Saturday, February 2, 2013

Killer Cats on the Loose!

Well, at least that is what biologists want everyone to believe.  If the latest “study” commissioned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and cobbled together by the ornithologists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is taken as gospel, then there’s a veritable bloodbath taking place all around us.

Scott Loss, Tom Will and Peter Marra reviewed a number of studies, some of them conducted in the 1930s and 1950s, upon which they based their conclusions.  They did not conduct an independent study of their own to arrive at their new figures.  For a detailed dissection of this latest hatchet job I recommend you visit Peter Wolf’s blog, Vox Felina, aptly titled Garbage In, Garbage Out.
No one has any idea how many feral and free roaming cats are “out there” at any given time.  There has been no census or population count done – PERIOD!  Logically, the numbers rise and fall, depending upon time of year (can we say KITTEN SEASON, anyone?) and environment/habitat.  Cats who have homes may be strictly indoors only, allowed outdoors either supervised or not supervised for varying lengths of time and some are outdoor only.  A couple of studies have surveyed small groups of cat owners about their habits concerning whether or not they allow their cats to go outside.

None of the studies have taken into account the ages of the cats in their study, or whether or not the cats have been spayed or neutered.  In my experience both of these factors are extremely important.  Neither has any study asked about the cats’ histories.  Did they come into the home as a kitten or an adult?  How was the cat acquired?  Was the cat an outdoor cat, rescued off the street?  At what age did that happen?  Was their mother an outdoor cat?  Did she hunt prey and teach her kittens to do the same? 
Biologists know that orphaned mammals who are raised in captivity from an early age do not fare well if released into their natural habitat.  Mammals have less inherent (instinctual) behaviors than fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles.  Young mammals have to be taught by their mothers where to find or how to catch prey, where to find shelter and safety among other things.  While all cats are carnivores and predators, they aren’t born knowing how to hunt, only with the instinct to hunt.

One need only observe lion cubs at play and then observe kittens at play to see the similarities between them.  Mother flicks her tail, whether she is a lioness or a domestic cat, and the kittens chase and try to catch it.  The cubs and kittens naturally stalk each other and pounce on their littermates in play.  This play behavior mimics hunting behavior.  However, neither the cubs nor the kittens go for the kill.  Big cats, like tigers or lions, will bring a live but injured prey animal back to their dens to teach the young to kill their prey.  Often times the young ones simply “play” with the prey animal and their mother has to actually kill her offering.  The cubs of big cats generally stay with their mother for about two years until they are capable of surviving on their own.

Another point often overlooked by biologists in their studies, usually because they haven’t witnessed “the hunt” from beginning to end, is what condition was the prey animal in when the hunt began.  In most cases, predators take down the weak, sick, injured, old or young of their prey species.  If you have ever watched a nature film, you will see that the stragglers in a group of herd animals are the ones singled out as the target animal.  Why would domestic cats who hunt behave any differently?  Also, in the nature films you will witness that the hunt isn’t always successful and their prey escapes.  Logic would dictate the same outcome for the success of the domestic cat’s hunting forays.

Seasoned, older hunters are generally more successful than younger, inexperienced hunters – of any species, including humans.  Additionally, older predators are not as successful as they once were.  They are less likely to hunt as frequently, possibly due to injuries or they just aren’t as fast as they once were.  Wild animals MUST hunt and kill to eat.  Domestic cats live in an environment where food is much easier to get.  We humans leave trash everywhere, whether it is in dumpsters, construction sites, the side of the road or our garbage cans.  It doesn’t take a lot of energy or skill to scavenge in our trash filled world. 

Intact – unspayed females – who live their lives outdoors are generally pregnant or nursing a litter of kittens.  They have a greater need for food than do male cats or spayed females.  Spaying females will greatly decrease the amount of food they need to survive and, consequently, reduce their need to hunt as much.  Male felines, whether big cats or domestic cats, who are not neutered will travel great distances in search of a mate.  They can smell a female in heat from miles away.  During mating season male cats will forego food for longer periods of time simply for the chance to mate and pass on their genes.  Unneutered male cats have been known to kill a litter of kittens to bring on estrus in the lactating female.  Once a male cat is neutered he wanders less and tends to stay close to his regular food source.

