|The President’s Hoot |
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
As a child, my first house pet was a homeless cat that wandered into our yard. It soon produced kittens that I first mistook for mice with their eye closed. We found homes for every kitten. I feel that domestic house cats (Felis catus) are cuddly, great companions that provide comfort, and are fun to watch.
However, our domestic cats are an exotic invasive predator, originating in Egypt, and is now more abundant than any native carnivore. While wonderful pets in the home, being an exotic invasive species like the Burmese python snakes that have been released in Florida, they cause tremendous damage to our wildlife and affect human health.
National Audubon supports responsible pet ownership including keeping domestic cats indoors and on a leash outdoors. Yes, you can train your cat to go outdoors on a leash, as the law requires. We sympathize with cat lovers who don’t want cats harmed and who abhor removing feral, free-ranging outdoor cats. Unfortunately, feral cats are often hungry, sick, and subject to short lives from autos, predators, injury, parasites, and disease (3-5 years of life instead of 15 years for indoor cats).
The issue of feral cats is one of great emotion for both those who love cats and those who seek to protect our decreasing wildlife. Bird populations and other wildlife are decreasing due to loss of habitat, climate change, window and tower collisions, and chemicals in our environment. However, there is no refuting the research that feral and outdoor cats with their impulsive predatory instinct are making the biggest impact on our environment as well and are responsible for the extinction of at least 33 bird species.
When outside and not leashed as our state law requires, the 140-million outdoor pet and feral cats in the U.S. kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion small mammals, other wildlife. This disruption of native ecosystems is well documented with facts. Based on scientific studies, Dr. David Cox, Audubon Florida & Pelican Island Audubon Society, estimated that in Indian River County the number of free-ranging domestic cats to be at least 53,000, which thus would annually alone kill in the range of 492,000-1.5 million birds and 2.38-8.45 million small mammals living in our yards, public parks, conservation areas, and vacant green spaces.
Feral cats also transmit human diseases such as Toxoplasmosis, which is caused by the intracellular parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It exists in several forms: a trophozoite, which is the invasive form, and a cyst or an oocyst (eggs), which are latent forms. The parasite depends on cats to spread the parasite in its urine to complete its life cycle and may infect all warm-blooded species including our birds, manatees, and dolphins, and also affects cold-blooded animals (turtles and snakes).
Human Toxoplasmosis infection is acquired by consumption of cysts through consumption of insect- contaminated food and contact with oocysts from the feces of infected cats. Pregnant women and their babies can suffer eye or brain damage.
Instead of removing feral cats from the environment in a humane way, some cat lovers want to reduce feral outside cats by trapping and neutering them, vaccinating them for Rabies, then releasing them back into the environment, a process called Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR). This is promoted and advertised as a method that will reduce feral cat numbers. Unfortunately, TNR programs have generally failed to prove that they reduce large feral-cat populations. More often, TNR actually maintains feral cats populations where they contribute to wildlife and public health risks. Unfortunately, the Indian River Humane Society is now supporting this, a reversal of their previous policy of not supporting TNR.
Let’s educate and require cat owners to vaccinate, install tracing chips, neuter or spay their cats, and keep all cats indoors or on leashes. But not support TNR’s feral cat colonies. Trap Neuter Re-abandon appears advantageous to one species- cats but is clearly harmful to cats as well as to many dozens, perhaps hundreds of other species as well as humans. The released cats still retain their instinctive predatory drive that results in a tremendous loss of native wildlife each year. Those native birds and mammals are dying from other factors like lack of prey, climate change and habitat loss; the threat offered by feral cats only adds to their tenuous survival. To protect our threatened wildlife we must continue to remove free-ranging outdoor cats humanely from the landscape.
Let’s love all our indoor cats, our birds, and all our wildlife.