Claws & Fangs: A Painful Subject

Author’s Note: This article identifies a problem my industry has seen increase in recent years. The goal of my article is
to inform GVL readers of the potential threats of feral cats.
I am not endorsing one or another activity to decrease the impact on other wildlife, rather to open a discussion about a humane and fair way to protect all the animals and people who live in our habitat.

In the pest and nuisance wildlife control industry, issues that we control are normally handled with the cooperation and full backing of not only the client, but also with surrounding neighbors. Let’s put it in perspective – no one wants squirrels in their attic, groundhogs, skunks and raccoons under their shed or other nuisance wildlife living in close proximity to their home and families. Damage to personal property, health concerns due to disease, parasites, rabies, urine and droppings lead the list of problems encountered with wildlife. Anyone with a family pet knows the concerns involved with unintentional encounters in their backyards. These are concerns that our industry deals with daily and we have become comfortable knowing that potential issues can be professionally handled when necessary.

Now, for the elephant in the room…feral cats.

For every person who wants cats away from their property, there are others who say “Let them be. They are only doing what their instincts dictate. They are cute and it doesn’t hurt to feed them – they keep
the rodents down.” I’ve heard it all. It is a fact that these feral cats (or generations before them) were once domesticated, but cats have very strong independent traits and will revert to their instinctual behaviors if given the opportunity. They are uniquely adaptable to whatever environment is available. Given the fact that they still carry the genetic patterns of domestic pets, their coats resemble that of house pets. Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end.

Although it is common knowledge that cats are good “mousers,” feral cats not only feed on mice, but they are also adept at hunting birds, rabbits, squirrels and other native animals. If given free rein, they can upset the balance of nature in their area, killing animals that would be better served by feeding raptors such as hawks and owls, or even snakes and foxes. Make no mistake about it – feral cats are not an indigenous species and could fit under the definition of invasive species. In general, invasive species are defined as “Any kind of living organism not native to an ecosystem and which causes harm to native flora and fauna.”

This includes anything from plants, animals and insects to fungus and bacteria. Under that definition, feral cats are certainly in that category.

It is estimated that there are a minimum of 7+ million feral cats in Pennsylvania alone. If these cats captured and ate only one bird a day, that number would far exceed the numbers of birds killed by pesticides, running into buildings, toxic spills in the same area, all in one day!
USA Today reports that roaming cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds in the United States yearly. There are documented cases
of songbird populations being decimated in areas where cats were introduced. An Audubon Society study states that cats likely are the single greatest source of mortality for U.S. birds and mammals. The authors reviewed 21 studies, which they used to estimate population and predation rates. The paper is part of a larger effort to quantify all human-related causes for wildlife mortality.

Another large difference between domesticated cats and feral cats is their lifespan. Indoor cats can live comfortably up to 15 years and longer, whereas feral cats live approximately 2 to 3 years.

There are no easy or pleasant answers to the problem of feral cats. Any perceived answers are not without faults and have significant downsides associated with them. The choices are either- 1) trap, neuter and release (TNR), or 2) trap and euthanize (TE). Below, I have listed some of the concerns:

• TNR – Trapping normally requires professional knowledge/efforts, drive time to and from site and trapping equipment. Neutering requires travel to vet hospital site and expense of the procedure. Release means returning to original trapping site to release neutered animals. In virtually all cases, these cats have additional health issues and may even be vectors of rabies. These animals are very aggressive and must be handled with extreme care. All stated procedures come at a cost. When released, the animal cannot breed, but they still need to hunt and eat their food which does not solve the depredation problem in the short term.

• TE – Trapping carries the same concerns as written above. Euthanizing animals has always been a hot-button issue. In Pennsylvania, we are required to euthanize any and all wildlife Rabies Vector Species (RVS) caught for removal Rabies Vector Species are animals that are known

to have the potential or likelihood of transmitting rabies to humans
and domesticated animals. It is illegal to release RVS animals in new areas, for fear of spreading the disease. Due to a feral cat’s lifestyle, it
is definitely considered RVS, but is it wildlife? This seems to depend on the community involved. There are no Pennsylvania statutes available for determination, so it falls onto the client’s willingness to pay for either procedure.

In closing, I want to impress on the community that I am not actively trying to increase my business by trapping feral cats. I find this article
is a perfect opportunity to explain the issues involved with owning or providing shelter for outdoor/feral cats. They are prolific breeders, and the problem will never go away without actively changing their ability to live free and hunt. Other than keeping your cat indoors, there is no correct or easy answer to this concern; we must all do our part to protect the native wildlife from unnecessary predation by feral cats.

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