Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cats as Predators

In his excellent book, Running With the Foxes, wildlife biologist David MacDonald writes that "foxhunting is of minor significance to foxes in particular, or amongst wildlife issues generally," and that almost any other environmental issue or impact is more important to fox welfare than foxhunting.

MacDonald also notes that there is nothing morally repugnant about fox hunting. He notes that "people's gastronomic enjoyment outweighs their concern for the consequences of harvesting billions of fish annually, as their enjoyment of their cat's companionship outweighs regret at the deaths of millions of hedgerow birds annually."

In their campaigns and protests, Animal Rights folks seem to overlook the domestic cat as a wildlife killing machine that does far more mayhem in the countryside than anyone hunting with dogs.

The article below come from the LaCrosse Tribune of August 15, 2004:

One of Wisconsin's main predators can be regularly observed curled up on the front porch or strolling through the barn.  Studies have indicated free-roaming cats — from wandering household pets to skittish, semi-wild farm felines — are responsible for killing millions of birds and small mammals in the state each year.

"That's what cats do. They're a very efficient predator and you can't breed that out of them or make them stop doing it," said Dave Matheys, wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office in Viroqua, Wis.

In parts of south central Wisconsin, "cats are unquestionably the most abundant mammalian predator, outnumbering fox, skunks and raccoons combined," said Stanley Temple, a professor of wildlife ecology and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1996, Temple published results of a study on the effects of cat predation. Over five years, he and his team monitored free-ranging cats with the same methods as in other wildlife studies — tracking by radio collars, analysis of cat feces and stomach contents to determine what they ate — and came up with some disturbing figures.

Small mammals, such as young rabbits and rodents, accounted for about 70 percent of the cats' diet, Temple said. But the study concluded that, even at only 20 percent of their kills and the most conservative estimates for cat numbers and predation, at least 7.8 million birds were falling prey to felines in Wisconsin each year.

It's not feral cats, either, those that have reverted to living completely wild. In the five-year study, Temple said they never found a true feral cat — all maintained at least some regular contact with human-provided shelter and food — perhaps because of the state's harsh winters.

No, the majority of the felines stalking through the countryside are someone's barn cat or house pet, Temple said. Often they are fed and have some immunizations against disease, which gives them a competitive advantage over other predators.

Coyotes were thought to be a possible predator of cats, but Temple said his research didn't show significant losses to coyotes. Disease and vehicles were the main population controls on free-range cats.

The cats were not above going after other predators, either. Young snakes were a part of the diet, Temple said. And Matheys said he's had at least two reports, one this year, from cat owners whose pet brought home a dead weasel.

"Weasels are great predators," Matheys noted. "To have a cat kill them says something about the ability of cats."

Not surprisingly, grassland and ground-nesting birds were particularly hard-hit, Temple said. Cats were found to consume a number of young pheasant, even turkey chicks.

"We had all of Wisconsin's game birds show up in the diet," Temple said.

Which is why hunters and landowners sometimes will take matters into their own hands and shoot trespassing cats. But DNR officials warned it's illegal even for property owners to kill cats.

So what can be done? First and foremost, Temple said, is to convince people to keep their cats indoors. Measures such as declawing or placing a bell or other noisemaking collar had only limited success.

A life indoors not only keeps the cats away from wildlife, but also protects them from accidents, attacks by other animals and disease. Free-ranging cats often "lead short, miserable lives," Temple said.

Farmers should be encouraged to at least spay and neuter barnyard cats, so they are less likely to roam and won't continue to boost the roaming feline population. From his study, Temple recommended farms keep spayed females, as they had the smallest range and would be the most likely to hunt among the barns rather than the countryside.

But getting people to change their attitudes about cats is a major hurdle, DNR officials said. "So often people think, ‘I have a cat, it has to roam,'" said Thompson.

"It's kind of an accepted norm, that the cat goes out and does its thing. Dogs, too, to some extent in rural areas," Matheys said. "It's a slow process, to change human behavior and get people to restrain their dogs and cats."


Anonymous said...

