Fur Flies Over Rising Feline Population

Abandoned, feral cats blamed by some experts for millions of bird kills

When you walk into the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Virginia Beach, Va., you can't miss the question on the wall, "Why do we ask so many questions?"

Potential pet owners are grilled to make sure that if they adopt a fluffy, purring kitten, they see through the cuteness to a lifelong obligation.

Animal activists know that households in the United States are bulging with pets. And pet abandonment and owner irresponsibility, especially among cat owners, have filled animal shelters throughout the country.

At the SPCA site in Virginia Beach, 73 percent of the more than 6,000 animals turned in last year were dropped off by their owners.

The result in Virginia Beach, and across the nation, is a staggering euthanization rate. Between 64 percent and 71 percent of cats entering shelters are put to sleep, far more than are placed in homes.

In addition, a number of spin-off problems, such as what to do with colonies of feral or wild, free-roaming cats charged with decimating bird populations, have divided pet and wildlife organizations.

Today, there are more than 60 million pet cats in the US, according to United States Census Bureau data, up from an estimated 30 million in l970. Of the 60 million, the American Bird Conservancy estimates that some 40 million cats are unsupervised all or part of the time. Add the possibility that another 40 to 60 million are wild, and the total US cat population could be more than 100 million.

The first line of defense in tackling the problems presented by this overabundance of cats, says the SPCA, is for pet owners to understand the realities of taking in a kitten. But that often isn't enough.

"The problem is the status of some cats can slip between owned and unowned," says Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, North Grafton, Mass. "There is certainly an issue of cat welfare that is important, but I think we have no idea of the magnitude of the problem when it comes to cat predation on wildlife. Broad statements of cats being devastaters of wildlife in the US are probably premature."

What happens is that abandoned cats, and their offspring, tend to gather in colonies near such places as college campuses, military bases, waterfronts, hospitals, and parks where they scavenge for food and hunt rodents and some birds. Many are fed by humans, but life in a colony can be filled with malnutrition and disease.

The Alley Cat Allies (ACA) based in Mount Rainier, Md., with 30,000 members nationwide, reports that a recent study concluded that about 60 percent of unneutered household cats become feral within three years.

"For years the feral cats issue was neglected by most animal-welfare groups in the US," says Becky Robinson, director of ACA (www.alleycat.org), and opposed to euthanization of cats. "Our goal," she says, "is to stabilize and therefore reduce the number of cats in colonies by sterilization but still maintain the colonies."

Known as a trap-test-vaccinate-alter-release (TTVAR) program, and modeled after successful programs in England and Africa, this approach operates on the premise that it is better and healthier to control and monitor the colonies than destroy them. "If eradication programs really worked," says Ms. Robinson, "we wouldn't have so many cats at shelters."

ACA wants to reduce birthrates of feral cats and let them die out from natural attrition. Working in conjunction with organizations such as Spay USA, dozens of conferences are held across the US each year to instruct volunteers and animal organizations in the TTVAR program. Some 7,000 veterinarians connected with Spay USA will neuter cats for a reduced fee.

Typical of cat organizations adopting a "no-kill" policy is the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society in Newburyport, Mass. Through volunteer support it maintains 20 feeding stations along the waterfront area and in neighborhoods for feral cats that have been neutered and spayed. The group also accepts unwanted domestic cats, and has placed around 2,500 cats and kittens in homes since 1992.

In rural and farming areas, free-roaming cats - feral as well as barn cats that have some connections with humans - present different problems regarding predation and birds.

A controversial four-year cat study conducted at the University of Wisconsin in Madison by wildlife ecologist Stanley Temple, estimated rural bird kills in Wisconsin can range from 7.8 million to a staggering 219 million annually. The variations stem from including data from previous studies that reported different rates of predation by cats.

Cat protection groups are critical of the report, insisting it relied too much on surveys even though the study included following cats wearing radio collars.

The lifestyles of human beings "have far greater impact on birds and wildlife than cats," says Ms. Robinson. "Yes, cats are predators, but they are mammal predators first."

Mr. Temple, who does not endorse maintaining cat colonies, says there are not enough data to know exactly how many birds are killed by cats. "But at the low end of our estimate," he says of his report, "we are 95 percent sure that there are 1.4 million rural cats in Wisconsin. And we are equally as confident that those cats on average kill at least 28 wildlife species a year. And 20 percent of those [kills] are birds. So multiply those together, and 7.8 million birds are killed by cats each year."

The American Bird Conservancy (e-mail: abc@abcbirds.org) in Washington says the solution to most cat problems lies in persuading humans to keep their cats indoors all the time.

Linda Winter of the Cats Indoors! Campaign for the Conservancy says that in a recent survey "35 percent of owners said they keep their cats in all the time. Forty nine percent said they would keep cats inside if it would be beneficial to wildlife. Our campaign is to encourage that to happen quickly."

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