Protecting Cats and Birds

Tnr sign

Jennifer Scarlett is a DVM and Co-President of the San Francisco SPCA. She wrote an interesting article entitled “Birds and Outdoor Cats: Protecting Both” for the Huffington Post. Allow me to highlight several important points she makes in this well-taken article.

She starts by placing the problem of cats preying on native birds in its proper context, and in so doing neither scapegoats cats nor dismisses concerns about biodiversity.

[E]ven without cats, birds smash into speeding cars, plate glass windows, radio towers with glowing red lights, and wind turbines. They encounter poisons and ruined habitat, DDT and lead shot, antennae that scramble their delicate internal compasses. Researchers find them scattered like snow around electrical towers. And like every living thing, birds face the unknown threat of the biggest game-changer of them all: climate change.

In a world with people, it’s anthropogenic threats that run wild.

Next, she notes that easy black-and-white solutions are inappropriate to a world in which humans and animals, wild and humanized landscapes, and indigenous and exotic animals, are now thoroughly mixed up.

We live in a world where mountain lions pad around the San Jose suburbs, Cooper’s hawks patrol neighborhood bird feeders for easy pickings, and coyotes snatch Chihuahuas from backyards in Los Angeles. Burmese pythons — people’s cast-aside pets — slither through the Everglades. In this intertwined world, simple answers to problems like cats killing songbirds elude easy solutions.

She then makes the case for trap, neuter and return (TNR) along with asseible spay/neuter programs as a viable long term solution. Indeed, she sees it as the only viable solution.

Let’s look at the possible options for “unowned” cats, including ferals.
*Do nothing; watch populations explode and animals suffer.
* Round up and kill 30 million to 80 million cats; the extermination option almost everybody rejects and which no scientific study suggests would even work.
* Employ aggressive spay/neuter campaigns for both companion and unowned animals–the only option that suggests a solution.

In addition, Scarlett expects cat owners to shoulder their share of the burden. “cat lovers need to take responsibility for acknowledging their pet’s predatory instincts and acting accordingly. We have to shoulder the burden of caring not only for companion animals but for their ecosystems, and for wild populations they prey upon”.

Scarlett’s post reminded me of the Consensus Statement from The Outdoor Cat conference that I discussed in a previous post. Both reflect the efforts of people committed to doing right by cats and wildlife alike.

What I liked most about the article, however, was her moral sensibilities delivered in a reasonable and open minded manner: “This isn’t a call for a fight — it’s a call to action. Birds deserve protection just as cats do”.

To put her statement in the more formal language of ethics, both cats and birds have intrinsic value, and that fact must inform our public policies and management of outdoor cats. It is a balanced view of the moral responsibility we have to both cats and wildlife, while at the same time acknowledging that something must be done to protect biodiversity and improve cat welfare. We can certainly do both.

Now let us contrast Scarlett’s approach to that of Woodsman001, a frequent commenter on articles about cats. Here are a few quotes drawn from his comments to Scarlett’s essay.

Like this is any surprise. Yet another scientifically-illiterate cat-licking blogger.

The ONLY thing that stops them [cats] from destroying our valuable native wildlife is a well-aimed bullet.

It is also completely legal to shoot to death any animal on your own property that is a threat to yourself, your family, your animals, or even your property — someone’s pet or not. (Gun laws permitting, if not than 700-1200fps air-rifles are used in those areas.) Shoot-to-maim falls under the laws of animal-cruelty, but shoot-to-kill is a perfectly legal way to destroy someone else’s cat that is on your own property. The very same laws and principles that define humane ways of hunting animals also applies to cats — cats being just another animal, nothing more than that. Just ask the hundreds of collared and feral cats that I had to shoot and bury on my own lands.

We might analyze Woodsman and his worldview on many levels. For now, I think the real virtue of his comments is that they reminds us what an extremist sounds like.

