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Your Kitty is a Killer

There may be 100 million cats in the U.S., and according to recent studies they could be the biggest killer we've let loose on wildlife in America.

They seemed designed for comfort: soft fur, a sleepy disposition, big eyes… and that purr. No wonder cat-lovers are almost as adamant as dog-lovers in bragging about and even defending their pets.

But according to recent studies, domestic cats are not necessarily harmless little balls of fluff, or cute kitties chasing laser lights. They are instead an invasive species - Felis catus is not native to North America, though bobcats, lynxes, cougars and a few other cats are - and no matter how cute they are, the predator has not been bred out of the cat.

An article in the New York Times last week by science writer Natalie Angier reviewed the results from a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study, and found the numbers are astonishing: cats kill as many as 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year - that's billion, and it could be more.

The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.

If you think that "doesn't sound like my kitty," you are very likely wrong. If your cat is an outdoor cat, or even a so-called "indoor/outdoor cat," there's a good chance they've killed a bird or two, maybe more. The study includes data - including stills and video - from the Kitty Cam project of the University of Georgia, which followed "free-roaming" cats in Athens, GA., for a year with small cameras the cats carried to document their behavior.

These are not just feral cats, though the numbers are probably higher for those felines who live on their own in and around our towns. Again, Angier:

Yet the new study estimates that free-roaming pets account for only about 29 percent of the birds and 11 percent of the mammals killed by domestic cats each year, and the real problem arises over how to manage the 80 million or so stray or feral cats that commit the bulk of the wildlife slaughter.

The domestic cat was probably brought to the country by the 1800s to control rats. Ironically, the Norway rat is one of the few rodents the cats will not tangle with. But there are a lot of mice, rabbits, shrews, chipmunks and voles out there - to say nothing of birds.

For some time, scientists as well as bird lovers have been concerned about the impact of domestic cats on songbirds, hummingbirds, swifts, warblers and thrushes -- many of them neotropical migrants who may breed or winter in Mexico or Central America.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency speculated in a 2012 study that there are 60 million pet cats in the country; a University of Wisconsin ornithologist estimated 20-150 million songbirds are killed each year in Wisconsin alone. Now those numbers look even higher.

"The feral cat population in Healdsburg is substantial," said a Healdsburg Animal Shelter worker who asked not to be identified. "Most of the cats, especially the ferals, you're not going to see."

The Healdsburg Animal Shelter has gained most of the attention recently over dogs, but the statistics on their website indicate more cats are brought in every year than dogs, 326 to 274. Cats too are adopted at a higher rate. All adopted pets are vaccinated and neutered.

All pets who pass through HAS are vaccinated and neutered, and that includes feral cats as well - and once they have been so, they the tip of their ear is cut off ("ear-tipping") to identify them as a fixed feral. Adoption fees are usually $100 for a vacinatted and neutered cat, though there are special prices for seniors and other groups.

While many cats who have been raised among people find homes through HAS, some are taken as "barn cats," cats who are unable to be fully socialized to humans because they were raised in the wild from birth.

Barn cats are taken by HAS to their new home range (barn, farm, garden, vineyard) where their skills at rodent predation are especially valued. They're kept in cages for several weeks so they become acclimated to the new area and recognize it as their home - otherwise they would probably just run away when released, according to the HAS source.

Barn cats are also available from Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County, a non-profit that works with feral colonies to manage their health and reduce their reproduction. 

"Every cat is trapped, taken to one of our participating veterinarians to be tested for feline leukemia, spayed/neutered, and vaccinated for rabies and distemper," according to a statement on their website. "All FELV (feline leukemia virus) positive cats are humanely euthanized. …Our program results in a stable colony of healthy and non-reproducing cats."

"The only way we have of reducing the population of feral cats is to start with neutering," said Jennifer Kirchner, executive director of Forgotten Felines. "We don’t believe in euthanasia - it's bad for everybody, including the human who has to do it."

Instead, Feral Felines offers volunteer support for residents to trap feral cats and begin the next step of controlling the population: neutering. The final step of their trap-neuter-return policy is to replace the animals back in their habitat, perhaps with a volunteer colony management.

Feral Felines neuters over 2,000 cats a year. If you trap and transport the cat to their clinic at 1814 Empire Indistrial Court Santa Rosa, or the adoption site the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter, they will spay (female) or neuter (male) the cat for a $30 fee, sometimes negotiable. They offers support in finding and using traps among other efforts to keep the cats inline. "The whole point is to reduce the population," repeated Kirchner.

Female cats can have two litters a year, with four or five kittens in each - which means the cat population can increase tenfold every year if not controlled. And right now, she reminds us, is breeding season. "There's no reason in this county for anybody to have kittens," Kirchner said.

"If the goal is to figure out what is happening to our world - whether it is a reduction in the bird population or destruction of our planet - we need only look as far as the mirror," said Kirchner. See her full statement attached to this article as a PDF.

If you have a cat, best course is to raise it as an indoor cat, and put up with the kitty litter. Outdoor cats, or domesticated "indoor/outdoor" cats,  are more likely to become infected with FELV, or to be killed or injured by cars, other cats or wild animals like raccoons, coyotes and cougars.

Some people put collars with little bells on their cat, so they can't sneak up on a birds. Cats, however, are less likely to tolerate a collar than dogs are, and collars present a health hazard should they get caught on fencing, brush or other existential dangers of life outdoors.

Don't expect Jonathan Swift's celebrated (if sarcastic) "modest proposal" to limit population growth to apply to cats: According to the Wikipedia article, " People less often eat cat meat than the flesh of other common domestic animals."

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