A few days ago, Smirnoff killed a mouse. I woke up and walked to the bathroom to find him crouched, with a limp gray body clamped in his mouth, growling at Bacardi to back away from his prize. I traded the mouse for some treats, praised Smirnoff for his superb hunting skills and Bacardi for giving it a good ol’ try, and gently picked up the mouse with a plastic bag, checked it for any signs of disease (it was healthily dead), and disposed of it outside. It was Smirnoff’s first ever kill, and his third ever attempt, not counting house flies.
Smirnoff and Bacardi are indoor-only cats. For several reasons. 1.) I live in a city. 2.) I volunteer at an animal shelter and see how rough outdoor cats have it in a city. 3.) I have minor control issues and half panic just at the thought of letting my cats outside. Smirnoff was plucked off the streets as a young cat and still sometimes takes late night snacks out of the garbage. The first two days after I brought him home, he didn’t touch the cat food I placed out for him. On the third day he wolfed down my roommate’s bowl of pasta before she knew what was happening. Smirnoff would happily spend half the day outside, even in the city, if I let him. But I don’t. He and Bacardi remain indoors (although I sometimes treat Smirnoff to a jaunt on the porch wearing a harness and leash) and they both remain perfectly content, with only occasional half-hearted scratches at the windowsill.
Yet, many people do let their cats outside, even in a city. I get adopters all the time who ask during the interview, “Oh, but isn’t it cruel to keep them indoors?” I’ve counted at least seven indoor-outdoor cats on my street alone, several indoor-outdoor cats where my parents live in the suburbs, and saw plenty of stray and semi-feral cats last year when my boyfriend lived in a low-income neighborhood. (I tried trapping a couple of them but they were too smart.)
The statistics that get bandied about often (and are repeated by myself and other volunteers at the shelter) are that indoor cats live about 16 years, while outdoor cats live 3–5. I’m not entirely certain where I first heard that statistic but on its surface it at least makes sense. Outdoor cats are subject to being run over by cars, disease, starvation, getting lost, getting stolen, etc. Even though I know several indoor-outdoor cats who have lived to ripe old ages, on average it’s a grim outlook.
But the focus right now isn’t on how outdoor living can be damaging for your cat. It’s on how damaging cats are for the outdoors. Because let’s face it: cats are killers. They are predatory animals, obligate carnivores, and if Smirnoff were let outside, his kill would be much higher than one out of three.
On January 29, details of a study were released that tries to pinpoint the impact of outdoor domestic and feral cats on wildlife:
The estimates are much higher than the hundreds of millions of annual bird deaths previously attributed to cats. The study also says that from 6.9 billion to as many as 20.7 billion mammals — mainly mice, shrews, rabbits and voles — are killed by cats annually in the contiguous 48 states. The report is scheduled to be published Tuesday in Nature Communications.
—USA Today, “Cats kill up to 3.7B birds annually”
Certainly, any large-scale impact on the environment caused by any species is something to seriously consider. Cats aren’t native species to North America (just as many species brought over by European settlers are not). And just as people introduced cats to this continent, they have also abandoned them here and let them roam free so that now the feral cat population has escalated. If outdoor and feral cats are really having as devastating an impact on bird and small mammal wildlife as some scientists say they are, it’s clearly an issue of population control.
…[T]he new study estimates that free-roaming pets account for only about 29 percent of the birds and 11 percent of the mammals killed by domestic cats each year, and the real problem arises over how to manage the 80 million or so stray or feral cats that commit the bulk of the wildlife slaughter.
—New York Times, “That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think”
THE TNR DEBATE
Over the past decade or so, Trap-Neuter-Return programs for feral cats have increased and are cat rescuers’ primary way of controlling feral cat populations. In these programs, the cats are trapped, spayed/neutered and given vaccinations, ear-tipped (so just by looking at the cat one knows its been through a TNR program), and released back into their colony. Feral cats are not domestic cats. They are the same species and breed, but often have had minimal to no contact with humans and cannot live in a home the same way non-feral cats can. TNR is the most humane way to deal with feral populations, as the alternative often means mass euthanasia.
Yet bird-focused environmentalists aren’t satisfied. In New Zealand, an advocacy group called Cats to Go not only wants to eliminate feral cats altogether, they want Kiwis to stop owning cats as pets, period:
[New Zealand] SPCA’s theory is that the feral cat colony will eventually die off if they can’t breed. The only problem is that for TNR to be effective all cats have to be neutered and people can’t abandon new cats. This doesn’t happen, so under TNR these cat colonies actually grow….All in all, TNR is about as effective as herding cats.
…The fact is that the cats living this wild life are not that happy anyway—they are plagued by disease and starvation. They are not living the high life like your sweet moggie, and they are a different beast as a result.
Overall, despite their extreme stance on the issue, Cats to Go has some reasonable ideas: “Get your cat neutered… keep it inside… [have local governments] require registration and micro-chipping of cats.” However, their argument then turns into a lobby for the termination of cats entirely—feral and domestic—in New Zealand: “Make this cat your last.”
