Features & Columns

Feral Cats Endanger Other Species

Birders and shelter officials say feral cats endanger other species
feral cats

For four years, Leslie watched the rats take over. The owner of a horse stable, Leslie (who declined to provide her last name) felt powerless to combat the scourge of vermin, each about the size of a soda can, infiltrating her barn.

"There were so many rats. If you came in the dark and you turned on the lights, they would scurry down the tops of the water pipes running both sides of the hallway. They'd come down the pipes and then drink out of the horses' water bowls, and fall into the bucket and die and you'd get dead rats in your water bucket," she recalls with a grimace.

In addition to the skin-crawling effect of the rats, the economic consequences started to take a toll as well.

"Once a rat gets into your bag of feed, you throw out a $20 bag of feed. They chew a hole in the bottom, and you're like, 'oh the whole bag's toast.' You know? There's rat poop in my food," she says.

She tried poison, even going as far as prying open the barn's walls and dropping it in to try to take out the rats living inside them.

"We tried and tried and tried," she says. "But we couldn't get them."

That's when a friend told her about Project Purr, an organization that rescues aggressive, unadoptable feral cats destined for euthanasia at the county animal shelter and finds them outdoor homes in barns, farms and urban gardens to live as working cats, a kind of all-natural rodent control.

That was eight years ago. Desperate for a solution, Leslie adopted three kittens—Spanky, Darla and Alfalfa—from Project Purr, and after an initial acclimation period, set them loose on her property. Today, she surveys her barn, outfitted in an official Project Purr T-shirt featuring a drawing of a cat with the tip of its ear clipped off—the telltale sign of a feral cat that has been fixed. "You didn't see any rats, did you? You see any rat poop? No. So not only did they kill them allÉthe smell of the cats tells other rats, 'we don't want to be here.'"

"There's no deterrent like a live cat. There just isn't," she says. "They kill everything."

Cats vs. Birds

While cats' natural hunting instincts are a godsend to some, many believe outdoor cats do more harm than good—killing species of birds and small mammals that we want to keep around, and even some that are on the endangered species list.

In recent years, the debate between cat lovers and birders has escalated, thanks in part to a study published this January in the journal Nature Communications claiming that feral and domestic cats collectively kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds a year in the United States, blowing the previous estimate of 500 million out of the water. Feral cats, the study says, are responsible for the majority of the bird deaths.

This sparked a huge backlash against feral cats, with many calling for an end to the controversial Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) programs that many nonprofits facilitate by means of trapping feral cats, fixing them and then returning them to where they came from, with the hope that the population will die out naturally.

To some, the trade-off isn't worth it. Bird lover Cliff Bixler says he regularly sees feral cats "out cruising and hunting" in areas where birds such as warblers and flycatchers breed each season.

"Cats can climb trees. They're quite well-equipped for slaughtering other creatures," he says.

He says he would prefer to see all cats in safe, indoor homes, but if that's not an option, he would rather they be euthanized than let loose in the wild. "People say we should fix them and let them live out the rest of their lives. But maybe they kill 500 birds during that time. Is it worth it? Not to me."

Indeed, local wildlife rescue organization Native Animal Rescue reports that approximately 20 percent of the injured animals it takes in were wounded at the paws of cats.

"Really small birds will pretty much die if they've been near a cat at all," says Lupin Egan, a staff member, who spends part of her days feeding baby birds with an eye-dropper every half hour.

Blair Cat Project

Among the species listed as endangered in our region is the California Clapper Rail, a relatively large, henlike bird with olive-colored feathers that resides year-round in coastal wetlands. Its predators, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, include the non-native red fox and the feral cat, which, if we're going to go there, is also technically a non-native, invasive species in North America.

"Any species that isn't a native predator here is considered invasive, why wouldn't a cat be?" says Kerrie Ann Loyd, a wildlife ecologist who spearheaded the Kitty Cams Project at the University of Georgia, which is the first study to actually track outdoor cat behavior. Kitty Cams attaches tiny cameras to the collars of domestic outdoor cats and records the footage, often uncovering late-night shaky-cam encounters with opossums, birds and lizards reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project.

Loyd and her team are sending out grant proposals this spring and hope to continue the project by focusing on feral cats next. She says she's unsure of what they will find, and since no one has studied them directly it's hard to know their impact on the environment. On one hand, feral cats spend 24 hours a day outside, compared to the 5 or 6 hours domestic cats do. However, she says they tend to be more diseased and weaker than domestic cats and may have a harder time catching prey.

"There's no argument that cats kill other animals," Loyd says. "The arguments are how often, what they're killing and whether it's really making a difference."

Cat House

Lynne Achterberg, the founder of Project Purr, lives in a home that is practically overrun with cats—but she wouldn't have it any other way. The stuffing bursts out of the scratched-off arms of her couches and armchairs. Above the garage there's a small room, which she says was originally intended to be storage but now is a "kitty room."

The back yard is filled with five hutches housing feral cats she has rescued from the shelter, in addition to "some of my own kinda sketchy guys that have taken over the swing, as you can see. This is a cat house, what can I say?"