Ironic how a lot of Animal Activists will feed and anguish over the condition of stray cats, without a thought to the plethora of small wildlife lives they are helping to snuff out in assisting these master predators. I love cats as much as anyone, but they are terribly destructive to wildlife. I had some coon huntin' cousins that made it a point to "control" the stray cats in their area, using their hounds to tree them, and it became a "sport" every bit as much as the coon hunting--it was INCREDIBLE how many cats they eliminated each year! I think Paul Hogan did a skit on his show years ago about opening a stray cat hunting season(as they are a real problem in Australia as well)which was brutally, hilariously funny, but apparently he caught a lot of flack for that episode! As for coyote predation on cats, I must disagree with the findings of this study, as I have seen quite a drop in feral cat numbers anywhere coyotes have moved in. This may not include people's pet cats around their homes, but for completely wild cats deep in the woods far from human habitations and sanctuary, coyotes definetely have an impact, I believe....L.B.

kabbage said...

"That's what cats do. They're a very efficient predator and you can't breed that out of them or make them stop doing it,"

Let the AKC at 'em! By breeding for extremes of conformation, if cats even begin to approach the plasticity of dogs, they would be able to decrease the efficiency, even if the will was still there. I wonder, for example, if the flat-faced Persians or funky-legged Munchkins are as good at hunting as one's average barncat.

Anonymous said...

It irks me to no end how people let their cats roam willy-nilly all over the place. They destroy so many song birds and small wildlife and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I believe the irresponsible ownership of domestic cats has mightly contributed to the AR cry for mandatory spay/neuter laws.

All one has to do is visit your local Craigs List and see ad after ad after ad for free kittens.

Feral cats are a danger, not only to wildlife populations, but also to humans. They can and do harbor rabies. If a raccoon approaches you in broad daylight, you have a pretty good clue there is something drastically wrong with the animal. If a "domestic" cat approaches you, you have no idea if its rabid or some neighbor's cat out for a stroll.

It boggles my mind that people go to the lengths they do to harbor and feed feral cat colonies.

I have to get licenses for all my dogs, who are not allowed to roam free, but nothing is done about peoples' roaming cats.

When I did own cats, they were kept strictly indoors. Guess what? They didn't have a problem with it. In fact if one did acidentally get out, they would huddle at the door anxious to get back in. Cats do not need to roam the countryside in order to have a good life.

Then I am always amused at the people incensed when one of their "beloved pets" who they let roam all night gets hit by a car.

It's unfortunate that only dog people seem to be targeted by AR groups, when the biggest problem lies with the burgeoning cat population.

M. Evans

PixieCorpse said...

...and this is why my cats stay indoors.

Deidrel said...

kabbage -- you're quite right! I've read that there are Persians whose jaws are so weak that they would have difficulty killing a good size prey animal.

But let's not forget that there are working cats, just as there are working dogs. Cats were domesticated to keep certain kinds of vermin under control, and they're very good at it. If (neutered, vaccinated) neighborhood cats mean less "wildlife" in the form of mice and rats, that's fine by me.

Of course, I grew up in a neighborhood with many outdoor cats, and which was also completely filled with songbirds, thrushes, rabbits, snakes, toads -- even in our yard. And our cats were excellent hunters. I think there are other, bigger factors when it comes to urban wildlife population in NE USA, at any rate.

I also believe that some cats feel the same way about a long, indoor life as many of us would -- bereft of fresh air, sunshine, and long walks. Others, like some of us, seem to be made for the indoor life. There's no one right way.

Bird Advocate said...

Thank you for helping in the conservation of our native fauna! I have been blogging mainly on the topic of the feral cat threat for years and believe only an organized effort from we who are conservation minded can defeat the feral cat enablers!

Rhonda said...

Hmmm. Being a cat lover and bird lover, the cats win for me, but we have noticed the birds simply avoid nesting and socializing where the cats are. It's just what cats do (being a predator; and my eight cats are well-fed at home. Most birds seem smart enough to stay away, almost like cats will stay away from very aggressive dogs. Maybe a good, cat-chasing dog would help keep your cats away from your home bird areas.

PBurns said...

Or we could shoot the cats, or poison the cats, or trap them and take them to the pound to be put down, or hit them with our cars, or let the dogs kill them (because mine will).


We are already doing that to all those cats that are let outside to roam free.

Never mind, and carry on.