Cat lover Lisa Harris used to let her seven felines roam outdoors – until she saw a coyote waltzing across her front yard. Since then, Dr. Harris, a wildlife biologist who lives in Tucson, Ariz., has kept her cats indoors 24/7.
Long seen as miniature backyard hunters preying on everything from rabbits, birds, and mice to lizards, house cats have in some areas become the hunted, new research indicates.
In a new study of coyotes living among people in the heart of Tucson, cats were the coyotes’ most common meal, making up 42 percent of their diet, university researchers reported in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Among scores of confrontations between coyotes and cats, cats were killed more than half the time.
Birding organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which estimates that free-roaming cats kill more than 100 million birds each year, were quick to encourage cat owners to keep cats inside.
That’s something many cat owners are loath to do. It’s long been known that coyotes attack pets, but there’s also a sense that cats can scamper up a tree if they sense danger, says Harris.
That vastly understates the danger, she says. “A coyote can jump a six-foot fence and take a small dog or cat and be back in a flash – do it right in front of you.”
Past research has indicated that the number of pets lost to wild predators is relatively small. But the new study, combined with the expansion of coyotes into suburban and urban areas nationwide, has researchers suggesting the threat to pets, especially cats, is much greater than realized.
“The number of cats killed by coyotes in the West and nationwide is a lot higher than many people think,” says Paul Krausman, a coauthor of the study and professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana. “Humans are setting a banquet out for them – leaving out dog and cat food – and even their small dogs and cats.”
The study also raises questions about the wisdom of “trap, neuter, and release” (TNR) programs used by a number of cities to deal with rapidly growing feral cat populations, says George Fenwick, president of ABC.
In a press release, ABC called TNR programs “well-meaning but misguided,” adding that releasing neutered feral cats back into the wild was “providing an all-you-can-eat buffet for coyotes.”
That has feral cat program managers arching their backs a bit.
“The bird people are always exaggerating the danger cats pose,” says Carol Ameer, treasurer of the San Diego-based Feral Cat Coalition. “What we’ve found is that TNR works and eliminates a source of food for coyotes.”
“No one is going to snap their fingers and make these feral cats disappear; there has to be a program to deal with it,” adds Dorinda Pulliam, director of the Town Lake Animal Shelter in Austin, Texas.
Ms. Pulliam oversees an active TNR program that has sterilized 10,000 cats in the past two years. Whether such programs actually reduce populations is hotly disputed. She declined to estimate how many feral cats roam Austin, but said the numbers entering the shelter are declining.
Could that be because coyotes are eating them? Pulliam says she doubts that. But some residents suggest that Austin, which has a coyote control program, stop killing coyotes and let those predators take care of Austin’s feral cats.
Austin bird lover Susan Schaffel comments: “People around here leave their cat food on the back porch so Puss in Boots can roam all day long killing birds, and then call the city when a coyote eats the cat food – and then their cat.”
Harris thinks the solution is to keep cats indoors. “I’m always amazed at how people can’t imagine changing their cats’ lives because they say it might affect their happiness,” she says. “But I think it’s better for your best friend to stay indoors and live a long life than to be eaten alive.”
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