From what I have been reading, TNR is not a magic bullet. Rather it is one technique that works well when properly managed and integrated with other efforts as part of a broader strategy. Most of these are non-lethal (e.g., spay and neuter, microchipping), while lethal measures are best reserved for specific sites and situations (e.g. critical habitat protection, public health emergencies). The notion that we can simply kill our way out of the problem is both false and offensive.

There are legitimate debates about how to balance lethal and non-lethal methods. Some will reject one or the out out-of-hand, to be sure. Even so, this need not stop the development of public policies, management strategies, and coalitions of advocates representing different perspectives from working together on the vast majority of solutions they agree up. The 80/20 percent rule applies here. If you agree with another point-of-view 80%, then they are an ally. The 20% over which you differ should not stand in the way of reaching win-win compromises.

Image: TNR sign outside the Espanola Valley Shelter in Espanola, New Mexico. This image comes via a post made by Leslie Smith on Entitled Are no-kill proponents out of touch? Or shelters lazy?, Smith reflects on the no-kill movement in a particularly straightforward and sophisticated way.

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5 Responses to Protecting Cats and Birds

  1. Lydia says:

    I understand and agree with most of what is presented by JENNIFER SCARLETT, and I am also very familiar with WOODMAN’S positions. What is not presented in this article, and as far as I’ve seen, never considered, are the negative psychological and physiological impacts from free-roaming cats on people. We are already familiar with the physical risks via rabies, toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever, lyme, etc, but why isn’t there more attention given to the detrimental impacts on an individual’s general health and well-being? Often times it is this stress that leads to animal cruelty and human abuse. We are really missing the boat here…..

    • Lydia says:

      a few more observations: regarding the statement from the article “putting a bell on the cat (which is actually a good place to start, at least for housecats)”: I have not seen, heard of, or read about any success with cats wearing bells (I am assuming to be used as a “warning device” for birds, small mammals and other possible prey), so I wonder why it is recommended as a “good place to start”? And when using the term “housecats” here, is it implied that they are indoor/outdoor cats, thus the need for a bell? Again, I am assuming *yes*…. Finally, when Scarlett concludes “but cat lovers need to take responsibility for acknowledging their pet’s predatory instincts and acting accordingly”, she omits specifying the details / definition of what “acting accordingly” means, along with “to take responsibility”. Leaving these to subjective interpretation is just asking for more debate vs. recommending clear, possible solutions.

  2. joe russel says:

    I am not really sold on this. I think I will stick with the culling of 80 million cats. Maybe we should TNR some packs of wild dogs to control the ferel cat population. I mean I have seen some hunting dogs evicerate cats. I had a hunting dog that just loved to corner a cat and kill it. He was a great hunting dog. But with the logic people use in some of the scientific research reports and analysis, if packs of wolves and coyotes are good for population control of deer, elk, etc. why would packs of wild dogs be bad? Again, it seems like an ideology that is being pushed because a certain group of the population is again any type of killing.
    I agree with you that the spay/neutering, keeping cats indoors, preventing abandonment, reuniting lost animals with their families, TNR, sanctuaries, etc. is a good way to manage cat population but in that etc. i believe that should include the culling of cats as well.

  3. William Lynn says:

    Hello Joe.

    Thanks for writing. Her point is that we have to address the sources of cat over-population instead of addressing the symptoms. Cats are prolific breeders, and the sources of new cats into a local population are many. It is not simply a few feral cats hanging about. Kill some and others will take their place. So spay/neuter, keeping cats indoors, preventing abandonment, reuniting lost animals with their families, TNR, sanctuaries, etc. all address some of these causal factors.


  4. joe russel says:

    This story states ” Round up and kill 30 million to 80 million cats; the extermination option almost everybody rejects and which no scientific study suggests would even work.” In the next sentence it states that ” Employ aggressive spay/neuter campaigns for both companion and unowned animals–the only option that suggests a solution”. Am I really to believe that killing upwards of 80 million cats is scientifically proven to not work but spay/neutering upwards of 80 million cats will work? What is the difference to future populations if we cull 80 million cats or spay/neuter them? This seems to be very contradictory. More of an ideolegy being pushed than scientific fact.

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