Opponents of Trap/Neuter/Return (or just cats in general) like to say that even well fed cats will hunt.  I don’t doubt that some of them do.  However, no one knows what percentage of outdoor cats are prolific, successful hunters.  Since stalking, hunting and killing prey expends an enormous amount of energy, it’s unlikely that cats, as they age, who have a regular food source provided will expend that energy to hunt.  Although it’s anecdotal, my experience with the outdoor cats in my neighborhood over the years shows little or no interest in the birds, squirrels or lizards around them.  Any outdoor cats I’ve observed have been spayed or neutered.  They spend their days lying around with full tummies.  They remind me of those husbands who plant themselves in their recliners with their remote in front of the television and holler to their wives “Honey, bring me a beer.”  Why get up when someone else will bring you what you need? 

Are there too many cats living outdoors and struggling to survive?  YES!  Cities and counties have spent millions and millions of dollars picking up and killing millions and millions of cats, yet there are still lots and lots of cats out there.  As I see it, there are two factors at work here.  One, human irresponsibility – people continue to abandon cats, most of whom have not been sterilized.  Two – as with any species, when there is less competition for the food supply, more young are born.  Biologists are well aware of the term carrying capacity.  As long as there is an abundant food source the number of individuals of a species will continue to reproduce and a higher percentage of their offspring will survive to adulthood.  There will be less disease simply because there are fewer contacts with individuals of the same species.  As the food supply diminishes, fecundity is reduced, more of the young die before adulthood and disease can spread more easily through the species. 

As long as researchers refuse to use the same parameters used when studying wild and/or native species when they study outdoor cats they will reach the wrong conclusions.  Additionally, by refusing to listen to the experts – the people on the ground, practicing Trap/Neuter/Return – they will lack the necessary information to insure they reach accurate and reasonable conclusions. 

The women and men who care about cats and give of their personal time and money to help the cats in our communities know more about cats and their behavior than any scientist now or in the past.  These folks have done more to reduce the number of outdoor cats than all the animal control agencies have done by killing untold millions, and likely billions, of cats over the years.  Access to a cooperative animal control agency along with access to affordable or free spay/neuter is an important tool in the arsenal needed to solve this problem.  It’s also the only humane solution. 

One final note, again something that seems to always be absent in these studies that oppose TNR – not every cat is returned to the site where they were trapped.  Most individuals or groups that practice TNR do their best to find responsible homes for the friendly adults and the kittens.  These cats are REMOVED from the outdoors and live in permanent homes.  All of the rescue groups that I have worked with include in their adoption agreements that the cat adopted will be an INDOOR CAT.   



  1. These "scientists", the bird people, have made so skeptical now of any scientific study. I have lost faith in science largely as a result of the bird people's manipulations of the media, their status, and their agenda, in "factual studies" released. Maybe most scientists now, I think to myself, are equally lousy, equally tilted. All these crazy bird people have done is illigitimize scientific study. It's pathetic.

    1. Even with my science background, I agree that these biologists damage the credibility of all scientific studies. My professors stressed OBJECTIVITY. However, unless we're born as adults with no life experience, it isn't possible to be 100% objective. All of us have our biases - yours & mine are toward cats and not totally objective either. I'm not ready to disavow all science. I think what thinking people should do is "follow the money." Who funds the study & then it can become apparent whether or not the findings are skewed.

  2. I do my part, however, at least, in getting as many cats fixed as I can, keeping my own hordes inside and adopting to indoor only homes. I know cats kill and hunt. They're predators, it's what they do. However around here there are no real birds. Starling, mourning doves, pigeons and it has nothing to do with cats. There is no habitat for native birds in this town. Every homeowner has their spray pack of chemicals to quickly kill anything alive they may encounter, leaving nothing for native species to eat. Insects are dead. Seeds have been sprayed with insecticides, like the blossoms for the nectar suckers. In the country around here, it is a vast wasteland of grass seed farms. They HATE birds who eat seed and the government even aids grass seed warehouse owners in programs to kill seed eating birds. Same with wineries in the valley. They hate birds and have permits to shotgun flocks. Nobody knows what birds they're killing, all kinds. So the war on cats over birds seems ridiculous. I was driving low speed on a country road when a small bird flock startled out blackberry bushes and as one, flew in front of my car. I was horrified. I killed 13 of them with my car.

  3. The human-related toll on birds is the real problem, but "we" don't want to take the blame. The list includes: power lines, glass windows, oil waste ponds, radio & tv towers, cars/trucks, pesticides, hunting, government sanctioned "damage control" and especially habitat destruction.

