Nature belies idea on feral cats

Sometimes it seems the biggest animal lovers are the ones who most need a reminder of the basic facts about dogs and cats.

They are carnivores, little death machines when you get right down to it. Those of you who get distraught about mass euthanasia at animal shelters might want to think about the stack of corpses required to keep one of your tail-wagging or purring friends fed over the course of a lifetime.

Fact two: They are domesticated animals, dogs and cats are, and have been for thousands of years. That means they are exotics when introduced to natural land — as out of place as pythons in the Everglades.

I thought about this after reading my colleague Barbara Behrendt's Sunday story about the growing push for no-kill public shelters, a seemingly radical idea that advocates say has worked surprisingly well in counties across the nation.

Spaying and neutering more animals, enlisting more volunteers, reaching out to more adoptive owners, cutting way back on the number of euthanized animals. All that sounds great.

But many of the animals put down are feral cats, and any shelter hoping to get close to no-kill status must allow them to be trapped, neutered and released — granting them, presumably, a short, miserable life sustained by feeding on warblers and bluebirds.

No, not at all, said Bill LeFeuvre of No Kill Nation Inc. And he's right, at least, that this issue isn't nearly as clear cut as I had thought. In fact, nothing about it is remotely clear because both sides seem to be dealing with totally separate sets of facts.

On the website of the American Bird Conservancy, for example, you can read a press release loaded with scary statistics and topped with an even scarier headline: Feral Cat Colonies Present Perfect Storm of Rabies Risk.

LeFeuvre, on the other hand, assured me there hasn't been a confirmed case of a human catching rabies from a cat since 1975.

Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, true, you won't find much about rabid cats biting humans. But you will see that the incidence of rabies in cats is rising, that they now account for three times as many cases as dogs, and that if humans do get rabies, they are most likely to get the disease from domesticated animals because of their exposure to them.

On to other matters with no easily available and authoritative arbitrator.

Can neutering, releasing (and, usually, vaccinating) feral cats really cut down on the population?

Absolutely, say groups that favor it, and they have numbers from cities like Jacksonville that prove it.

No way, said the bird people, who produce other studies showing that neutered feral cats in regularly fed colonies are just replaced by non-neutered ones attracted by the same food source.

Do feral cats die young and unhealthy or live long and happily? You can find studies supporting either scenario.

The no-kill folks will also tell you feral cats that are regularly fed lose interest in hunting.

That's absolutely not true, said the Bird Conservancy, which points to studies showing that feral cats kill millions of songbirds each year, along with even more squirrels and chipmunks.

This, I bet, seems closer to the truth to anyone who has owned an outdoor cat. Their tendency to bring home limp, bloody trophies is one reason almost all veterinarians advise owners to keep their cats inside.

And that's why I'd say — tough as it is for some people to accept, and as unfair as it seems to penalize cats for the sins of irresponsible pet owners — that feral cats that can't be adopted should be put down.

Yes, this means choosing one type of animal over another. But we do that all the time. And who has dibs on living in natural areas?

Clearly, it's wild animals.

Nature belies idea on feral cats 05/10/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 6:06pm]

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