxpayer dollars to work against humane community programs that reduce feral cat numbers. Support your local TNR effort. Thank an activist on National Feral Cat Day. I’ll get a jump on it by thanking my cousin Beth. She volunteers with a small, fiercely dedicated, grassroots group–the TNR squad of the no-kill Independent Cat Society in northwest Indiana. Working tirelessly and always on a shoestring, they’ve spayed and neutered some 800 cats since May 2007.

So here’s to you, feline activists. Larkspur sends her gratitude, too.
Inspiring videos!  Fix NationFeral Cat Coalition of Oregon; Toronto TNR Task Force‘s Feral Cat Awareness Day; Alley Cat Allies

Related Animal Blawg posts: Fed Up With Feeding; Spay/Neuter Redux

11 Responses

  1. Thank you for such valuable information! Larkspur does indeed put a face on the issue…

    Several years ago I went camping in a state park in the Florida Keys… I was shocked to see so many colonies of cats. Hundreds (thousands?) on only a few acres. Of course they gathered by humans to beg for scraps… And probably made meals of what the fish-hunters discarded.

    But these guys did not get there by accident – The only way they got there was from humans “loosing” or abandoning their kitties while on vacation. Sure, without knowing the facts or the consequences it looks like an ideal place for them…

    TNR will never work in a state facility… I dread thinking about what happens to them once (if) they are caught. It’s a terrible situation – 300 miles away from where I live. I shudder still thinking about their fate.

    I appreciate all your efforts to bring these problems to light.

  2. I’m one of those TNR people and a big fan of Vox Felina. The FWS and others (such as the Audobon society) apparently routinely overstate the impact of feral cats on local wildlife, as well as the fecundity of ferals (Vox felina cites some pretty amazing statistics that have appeared with respect to how many offspring a female cat can have in her life). Yet the FWS etc. always frame this issue as “crazy cat people” against sane, rational scientists. Yeah right. As you note, FWS is hardly without agenda. Not to mention that the goal of FWS is purportedly the same as that of TNR proponents — a reduction in feral populations. So why do they continually try to thwart TNR? (which has been proven successful in many places?)

    Additionally, there’s an ethical issue here as well as a bad/biased science one. Why is the lethal solution *always* the first and often the only one to be considered when nonhumans pose a “problem” (for example deer, feral animals, black bears in New Jersey, wolves, etc)? A while back I did some research into the black bear hunting issue in NJ, and discovered that a lot of the “science” in support of killing bears was almost completely fabricated — compiled by overstating instances of human/bear contact, etc. Basically, the hunt went on because the hunters wanted it, but it was couched in terms of “protecting” people and their property from the bears. Law Professor Taimie L. Bryant has done some writing on false conflicts, and how they are used to promote lethal solutions whenever an animal becomes inconvenient to property interests, or someone wants a chance to bag one for the mantlepiece. NJ has also considered allowing feral cats to be hunted (but did not do so). Other states have done so.

    In truth, local wildlife, esp. birds, are dying out mostly due to the impact of habitat destruction by humans and urbanification. As an animal rights activist friend of mine says (paraphrasing), “so brick and glass buildings have more of a claim to be left standing than sentient feral cats have to continue to live?”

    Finally, as Chris Hedges has said (not in this context), “The faith that science and technology, which are morally neutral and serve human ambitions, will make the world whole again is no less delusional [than belief in the rapture]”. Even if FWS were truly on the side of science (and not politics or wealthy lobbyists or whatever else), we need to recognize that, where other sentient beings are concerned, science needs to start conversing with ethics, as it should where human interests are concerned. If overpopulation and disease spreading are really the problem FWS says they are, then the ethical solution is TNR and vaccination, not massive killing.

    Thanks for this article. As usual, you’ve hit several nails right on the head. Happy National Feral Cat Day!

