Latest slam on cats for killing songbirds is unfair

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Dogs are man's best friends, but cats have a target on their backs. The latest to take aim was Richard Conniff in a New York Times op-ed piece March 21 headlined, "The Evil of the Outdoor Cat."

So, now cats are evil. Sounds like the Middle Ages, when many people feared cats as consorts of Satan and killed them by the thousands. Cats were even blamed for the Black Plague in Europe. Sadly, outbreaks only grew worse until scientists finally figured out that fleas from rats were the plague carriers, and that cats could help to diminish the disease by controlling rat populations.

Unfair condemnation of cats has gone on for centuries, although it's pretty startling when someone like Conniff, an accomplished author who writes about wildlife for Smithsonian, National Geographic and other prominent magazines, maligns them.

His complaint has nothing to do with that purring machine that snuggles in your bed at night. Conniff maintains that he likes cats. It's pet indoor-outdoor cats and feral cats that bother him, and trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs to control feral cat populations.

Conniff writes about how his cat, Lucky, would lurk near a bird feeder, and how guilty he felt when Lucky caught birds. Lucky died in 2008, and Conniff says that's when he had an epiphany that cats could or should be kept indoors, pretty much calling himself a pioneer. Of course, animal welfare groups and pet advocates, including myself, have been endorsing this idea for over 20 years.

In the NY Times piece, Conniff says he has a "sense of alarm about the dramatic decline of wildlife, especially bird populations," due to cats. He goes on to quote data from the National Audubon Society.

I'll comment on that data, but first let me implore anyone reading this column to use common sense. Of course, cats do kill birds, but studies repeatedly demonstrate that cats kill the easiest readily available prey -- most often, small rodents. Also, as fast and cunning as cats are, they can't fly.

I don't doubt the accuracy of the data Conniff collected regarding the precipitous decline of songbird numbers, with some species barely surviving.

However, consider this fact: There have always been feral cats. No data suggests there's an appreciable increase in the number of feral cats commensurate with the sharp decline in songbird numbers. In fact, we know far more cat owners in the U.S. now keep their cats inside than in the past.

Might there be other explanations -- aside from cats -- for the plight of songbirds? Habitat destruction and light and air pollution are principal explanations. Many songbirds migrate, so even if their habitats in America are stable, that may not be the case in Central or South America, or Mexico.

I agree that pet cats belong indoors, not only to protect wildlife, but also for the cats' welfare (which Conniff fails to mention). Indoors, cats are rarely chased by coyotes or hit by cars.

I endorse controlling feral cat numbers. As far I know, the only effective method to date is TNR. Cats are trapped, spay/neutered, vaccinated for rabies, then returned to the wild to live out their lives. Volunteers supplement the cats' food, and in some places feral cats are even protected against fleas and/or microchipped. Each cat is ID'd with an ear notch, so volunteers know when a newcomer joins a colony.

TNR isn't perfect, but once again, I ask for common sense. If volunteers are diligent, and if the cats in a colony can't reproduce, the group eventually dies out. Even prodigious cats can't multiply if they're spay/neutered.

Although he criticizes TNR, Conniff doesn't offer an alternative. I know of only three options:

1. Catching feral cats, spay/neutering them and placing them for adoption in animal shelters. If somehow enough feral cats could be captured to make a difference, feral cats suffer confined in shelters don't make very good pets without years of socialization (draining resources, or not realistic), and take up limited cage space that could go to more adoptable animals.

3. Catching and euthanizing. It's not that this effort hasn't been tried. However, rarely are animal control agencies able to catch all cats in a colony. Those remaining naturally increase their reproduction and the colony's numbers rise to, or exceed, previous levels.

3. Shooting cats. Can you believe public officials in some locales have endorsed this plan? Do I really need to outline why it's not a good idea?

While I do love cats, I also have a special place in my heart for songbirds. My hope is that the ASPCA or the American Humane Association can bring "bird people" and "cat people" to the same table. The current strategy taken by bird advocacy groups to malign cats has not, and will not, succeed in significantly boosting songbird numbers.

One more thing: If Mr. Conniff was so bothered by his cat killing birds, why didn't he remove or move that bird feeder?

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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