Studying the effect of feral cats on the environment has been difficult because of their fearful, aggressive behavior towards humans, as well as the treacherous locations they sometimes call home. Achterberg perhaps knows this better than anyone. She has discovered feral cat colonies in places like a scrap yard, where a mother gave birth to a litter of kittens inside the metal crusher; a landfill; and behind a park, where she claims a colony of 33 cats survived on no nourishment aside from licking the grease off the bottom of garbage trucks.

When Achterberg discovered the latter group, she and her husband trapped them all by hand using wooden fruit boxes, had all the cats spayed and neutered, then fed and monitored the colony diligently for eight years. She says the colony gradually faded away, with the last cat dying just last year.

A proponent of TNR who has seen it work, Achterberg believes the animal shelter should not accept cats it can tell are feral.

"They're throwaway cats. For decades we've been just trapping and killing them at the shelters, which obviously hasn't solved the problem because people don't want to do that—it doesn't feel good. It's not that we're causing these colonies. We're trying to prevent them. But we don't think that cats need to die in the process," she says.

Feral Freedom

In animal control circles, TNR has its supporters and its skeptics. The San Jose animal shelter is part of a growing trend across the nation, a sort of shelter-sponsored TNR called Feral Freedom. When feral cats (though they prefer to call them "community cats") come in, the shelter checks them to make sure they're aren't diseased or too skinny, and if they pass, they are vaccinated, microchipped, fixed and returned to where they were captured in the first place.

Since beginning the program in 2010, the San Jose shelter has treated and released about 10,000 cats back into the community

"It's completely reasonable that cats are outside and roaming. I mean, that's what cats are," says Stacey Daines, director of the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority. Since beginning the program she says they have seen a 25 percent reduction in cats being brought into the shelter.

The adoptable cats that are kept at the shelter benefit, too. They've noticed a whopping 70 percent reduction in upper-respiratory disease.

"With fewer cats there's less germs, less stress," she says. "It has also made other programs possible for us that never would have been possible before. If a cat needed dental work five years ago, we would just euthanize it. Now we would give it dental and put it up for adoption. Kittens under two pounds would have been euthanized without a second thought. Now we put them up for adoption."

Local Approach

Some Northern California communities pass out cat traps to community members, who can borrow them and use them either to surrender cats to the shelter, or to do TNR through Project Purr's low-cost program, which offers $25 spays and neuters.

Melanie Sobel, general manager of Santa Cruz County's shelter, says she is against the shelter-facilitated TNR program in San Jose, saying the shelter has to serve its human constituents.

"The majority of our traps are used for nuisance cats, cats on people's property that they don't want," she says. "We have an obligation to deal with these cats. If that means euthanasia, unfortunately, that means euthanasia."

Daines says they've had the same complaints from San Joseans, but that hasn't stopped her. The shelter offers counseling on how to make homes less hospitable for outdoor cats, but when all else fails, the neutered cat is going to be released to the property it came from, whether the owners like it or not.

"We're the animal welfare professionals and we are in charge of managing these welfare issues, and it's our prerogative to put the cat back," she says.

Claws Out

Santa Cruz's Sobel says the fragile coastal ecosystem is harmed by the abundance of feral cats. "Because cats are one of the main pets of American society I think there's too narrow of a view with this. We have to look at the whole picture as far as all life that's out there," she says.

For now, when a cat is surrendered to the Santa Cruz shelter that cannot be put up for adoption, the shelter is required to hold it for five days, giving rescue organizations like Project Purr a chance to save it. Achterberg tries to rescue as many of these cats as she can, hopefully placing kittens in foster situations that may turn them social and available for in-home adoption, and funneling the older cats into the barn cat program.

"They do organic, green, non-toxic rodent control. Mother Nature made them that way. It's a win, win, win, all the way down the line," she says.

But Sobel believes there actually are some losers. "It's so hypocritical. They constantly talk about, 'oh the rat populations are getting killed,' but just completely ignore all the other populations that are getting killed," she says.

Indeed, cat advocates tend to gloss over or dismiss the whole "bird issue." But when pressed, Achterberg will admit, "Yes, cats get birds. But I think they probably get the old ones, the sick ones, the dumb ones, and so in a funny sort of way I think they're actually strengthening the bird population. Do you know what I mean? The strong survive, the smart, strong ones survive," she says.

Inside one of Achterberg's backyard hutches is a snow-white adult cat, crouched in the back of the hutch with her ears folded down, emitting a low, steady growl. Alongside her is her kitten, climbing up the walls, mewing sweetly at her, whom Achterberg has named Fluff, "as in marshmallow."

She holds the kitten in her arms and nuzzles him. "This little monster, I rescued him and his mom— it's OK, honey—I've had him for going on seven weeks now. He was rescued as just an eye-opening white kitten with her, surrendered to the shelter. She's quite feral—hi, sweetheart. See those ears going down and the unfriendliness? I almost didn't rescue them both from the shelter—they were going to be euthanized, of course. But I'm so glad I did," she says. "I get teary eyed—Hi, you're gonna get a home.' Yeah, it's the best thing that happens to kitties. 'Yeah, you're gonna get a home.'"