I’m a cat person. I’ve had a number of cats over the years, with my favorite being the one in the picture, Mahasamatman, the Lord of Light, commonly known as Sam. He’s been gone for about 15 years — about as long as he lived — and I still miss him.
I say all that by way of introduction because a few weeks ago I read Natalie Angier’s report in The New York Times on a recent scientific study that found domestic cats in the U.S. kill 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals each year. Yes, that’s billion.
Most of those creatures are killed by feral cats, but 29 percent of the birds are killed by pets allowed to roam their neighborhoods — that’s about 700 million. One of my neighbor’s cats killed at least two birds that I know of in my back yard, so I know from experience that some well-cared-for pets contribute to the problem.
Cats are hunters; it’s what they do. And we domesticated them because that ability was useful to us. But we’ve got almost as many homeless cats running around (80 million, according to Angier’s article) as pets (about 84 million, according to the Humane Society of the USA).
Meanwhile, bird populations are dropping.
Here’s the paragraph in Angier’s piece that really caught my eye:
The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.
In other words, we’ve let the feral cat population get out of hand and it’s a significant part of the reason why bird populations are declining.
Of course, the real problem isn’t the cats, but human beings.
These days most responsible pet owners get their cats spayed and neutered, which reduces the number of unwanted cats. But if I’m any indication of the typical cat person, being responsible about the process is rather like the commitment to recycling: It’s something I became more committed to over time.
When I was a kid, people dumped cats near our place in the country. We had a great female cat, Maggie, who came around and begged food whenever she was in the last stages of pregnancy and couldn’t catch the field mice who were the mainstay of her diet. Since she tended to get pregnant again shortly after each litter was weaned, this was a regular occurrence.
We appreciated her work among the field mice (who otherwise would have overrun our house) and didn’t give much thought to the huge population of feral cats she alone contributed to the world. It never occurred to us to take her to the vet to get spayed. I’m sure Maggie’s descendants are still prowling around greater Friendswood, which is now a thriving suburb and not a tiny little town surrounded by open fields and a potential overpopulation of field mice.
Once I grew up and started having cats around, I always got them fixed. But until I moved into an apartment building with Sam, I always let my cats roam the neighborhood. I can’t say with any certainty that they didn’t do some damage.
People may dump cats now and add to the feral population, but I suspect it really grew over a long period of time when people didn’t give that much thought to cats. That’s how a lot of human-caused environmental problems have come about.
When I lived in Washington, DC, there was a colony of feral cats in the alley behind my house. One of the neighbors fed them. I didn’t have much to do with them except to make a point of keeping my cats away from them — I’m sure they carried diseases — but another neighbor trapped some of them to take to the vet to get fixed, and then returned them to the alley. I wasn’t willing to call animal control, because I knew they’d be euthanized and I’m as sentimental about cats as anyone else.
The thing is, I’m also sentimental about birds and it’s been obvious to me, even though I’m not a birder, that the population has been dropping. The Audubon Society has some information about birds in decline that is more accurate than my “seems like I don’t see as many birds as I used to” impression.
It seems pretty obvious that the relative populations of cats and birds (and apparently cats and small mammals) is way out of whack.
And that brings us to the tricky question: What can we do about this?
Here in Austin, we have a no-kill animal shelter. People also do as my DC neighbor did: trap feral cats, take them in to get fixed, and then release them back into colonies. It all sounds very humane, but near as I can tell it isn’t making much of a dent in the cat population.
I can’t imagine there are enough homes for all those feral cats, and most of them wouldn’t make good household pets, anyway. But a major effort to catch and euthanize a large number of feral cats sounds draconian and horrific. And I’m not sure it would be all that successful even if people could be convinced to do it.
However, after reading Angier’s article, even a cat lover like me begins to think that we are spending far too much money and effort taking care of cats, which aren’t remotely endangered, at the expense of species that are at risk.
I haven’t got any answers, but, as with many other problems caused by human inattention, it’s time we started asking the questions.