Tallahassee Democrat, Opinion Page, November 20, 2008
Controlling cats is not just for the birds
By Sandy Beck
The window above my desk overlooks our backyard bird feeders. Today, while writing this, I saw two well-fed, neighborhood cats chase cardinals and squirrels at the feeders and another stalk a pileated woodpecker while he excavated insects from a tree stump. One neighbor owns at least five cats who do not understand property lines or fences. You get the picture.
The domestic cat, Felis catus, is a direct descendant of Felis silvestris, the African wild cat. Despite 4,000 years of domestication, it is essentially the same animal. They may have become cuddlier, but cats still instinctively stalk, pounce and kill, whether or not they are hungry.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) estimates that
Prowling our natural areas and backyards are also an equal number of feral cats, wild descendants of unwanted and escaped pets.
Sixteen million pet and feral cats kill 271 million small mammals and 68 million birds in Florida every year.
Of the 3,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild birds and animals the St. Francis Wildlife Association rescues in our area each year, approximately 20 percent are victims of outdoor cats.
I often receive email from people who don’t want to be “unneighborly,” but are fed up with irresponsible cat owners. “What can we do?” they ask.
There are laws. In Leon County, all cats must wear a rabies identification tag and stay on their owner’s property. The Leon County Animal Control web page states: "While there is not a true "leash law" for cats, they are defined as public nuisances if they roam from the owner's premises without supervision by the owner. Keep your cat indoors or provide suitable supervision when it is outside."
People who allow their cat to use the neighborhood as a litter box and kill wildlife clearly do not have their pets under "suitable supervision." And subjecting one's pets to predators, disease and traffic – cars kill 1.5 million cats each year – is "animal neglect.”
Recently, we awoke to ungodly howling. When we shined a spotlight in the yard, one of the neighbor’s cats was facing a fox. Without the intervention of my kind husband, our neighbor may (or may not) have missed one of her cats the next morning.
People who do not spay and neuter their outdoor cats are also directly responsible for the millions of homeless cats euthanized each year.
I’m not comfortable with either wildlife or cats dying. Neither are many other local animal lovers. Some have proposed a Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) policy to manage cat populations.
A TNR colony should be contained within secure fencing that cannot be breached by the cats from inside or by other animals –wildlife or feral cats – from outside. These colonies and their caretakers require county supervision to ensure that animals live in clean conditions, receive veterinary care and are well fed and protected from adverse weather. We’re talking about hundreds or even thousands of cats. This requires a lot of hard-to-come-by resources.
In reality, most TNR cat colonies simply congregate around free handouts provided by a well-meaning cat lover. When new cats move into the colony, more kittens are born, diseases spread and, of course, the cats still kill wildlife. TNR is not a realistic solution.
Because humans domesticated cats, and because we love them so much, they are our responsibility. The FWCC offers educational materials and workable solutions to this dilemma. Download brochures, PowerPoint slide presentations and posters at http://myfwc.com/cats/index.htm. Find more great material at http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/index.html.
Please study these resources then share them with your homeowner’s association, club, school, friends and neighbors. This would be an important step toward helping wildlife and cats and restoring community harmony.
Sandy Beck is an environmental educator and director of The Wild Classroom, www.wildclassroom.net.