Keep your pet cats indoors to protect bird populations
Unfortunately, these beautiful pets that we so adore are also efficient killing machines.
In a recent Audubon magazine article, Ted Williams writes a controversial piece about whether Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) programs violate federal endangered species law. Essentially, TNR programs capture, sterilize, and then re-release feral (wild, homeless) cats into stable colonies that live outdoors. TNR is often considered the most humane and compassionate way to deal with the overpopulation of cats, working on the premise that if we let them live out their lives but not reproduce, we'll eventually get ahead of the problem. Williams makes the case that in certain areas, like the Hawaiian Islands, feral cats are decimating already threatened bird species. He calls cats "hyperpredators", animals that are well fed and healthy, competing unfairly in a natural system in which they are essentially subsidized. Read more here.
I'll say at the outset that I've been a long supporter of TNR programs, and believe they are one of many solutions to the cat crisis. I bring up Williams' article because I think he makes a valid point when he questions whose life should be saved in these situations, dreadful a choice as it is. The domestic cat is the most abundant land predator left in most of our state, which is home to several endangered and threatened bird species. By virtue of its beautiful parks and the Huron River watershed, Ann Arbor hosts many unique birds as they pass through on spring and fall migration. It's a complicated problem, and one that each community will have to wrestle with eventually.
But some things are obvious and easy, and that's where the individual comes in. Many of us grew up with the belief that you always kept the dog confined and under control, but it was OK to let the family cat wander freely. It's time for that old paradigm to be reconsidered. From a simple welfare point of view, your cat will be much healthier. (S)he won't contract contagious disease, be attacked by other animals, be hit by a car, or be taken by people with bad intentions, ... and you won't be contributing to the global decline in birds and other wildlife.
If you have always let your cat out, I sympathize with you. It can be pretty tough to make the switch. You'll have to put up with persistent meowing, door dashing, and general unhappy kitty behaviours. But like us, cats adapt, and will eventually accept this new way of doing things. Provide as much enrichment indoors as you can, and be strong. Some people even put up enclosed kitty kennels outside a window, so the cat can go in/out, but is confined. Now is a good time to try the switch, as many cats prefer to stay in during inclement weather. You just have to develop the strength of will between now and spring to not let him start roaming again.
Never, and I mean never, let your cat have "just one litter." While you may find good homes for the six kittens your cat has, that becomes six kittens that may be euthanized at a humane society. There is simply no excuse for letting your cat reproduce. If you want your kids to experience the miracle of birth and the joy of babies, apply to become a foster home to an abandoned cat and her kittens at your local humane society. Your kids will have the full experience, plus get a valuable lesson about what it is to be a responsible pet owner.It's a time when we are all becoming more alert to the impact our actions have on the environment around us. Keeping your cat indoors is just another way to preserve our shrinking natural resources.
Dr. Cathy Theisen is currently working as a relief veterinarian in Ann Arbor and is an active board member of Michigan’s State Animal Response Team. E-mail her your questions and comments.