When we built our house in the suburbs 12 years ago, our yard was filled with all kinds of small wildlife – from rabbits to birds to chipmunks and squirrels. The longer we’ve lived here the fewer small animals inhabit our yard. If I’m to believe a very biased report that was released by the Smithsonian last week, we now know what’s a fault – it’s all the killer cats in our midst.
That’s the theory in yet another biased report supported by wildlife advocates and authored by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service. In a nutshell, the report blamed free-roaming cats – ferals, strays and pets – for the death of billions of birds, rodents and small mammals with nary a shout out to anything else that may be responsible for the drop in the wildlife population.
As coverage of the report spread through mainstream media such as The New York Times, USA Today, CNN and many more publications, a lot was missing. Just like past reports that blame the common cat for death in destruction in the environment, no one questioned the research, looked for other causes of destruction or even talked to groups working in the trenches with free-roaming cats in our community.
Alley Cat Allies
Alley Cat Allies, the only national organization advocating for cats, swiftly posted their blog response outlining the flaws in the report. As of this weekend, the organization has also started a national online petition demanding that the funder of the study – the Smithsonian stop spreading these biased reports. As of Monday morning, over 20,000 signatures were on the petition.
“This study is part of a continuing propaganda campaign to vilify cats,” said Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies said in the blog post. “It seems as if the authors landed on a conclusion first and then cherry-picked through studies to support it. Some of the research they cite is more than a half-century old. They even cite discredited researcher Nico Dauphine, who was convicted by a D.C. jury for trying to poison cats and then fired from her job at the Smithsonian. The researcher convicted of trying to poison cats worked for Marra, one of the authors of this study.”
“What is missing is that no one is talking about what people have done to contribute to the drop off in the bird population – habitat destruction, light and air pollution,” says Jenny Schlueter development director of of Tree House Humane Society, Chicago’s largest, cageless, no-kill cat shelter. She is also a TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) activist and founder of the organization’s Community Cats Program that currently has over 300 registered colony caretakers in Chicago.
Community cats or free-roaming cats mentioned in the study encompass the wild, or feral cats, stray cats and house cats that are allowed to roam free. Until recent years, feral cats and many strays were caught and euthanized as a way to control the cat population. It didn’t work, cat numbers kept growing and stray kittens kept appearing by the boatload.
Through TNR, groups like Tree House trap the cats, spay or neuter them, vaccinate and ear tip them and return feral cats to managed colonies while strays are often put up for adoption. TNR has been working, but unqualified studies that hit the media threaten these programs. Those working in TNR tell a different story on cats and birds.
“Our caretakers monitor the colonies and offer the cats some food. What they report is that cats in managed colonies rarely bring birds back to the colony,” adds Schlueter. “Stalking and catching birds is hard work and cats in managed colonies focus on prey that is much easier – like rodents. They do see rodent carcasses around the colony.”
Cats and rodents
The connection of cats battling rodents has been so strong that Tree House has expanded their Community Cat program into the Cats at Work program to help control some of the rodent population in some test areas of Chicago. Through the Cats at Work program, managed colonies are place in neighborhoods, factories or warehouses to eliminate the rat population naturally instead of using poison.
Various studies also show that house cats that do roam free in the neighborhood are more likely than feral cats to catch and kill birds – which brings us back to the disappearing wildlife in my own neck of the woods. There are quite a few families with cats in our neighborhood, but the sole family that let their cat roam free moved many years ago. The cats are all indoors and stay there. In fact in more and more communities, most pet cats are staying indoors for a variety of reasons.
In the meantime, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of coyotes, fox, hawks, owls and other predators that do go after many of the small animals now missing in our area. Many families also use landscapers that use copious amounts of chemicals on yards in our neighborhood. I wonder what the Smithsonian has to say about that?
If you’d like to read the response from the Alley Cat Allies go online and also sign the petition for the Smithsonian. Jenny Schlueter’s blog post went live shortly after our interview Friday. The story links below look at some of the TNR stories that I’ve posted the past year about work done in Chicago and the suburbs to stabilize the community cat program and successfully manage feral cat colonies.
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