A Silent Slaughter: Slamming the door on our subsidized predator | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

A Silent Slaughter: Slamming the door on our subsidized predator

Doing what they do.There's en email going around that shows the image of a house cat emblazoned on the nose of private jet. I've received that cat e-mail three times a week over the last few months, and every time I look at it, I'm reminded that outdoor cats kill birds, and the killing is so severe at my place that I have stopped feeding birds.

I have neighbors on three (or more) sides of me that allow their cats to run loose constantly. If they're not at my place killing quail and juncos, they're somewhere else killing birds, cottontails, lizards, mice and more birds. To make it even worse, there's a black cat and buff one that join the other two and get into a catfight about every other night, under my birdfeeder. That's four cats skulking around my place killing birds; think of what that means on a statewide basis.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that lions are like house cats on steroids, and recently, wildlife biologists have noticed another similarity between those ferocious felines and their domesticated cousins. Just as the lion is on the top of the food chain of the African savanna, the domestic house cat has become the master predator of American farmlands, cities and suburbs. If they were just a little larger, they'd put our coyotes out of business.

Wildlife biologists and humane society workers estimate that more than 100 million cats are afoot in the United States daily, and many are outside at least part of the day and night. ("Putting the cat out" is an American tradition, for crying out loud!) Most domesticated cats gobble up endless bags of cat chow, and while inside, poop in endless trays of kitty litter - but - they also like dining outdoors where their meals comprise 70 percent small mammals, 20 percent birds, and cause 10 percent of other wildlife damages.

That 20 percent adds up to a lot of birds, according to research on free-ranging rural cats by Stanley Temple, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Using telephone surveys and more traditional tools of the wildlife biology research, such as radio tracking collars, Temple came up with a "reasonable estimate" that cats annually kill at least 7.8 million birds in Wisconsin alone.

I know for a fact that the cats using my place for their own personal hunting preserve have thinned the quail population from 35 to five this winter, and have all but eliminated the once-resident juncos. I've seen them do it and find quail and junco feathers all over the fir trees where the quail once spent the night and my woodpile where the juncos took refuge.

The hardest part of this to swallow is that no one gives a damn! The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have their heads in the sand and don't want to even talk about the problem. Maybe they don't see it as a problem, even though the birds cats kill are protected by state laws.

If your kid goes out with his B-B gun and kills a robin, junco or quail he can be arrested and fined for what the state considers a "criminal act." On the other hand, if your cat kills robins, juncos or quail faster and more frequently than the kid with the B-B gun no one says anything. It just doesn't seem as though it should work that way.

To make it worse, if I trap my neighbor's cat on my property and take it to the humane society I will be in trouble with the law for tampering with my neighbor's personal property. Huh? Does that sound right? Not by your grandfather's long underwear!

If you talk to a city official or county commissioner about outdoor and stray cats killing wildlife on your property they go deaf. No one wants to hear about cats doing anything but being cutely painted on the nose of airliners to allegedly help avoid bird strikes.

Ground-nesting species, such as meadowlark, junco, and quail, are particularly vulnerable to cat predation. But the problem extends beyond birds, since cats are also pressuring species like Oregon's lizards, rabbits and even jackrabbits, plus more common mammals like field mice and meadow voles.

Well-meaning people protect free-ranging cats from disease and competition. "Oh, the poor things," they say; and they're right too; cats that are "dropped off," left to fend for themselves, are "poor things." They're waifs in the wild, but if there's one thing cats are good at, it's surviving - and for those feral and deserted cats, that means eating and killing our indigenous wildlife.

Most outdoor cats actually have a home and are loved by their human protectors, but in reality are "subsidized predators." They can -and do - prosper even when they are fed well and prey is scarce. Normally, populations of predators tracks that of prey; that is, when prey populations crash, the predators go hungry, and their numbers fall, reducing pressure on the prey.

Cats, however, are not tied closely to the density of prey the way natural predators are. A natural predator, such as a long-tailed weasel, coyote or long-eared owl will hunt and thrive where prey is abundant. When there are lots of voles, for example, there are lots of owls, but a subsidized cat has the ability to hunt anywhere, anytime. If there's one last meadowlark in the field, or quail or junco nesting in your backyard, a cat will continue to hunt it - that's what cats do. Since many free-ranging cats also eat from a bowl, hunting is not a matter of life and death for them; they kill because they are programmed to hunt, not because they are hungry.

So, what do we do... bell the cat? Concerned cat-owners who know their cats kill birds have been strapping bells to their kitties for years, but experts maintain that bells are useless. "Bells don't work - I wish they did," says Linda Winter, the coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors campaign. "Cats silently stalk their prey, and birds don't associate the sound of a bell with danger," Winter says. "Even if they do ring, it may be the last sound a bird hears." How about using a 10-pound bell? It doesn't have to ring...

Bird lovers and cat lovers alike say neutering cats will prevent the birth of countless unwanted cats. Right on! But the program that's underway today that encourages neutering feral cats, and then turning them loose again, is utterly preposterous. The cat is sent right out to kill more wildlife until it eventually dies from disease, starvation, or old age - and that disease can be spread to our native felines.

For the millions of existing cats, the big lock-up is the best, and only way to protect birds and wildlife from furry feline hit squads! That's right; slam the door and keep the cat indoors!

Contrary to the all-too-popular belief that cats must be allowed to do what they want to do (outdoors) to be "happy cats," they are susceptible to indoor training and can be "happy" indoors. It's simply a matter of closing the door and putting up with some howling for a few days. Kittens are the easiest to train, since they don't know what they are missing if they're never allowed outside.

If cat-owners would just assume responsibility for the actions of their so-called, "pets," things would be a lot brighter for our indigenous wildlife. Barring that, the only answer is to start the administrative ball rolling, get into messy politics and stupid laws. Obviously, no one wants that, but it has to happen sometime soon. Every day, more and more cats (and dogs) become family "pets" and it won't be long until the need to control the numbers of these animals will become an absolute necessity for the health and welfare of our whole community, not just birds.

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