Of course, New Zealand’s situation might be more urgent than the United States’; I can’t really judge. They seem to be battling the extinction of several native species and losing them at an incredible rate. But despite all of the research that’s gone into the issue of a cat’s impact on wildlife, the studies remain fairly inconclusive.
Nathan Winograd, founder of the No-Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland, writes in his 2007 book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America,
Unless we conclude that predation studies on four continents (fourteen studies in Europe, twelve in North America, nine in Australia, and one in Africa) are all wrong, feral cats should no longer be unfairly implicated in any decimation of bird populations. (p. 79)
Even the study from Nature Communications has its flaws:
In devising their mathematical model, the researchers systematically sifted through the existing scientific literature on cat-wildlife interactions, eliminated studies in which the sample size was too small or the results too extreme, and then extracted and standardized the findings from the 21 most rigorous studies. The results admittedly come with wide ranges and uncertainties.
—New York Times, “That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think”
So this whole debate isn’t new. The study that’s causing so much media mayhem is simply a rehashing of old studies.
That’s not to say that cats have no impact at all. The battle between cats vs. birds (and mammals) has been an on-going one. It’s even being discussed in more mainstream culture, like in this comic by The Oatmeal. But the Humane Society of the United States takes a firm cat-centric stance on the issue:
The best approach involves sterilizing cats, conducting robust TNR programs, support for innovative cat programs through shelters and rescues, and educating owners on how keeping cats indoors is valuable for both cats and wildlife.
Nathan Winograd, who is extremely critical of HSUS policies throughout his book (and claims that the organization’s position on feral TNR program used to be pro-euthanasia), agrees on the importance of TNR programs*. One area he disagrees:
Indoor cats face risks as well, albeit different ones. While people who confine their cats indoors can provide their pets with needed exercise and socialization, as a general rule, a cat who is allowed to play outdoors is friendlier, healthier, and happier. This is because an indoor cat is more likely to be bored and obese than an outdoor cat, and fat cats are a recipe for a host of health problems. In addition, chronic boredom can lead to unsocial behavior like biting, scratching and inappropriate elimination. (p. 73)
*Winograd’s view of feral cats gets a little complicated in that he argues for them as wild animals, but I’ll keep it simple for now.
It’s a complicated argument. We have Winograd as pro-outdoor cats, HSUS as pro-indoor cats and TNR, and advocacy groups like Cats to Go who are anti-TNR and anti-cats in general. So what’s the solution?
First, let’s look at the actual problem: humans. While bird populations are just as heavily impacted by human pollution and habitat destruction, we are also responsible for the homeless cat population. We are responsible for over four million cats being euthanized in shelters every year. Before we can “fix” the cat problem, we need to fix ourselves. Outdoor domestic and feral cats are just using their natural instincts. We can’t stop them from hunting and it would be a waste of time trying. We also can’t euthanize our problems away.
But in the meantime, what can we do?
DOMESTIC CATS – should be indoor-only, especially in cities.
BARN CATS – should be cats who are unable to live indoors.
FERAL CATS – should go through TNR programs and colonies consistently monitored.
ALL CATS – domestic, barn, or feral – should be spayed/neutered.
It’s really difficult, if not impossible, to know what the impact of increasing or decreasing any one species will do to an ecosystem. Invasive species are everywhere, some of which aren’t often thought of as non-native (horses were brought over by Spanish settlers, although apparently this is controversial) and some that cause a lot of damage but don’t get as much media attention (like the European starling that was introduced to New York City in 1890.) Then of course there are native species that are still considered “invasive” like the coyote. This isn’t to say that the discussion surrounding outdoor domestic and feral cats should be brushed over as a non-issue. It’s a discussion worth having. But the solution to “fry the ferals” by groups like Cats to Go is a ridiculous one, and shouldn’t be tolerated.
Cats to Go makes the assertion that “TNR costs more to do than euthanasia, and doesn’t work.” If that’s truly the case (and I don’t really know how these things are done in New Zealand), then that’s the problem. Spay/neuter programs should be cheap and accessible*. In Massachusetts (and other states including New York and California), animal shelters must spay and neuter all adoptable animals by law. One cannot adopt an intact cat. And while it sounds like it would be difficult to regulate a law that requires all domestic cats and dogs to be spayed and neutered, whether they come from a breeder, pet store, or shelter, it’s no harder than requiring rabies vaccinations. Is every pet owner going to vaccinate or neuter their cat, even if it’s the law? No. But if you make it affordable and accessible, a lot more of them will, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
*Winograd makes the point that euthanasia costs money, whereas adopting out an animal, even if it’s required to be spayed/neutered, treated for illness, or put into foster care, is cheaper, ultimately brings in revenue, and can drive up donations.
So why is my ultimate argument for spaying and neutering as opposed to getting all felines off the streets? If we focus our efforts on population control, then it will ultimately help whatever impact cats have on the population of threatened wildlife, while still acting in a humane way toward all animals. And in the meantime, yes, Cats to Go, I agree on one thing: people should keep their domestic cats indoors.