    I think there's a great difference between the hunting habits of urban vs suburban/rural areas. I'd be willing to bet that the ferals in NYC who hunt mostly kill mostly rats (also an invasive species brought here by humans).

    And, of course, cats as prey is never considered either. Whether it's hit by traffic, rat poison/antifreeze, shooting, torturing & killing, predators like hawks & owls (kittens as prey) or dogs and coyotes. And due to the government policies in trying to eradicate coyotes for the ranchers in the West, coyotes have extended their range (plus their primary predator, the wolf, is non-existent in most states). We have coyotes in Florida too, even in suburban areas.

  4. These studies make me totally crazy, especially whey they are used to justify opposing TNR programs. Predators are not evil because they hunt. If anyone is evil in this equation it's the people who abandon their pets and/or neglect to get them fixed in the first place! And don't EVEN get me started on the people who advocate rounding up ferals and strays to kill them.

    Your description of different cats having different hunting habits made me chuckle. When I was a kid we had 2 neutered males, and they couldn't have been more different. We had a doggie door so the cats came and went as they pleased.

    One cat was named Victor and he was a big, strong sleek fellow. Victor's favorite hobby was hunting squirrels. I still recall looking out the kitchen window and seeing him outside crouched behind the trunk of our big maple tree. "Oh, how cute!" I said as he started wiggling his rear end. Next thing I knew he shot out from behind the tree, grabbed the squirrel, went for the jugular and hauled off his kill in a matter of seconds. I was horrified!

    Over the years, Victor singlehandedly kept the squirrel population of our neighborhood in check. And yes, he did eat them. Many were the times I'd come home from school and find half a squirrel in the living room. But I do have to point out that if we're talking about invasive species, squirrels are pretty close to the top of the list!

    But then there was Paco. Paco was a chubby gray tabby born with a crooked tail. He was basically a big teddy bear - so gentle he'd let me dress him up in baby clothes and wheel him around in my toy stroller! And because of his crooked tail he pretty much lacked the coordination to catch anything.

    Anyhow, one night I was laying in my bed when I heard the tell tale sound of a cat "announcing the kill." Generally, this meant that Victor had caught one of those enormous moths - but somehow the voice didn't sound right. So I turned on the light and there was Paco standing there with a McDonald's paper cup in his mouth!

    From that moment on, Paco's "litter hunting" became a nightly ritual. He'd bring home candy wrappers, plastic bags, and anything else he could get his little paws on. Years later when my mother had moved into a townhouse she got an angry letter from the homeowner's association demanding that she "clean up the garbage." Perplexed, she went outside to investigate, and discovered that Paco had accumulated a giant pile of litter on the patio next to the kitty door!

    Now, as an adult my cats are all strictly indoor creatures, but whenever I hear one of these studies citing how terrible cats are because of their predatory instincts, I think of Paco & Victor. Some part of me still thinks we should have sent the city a bill for pest control and litter collection services!

  5. You've illustrated one of my points - not every cat that goes outdoors hunts & kills other critters. Seriously, I looked out my door several years ago and there was one of the cats I fed (neutered) lounging in the sun next to the food bowl. He hadn't cleaned it completely and a bird was perched on the side of the bowl eating dry cat food. It was a ho-hum moment for the cat & the bird didn't seem the least bit concerned. When he was done, he flew away.

    I had a rat get into the house one evening when bringing in a plant from the cold. The cats were "observing" the process and the rat jumped out. He ran one way & the cats, en masse, bolted in the other direction.

  6. Here is a link to another opinion on this latest study: It's from the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a highly regarded non-profit.

  7. Thank you for this post, Connie! :)

  8. I've read a couple of articles debunking this study. Alley Cat Allies has a petition: "Tell the Smithsonian: Stop spreading junk science that will kill cats!".

  9. Thanks for visiting Lian. I'm on the ACA mailing list. They've been out front on this issue as well. Along with the petition they've talked to the press & have an Op-Ed published. The big problem, as I see it, is that both sides remain firmly separated, much like our political parties. The US continues to get more & more polarized instead of discussing serious issues rationally & listening to each other.

  10. I had no idea that there are people against trap, neuter and spay, return or adopt if possible. Crazy.

    --NW Luna

    1. Oh my goodness, yes! The opposition to TNR is as rabid as those screaming "illegal aliens", "electrified fence." And it's often those politicians who swallow the bad science of these studies who are big climate change deniers. Personally I think the biggest flaw of the human species is the denial of responsibility.