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Feral cat population, left unchecked, a real threat to the environment

Cat lovers, I know, will hate what I have to say.

That's just the way it is with the issue of trap-neuter-return.

People don't come at it from different perspectives, but from different planets.

I learned this by sitting through a two-hour forum Tuesday night in Spring Hill that was called to discuss TNR as a way to control the population of feral cats in Hernando County — a discussion that's going on all over the country.

I couldn't understand why so many people were fired up to save cats when they'd passed the same signs on the way to the meeting that I had, the ones advertising the sale of intelligent, highly evolved animals slaughtered and butchered, to eat.

I don't get why talking about our responsibility to cats would cause anyone's voice to quaver, which happened at the meeting. So did the recitation of a multi-stanza poem about the tragic fate of an abandoned cat, Princess.

I can't quite say — though I might have once or twice, under my breath — that I don't give a flip about Princess. I like cats well enough inside people's houses; there are three of them in mine. And I certainly don't want the county to euthanize any more cats than absolutely necessary.

But once cats are outside, they're nothing but a threat to the cause that makes my voice quaver — the environment.

Every feral cat spared from being put down by being trapped, neutered and, most of all, returned to the outdoors, means the death of many times that many wild animals.

This was documented last month in a headline-grabbing analysis from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cat lovers, predictably, have poked holes in this study by pointing to its wide-ranging estimates of the number of creatures that cats kill every year.

How many birds is it, they ask, 1.4 billion or 3.7 billion? And do cats slaughter 6.9 billion small mammals or 20.7 billion?

Well, no matter what, it's billions. And the American Bird Conservancy says cats take the lives of more birds than any other killer, including wind turbines, skyscrapers, cars or pesticides.

Cat lovers are also lovers of wildlife, they say, and I don't doubt that. At Tuesday's meeting, I even met a cat rescuer who is also a squirrel rescuer.

But my interest isn't in advocating for one fluffy or feathered animal over another; it's in preserving the natural system, and what this study showed is that cats are disrupting it in a less dramatic but more widespread way than the Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

And it's a system, obviously, that doesn't need any more disruptions. In fact, it seems to be fading fast.

Cats, on the other hand, are thriving. The national population has tripled in the past 40 years, partly because they are more popular as pets, partly because more people are feeding colonies of feral cats.

Which brings us to the main complaint against the research that shows that TNR helps reduce the populations of these colonies. Much of it is based on the counts of people doing the feeding.

I think — and it's no surprise that this is the same thing the American Bird Conservancy thinks — that there would be far fewer cats in these colonies if they weren't fed, and that the people most in favor of neutering and releasing feral cats are a big part of the reason the cats are there in the first place.

Cat lovers agree with none of this, and can even back up their points with their own research from sympathetic scientists.

In fact, I think we agree on just one thing: that irresponsible pet owners are the ultimate cause of all the unnecessary deaths of cats and wildlife. To their credit, cat lovers and organizations full of them, such as the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, already try to spread this message.

Maybe, eventually, people who dump unwanted cats, who don't get them spayed or neutered, or who allow them to roam outside, will finally get it. Maybe they'll start to change their behavior. It has happened with people who litter and drink and drive.

I'd gladly come to a community forum on that subject — and not say a word under my breath.

Feral cat population, left unchecked, a real threat to the environment 02/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 7:26pm]
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