  3. Lorien and Bea…insightful comments, as always; thanks for the valuable additions. I guess the Florida keys have the same circumstances as the Hawaiian islands–a temperate climate good for breeding and survival and an island ecosystem…I can scarcely imagine how shocking that must have been to see, Bea–so many cats on so little land. Maybe this
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzQGEjt6CtE will help ease the memory…just a little. In so many places and for so many animals, good people are doing good work against impossible odds and against a tide of indifference and hostility.

    “Why is the lethal solution *always* the first and often the only one to be considered when nonhumans pose a “problem”…?” I couldn’t agree more with your question, Lorien, which is really a condemnation. One possible answer: Animal life and bullets are cheap. For many, I’d wager that the bullets are far more valuable than the life being wasted. Your point about bear hunting and the “science” that legitimizes it is a good one. The state fish & wildlife management agencies know where their pot of gold lies. In Montana, there isn’t even any *fake science* to legitimize the continued trapping of wolverines!

  4. Kathleen, re: wolverines — yeah, and wolverines have been languishing, status-wise, in the FWS for years as “endangered but not protected”, probably due to the backlog of petitions FWS has, not due to any appreciable recovery on the part of the wolverines. Kill baby kill…

    btw: have you read James Dickey’s poem “For the Last Wolverine”? it is amazing. Totally off topic of course, but sometimes only art can say what needs to be said. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171434

  5. Thanks Kathleen! That was just the story I needed!

  6. Lorien, been meaning to say thank you so much for pointing me toward that poem. Wow, it left me breathless. A couple times, as I read it, I was reminded of Yeats’s The Second Coming. I guess any poet could do far worse than being compared to that! Thank you.

  7. What most of the people don’t know unless they are actually in the field with the cats(which most people who talk about the ferals rarely ever go and see them or take care of them) also many times people who no longer want their kitty for what ever reason will drop a house cat into a feral cat colony.

    That is number one. I got a cat that way and he was the sweetest cat who needed medical care but was not feral at all.
    Secondly years ago, I found a feral cat who was untouchable for several months and then from the care and comfort shown to her she changed and became the sweetest cat ever. (every cat is different, just like people and they respond differently)
    It is ignorant to promote mass euthasia.

    If you want to kill an animal who is destroying the environment and killing endangered species, how about the boa contrictor snakes let loose by idiot people.
    Those snakes will kill all of the cats, dogs, birds, babies,etc…

    I think it is conveinent to use cats as a scapegoat.
    Many communites are finding that TNR actually helps and that is because the cats are taken care of with their basic needs so they don’t need to kill birds as much. (food, water, shelter)

  8. PETA is for Euthanizing all of the FERALS..
    This is a fact .

    A Bad organization

  9. My parents in their mid 80’s did catch a feral cat in Billings, Mt & after me calling 8 vets the final out come was the $119.99 that was 4 a male. My parents are on Social Security & couldn’t afford the neuter/spay they had to be forced to turn the cat loose. Which it shouldn’t have to turn out that way. 406.697.0204 call me please help I am about to move to Florida there are a litter of them but ppl are not able to finance having spay it’s miracle for Dad to set the live trap that he paid $40.00 for.

  10. Hi Linda…I forwarded your message to the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter. Find them here http://www.yvas.org/ ; scroll to the bottom of the page for their hours and check the ‘contact’ page for their address and phone #. BTW, they operate low-cost spay & neuter clinics ($40-$45) and one is coming up in Sept. Click on ‘spay & neuter’ in the menu sidebar and then click on the ‘upcoming spay & neuter clinics’ button in the upper right of that page. I hope they can assist you or at least advise you. Another resource is Help for Homeless Pets, also in Billings: http://www.helpforhomelesspets.org/

    Hope this helps–I live 350+ miles from Billings, so this is what I can offer you. Many thanks to you and your parents for your compassion and for going the extra mile for homeless cats.

  11. Like I said my parents are in middle 80’s it’ll Dad can do is trap coons & it’s ALL he can do just to bend over plus he is also a care giver to Mom who wears an ostomy bag & the health & money is just not there. I have now moved away from MT wish I could reach Jackson . however, they won’t let them starve.

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