Should We Hunt Feral Cats?

The war on feral cats rages. Are hunters the best defense?

Should We Hunt Feral Cats?

A clowder, or group, of feral cats may look cute or cuddly but in the wild they can wreak destruction on avian life while possibly spreading disease and reproducing at an alarming rate. (Photo: Wiki/Boski 2009)

Sam Wood doesn’t hate cats. He envisions a world filled with fat, happy, safe felines basking in a ray of sun beaming through a living room window. So why does he kill them at every opportunity? 

“You know what the only difference is between a feral cat and a feral pig? Fur. Both of them are non-native invasive species that cause a massive amount of environmental damage,” says Wood. “Cats are cute and furry and people love them, but when you present the facts, it’s pretty clear that they need to be removed. There is nothing good about a feral cat.” 

Wood isn’t plugging those fat, happy indoor cats. Nor is he whacking outdoor cats with collars or any other indication they may have slipped out the door accidentally. Instead, the outspoken Wisconsin resident is waging war on feral cats. They are little more than wild animals, either the product of an irresponsible owner or an irresponsible local government that allows them to live and breed at will. Either way, Wood is convinced they need to be removed from the landscape. 

Based on countless studies, he’s right. A fact sheet published by The Wildlife Society, which comprises professional wildlife biologists and researchers, said outside cats kill upwards of 3.7 billion birds and as many as 20.7 billion small mammals annually in the United States alone. They also kill countless reptiles and amphibians. Cats aren’t just predators, they are one of the most efficient and deadly killers on the landscape. And they often kill for the thrill of it. 

According to the fact sheet, “Free-ranging and feral cats decrease native wildlife abundance and diversity, especially of species that nest on or near the ground. Feral cats can cause serious harm to populations of rare or endangered species …” 

The “toxoplasmosis lobby,” as Dr. Steve Vantassel calls the free-roaming cat lobby — because feral cats carry the disease — disputes the ecological impact and questions the numbers put forth by various studies. Vantassel, an ardent critic of outside cats and the author of The Practical Guide to the Control of Feral Cats, agrees that the highest estimates may or may not be accurate, but that doesn’t change a simple fact. 

“We know cats kill a lot of birds and animals, not to mention the impact they have on the birds and animals they don’t kill,” he says. “So, my question to them is what number of dead birds and mammals is acceptable? They can’t answer that.”  

Wood doesn’t know the exact number either, but he trusts the mountains of data that shows how much impact an estimated 60 million free-roaming felines have on wildlife. A lifelong trapper and hunter, he never passes up the opportunity to send a cat to the great litter box in the sky. Wood has no idea how many cats have ended up in his traps or on he wrong end of his gun barrel, but the number is likely in the hundreds. 

For all his efforts and for all the birds and small mammals he saved — not to mention all the gardens he liberated from piles of buried scat — he’s been dubbed a hero by some. Others? Not so much. Wood, who was featured in a Washington Post article in 2017, has been the subject of everything from irate phone calls and hate mail to death threats. A petition on www.change.org garnered 27,000 online signatures calling for his local police department to arrest him on animal cruelty charges. 

“It went to the state attorney general’s office and the DNR, but they both agreed I wasn’t breaking any laws, which I already knew. Basically, there is nothing that says what I am doing is illegal,” says Wood. “Until that changes, I’m going to keep working on the feral cat population.” 

As it turns out, laws pertaining to the killing of feral cats vary by state and even by locality, according to a 2010 report by Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal and Historical Center. What’s more, the definition of a feral cat is murky and one that has been challenged repeatedly. 

“What is a cat? When does it go from a domesticated animal that belongs to someone to a wild, non-native invasive?” wonders Vantassel. “It is a legal quagmire and I warn people to be very careful if they choose to reduce the free-ranging cat population in their area through lethal means. Do some research on your state and local laws.” 

Generally, though, few states have laws specific to feral cats, at least those animals with no obvious owner. A number of state laws and local ordinances have been introduced in recent years, but few ever make it past the organized cat lobby and individuals who seem to care more about cats than native wildlife. At best, local governments agree to  or trap, neuter and release (TNR) programs in which the animals are caught, sterilized and turned loose.

“Politicians are afraid of these groups. Favoring lethal control efforts draws protests and threats. Instead of standing up to these people, politicians just give in. They don’t want to be portrayed as cruel, even though they may be aware of the facts,” adds Vantassel. 

The Australian government isn’t bowing to animal-rights activists and is moving ahead with efforts to kill as many as 2 million feral cats. The animals are responsible for the extinction of at least 20 native species and pose a threat to at least 100 more. An estimated 6 million feral cats are scattered across nearly every part of the continent. The cull will involve virtually anyone willing to participate. Efforts include trapping and euthanizing with carbon monoxide or a humane injection, as well as shooting. It’s being called a race to save Australia’s native wildlife. 

Despite the mounting science, proposals to kill feral cats in the U.S. still aren’t widely accepted. One Iowa city suspended a program that allowed police officers to trap and then shoot free-ranging cats after animal-rights activists intervened. Other localities also caved to protesters. 

Wood, however, refuses to back down. Although the “crazy cat ladies,” as he calls the animal-rights activists, have started to leave him alone, Wood’s Facebook post of a cat caught in a trap drew scores of hateful comments and even a few death threats. Anyone that promotes lethal control is given the same treatment, including one of the country’s most respected bird conservation scientists. Dr. Peter Marra, director of the Smithsonian Institute’s Migratory Bird Center, was roundly criticized after he wrote a book on the scourge of feral cats and the myriad problems associated with them. “Cat Wars” laid out a scientific case against outdoor cats and suggested lethal removal, not sterilization programs, was the best solution. 

Marra and Vantassel both oppose TNR programs because the animals continue to kill wildlife, carry diseases and live short, dangerous lives. Which is why Vantassel questions the motives of cat welfare organizations. 

“They claim to be environmentalists and get all worked up when they see a bird covered in oil after an oil spill, but they don’t seem to care one bit about all the birds killed by cats. It’s hypocritical.” he says. “They also claim to love cats, but they are willing to allow millions of them get injured and suffer or die a slow death from a disease.”

Despite the science, as well as the repeated calls for action from countless conservationists, millions of cats continue to roam the countryside, killing at will. Little has been done to address the issue. The good news is that Vantassel thinks more people are realizing the problems and the impact cats are having on the environment. If nothing else, they are willing to consider lethal control methods. However, the mere talk of feral cat control has been met with howls from the usual suspects. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which acknowledges that indoor cats have longer lifespans, still advocates TNR efforts. 

“Programs that attempt to use lethal control to eliminate cat populations are inhumane, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources,” says the HSUS’s web site. 

Are they any more inhumane than a feral cat killing a litter of rabbits or a nest of native songbirds? Wood says we need to choose native wildlife over non-native invasive wildlife. He does, every time he has the chance.

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