By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Times Staff Writer
The Artful Dodger is gray, skeletal and flea-bitten. In the morning, he sometimes shows up on my six-foot fence, glances carefully in all directions and leaps to the windowsill. From there he slinks into the wild coffee bush with the idea of ambushing birds at my feeder.
Like an English bobby in a Dickens novel, I take action. Because it is not my ambition to operate a bird restaurant for stray cats, I explode onto the patio, waving my arms and shouting. For a moment, Dodger runs in place. Then he bounds from ground to windowsill to fence to the hibiscus on the opposite side. Gone.
I wish I didn't have to scare Dodger, a feral cat or one owned by someone who lets him roam outdoors. I feel sorry for cats like him. He's exposed to the elements, after all, and probably hungry. If a car doesn't hit him he might die in a tussle with a larger cat. A coyote might devour him, and at the very least he will provide nutrition for ticks, fleas and worms.
So I'm sympathetic. That said, I regard outside domestic cats as I do pythons. They aren't native to our country and don't belong outdoors. Cats decimate native populations of wildlife, especially birds, by the billions. That number includes at least a dozen cardinals and doves slaughtered at my bird feeder by the Artful Dodger and his pals every year.
Once I was part of the problem. When a cute stray showed up purring at my door, I fed it, which meant it became mine forever. I ended up taking my new pet to the vet for shots, had it fixed, made certain it wore a collar, and always kept its bowl filled to the brim. But my cat lived outside.
Some — I had more than a few — died outside, too. Males, which like to wander and to fight, were almost impossible to keep alive long. One or two disappeared overnight. One I found dead on the road.
By then my conscience was bothering me. Even Midnight, the gentlest of outdoor cats, was destructive. She never went hungry — she was fed like a spoiled queen — yet she loved to kill birds and bring them, bleeding and broken, to show off at the back door.
We adopted our next two cats, Norman and Inky, at a shelter. They lived indoors and survived for many years. I would like to think the birds at our feeders appreciated it.
Nothing in the world is cuter than a kitten, and nothing can be as comforting as a contented cat sleeping on your lap. Just look at Facebook, where every other friend seems to post a cat photo. No surprise that cats are our country's most popular pet, according to some surveys.
When Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513, though, no domestic cats dwelled in North America. Descended from a wild species found in Africa 8,000 years B.C., they were brought here — like pythons, iguanas, and Nile monitor lizards were brought here. When kept inside the house or in a cage, no problem, enjoy them. When released, nothing good can happen.
An estimated 50 million cats skulk through America's outdoors today, according to the Humane Society of the United States. In 2012, scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute released a shocking report about kitty carnage. Outdoor cats, either feral or domestic, kill an estimated 3.7 billion birds a year, including various endangered species. And — brace yourself — they also destroy as many as 21 billion mammals, mostly shrews, chipmunks, voles and mice, some endangered. Another 650 million reptiles and amphibians are cat victims.
"At some point,'' says Jeanne Murphy, "it's got to stop.''
Murphy, 44, is a wildlife biologist who adores birds. She and her husband, Brian Lane, run a company called Sensing Nature, whose specialty is education. They offer tours and programs for adults and children throughout the Tampa Bay area. They also love cats. Their three, Jaspar, Yogi and Ransom, live indoors.
For a decade, Murphy was Pinellas County's wildlife specialist. When a citizen called for advice — "My cat disappeared" or "The neighbor's cats are eating my birds" — she tried to help. One piece of advice she gave often: "Keep cats indoors.''
Turns out her advice was seldom taken to heart. Some passionate cat lovers, in fact, didn't want to hear anything remotely negative. A few claimed their outdoor cats were too well behaved to harm wildlife.
"An outdoor cat has a lot of challenges,'' Murphy explained. "It's not really humane to leave them out there.''
Keep them indoors, she added. Keep them on a screened-in patio. You may feel foolish, but take them outside on a leash.
Maybe there are fewer cats roaming the street now than a decade ago, but I doubt it. Sometimes I see a woman feeding the strays that hang out in the parking lot where I work. Sometimes I see a man feeding strays on the Pinellas Trail. I am sure they love cats and think they're doing a good deed.
Stray cat lovers are so passionate that Hills- borough, Broward and Metro-Dade counties support programs to trap, neuter and release stray cats back into the outdoors. After many generations, the thinking goes, the number of wildlife-killing cats will decline or maybe even disappear.
"I love cats and can understand why people don't want strays euthanized,'' Murphy says. "But trap, neuter and release isn't a solution.''
Florida Audubon, Florida Defenders of Wildlife, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association and even the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are against the program. Trap and neuter all the cats you want, but when you release them, many will go hungry and die in traffic. Meanwhile, you are also condemning native songbirds and other creatures to death.
For a decade I have lived in a townhouse in the middle of St. Petersburg. My kingdom is now a small patio, a few native plants and a modest bird feeder. I have tried to make my patio as cat-proof as possible.
It's surrounded by a six-foot, slippery, daunting, cat-unfriendly plastic fence.
After a while, the Artful Dodger and his gang — they dwell in the sewer in the alley behind my place — found a few places they could, almost impossibly, slink under the fence.
At the hardware store, I felt immediately foolish when the hairy-armed clerk asked me about my challenging do-it-yourself project. "No, I'm not building a deck,'' I explained sheepishly. "I'm (heh heh) defending my property against really obnoxious cats.'' At home, I began manfully sawing purchased lumber. An hour later I had blocked entry and escape cat tunnels with wood panels.
Perhaps an older and wiser cat named Fagin advised the Dodger what to do next. Anyway, he discovered he could use the air-conditioning unit outside my fence as a springboard to reach the top of the fence. From there it was an easy drop to the barbecue grill and to birdie heaven below. The lumbering mourning doves were easy pickings.
So I moved the barbecue grill away from the fence. For a few weeks, my birds fed peacefully.
Then the Artful Dodger figured out he could hop from the fence to the dining room windowsill and then to the ground. My counter move? I have now placed cactus plants on the windowsill.
I am not quite ready to declare victory. The Dodger gambols along the top of the fence looking puzzled while drooling at the cavorting birds.
It's been at least a week since I saw blood or feather.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.