The Impact of Free-Roaming Cats on Wildlife

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Evaluating Solutions to the Negative Impact of Feral Cats on the Environment

There is overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating the negative impact of free-ranging cats on birds and other wildlife. When it comes to identifying solutions, however, we have lost our scientific grounding and have allowed our policies and actions to be driven more by frustration than by careful, objective analysis of the likely real-world impacts of those policies and actions. This will result in an increase in feral cat numbers in outdoor environments and therefore higher levels of predation on wildlife as a result. Several factors have led us off track.

1. Confusing the problem with the solution.

The vast majority of the literature on this topic focuses on describing the problem, not on finding solutions to the problem. For instance, in conservation writer Ted William's much referenced article on feral cats, he makes a compelling case as to why feral cats pose a threat to birds and other wildlife, but he devotes almost no space at all to discussing how best to actually reduce feral cat populations. He suggests hunting cats with rifles, but that option is simply unrealistic in the majority of settings, and he ultimatelty admits that "even lethal control won’t solve the problem." If we want to protect wildlife, we have to do more than just complain about the problem of feral cats. We have to objectively analyze all possible approaches to solving the problem, on a setting by setting basis, using consistent criteria.

2. Confusing opposition to one solution with proposing and implementing better solutions.

There are a great many limitations to the method of trapping and sterilizing cats and then returning unadoptable cats back to the environments in which they were trapped. However, simply stopping that process without substituting a better process would be a terrible solution for wildlife as it would only lead to more unsterilized cats breeding in the environment. Cats do not require human assistance to breed in the outdoors. They do, however, require human intervention to prevent breeding. That can come in the form of permanent removal from the environment or from sterilization. Permanent removal is preferable when it can be accomplished. Blindly opposing sterilize and return programs without any consideration for whether permanent removal will take its place is a huge mistake.

3. Conflating sterilization with colony maintenance.

Sterilizing a cat and feeding a cat are two very different things and we've confused their causal relationship. Simply obstructing the sterilization of feral cats does not prevent their being fed by human caretkajers. It just ensures that there will be exponentially more cats being fed even after the unsterilized cat perishes. As much as managed colonies of sterilized cats pose a continued threat to wildlife, it is illogical to suggest that unmanaged colonies of unsterilized cats is a preferable scenario for wildlife.

4. Confusing theoretical solutions with real world solutions.

When simply writing an essay on the problem of feral cats, one can create a world in which people are just as motivated to euthanize cats as they are to rescue them. There is no evidence, however, that this is true in the real world, where feral cat control policies must ultimately work. Emotion should never be allowed to cloud the facts of an issue, but that doesn't mean that human emotion, or human behavior in general, can be ignored when evaluating how effective a policy will be when implemented in the real world. Why are there so many more organizations, with so many donors and so many volunteers, that are dedicated to cat rescue (which always includes sterilization) than there are organizations, donors and volunteers dedicated to permanent removal? We should be cautious about shutting down the former until we can demonstrate the ability to implement the latter in sufficient scale and over a sufficient time period to be successful.

5. Choosing "one size fits all" dogma over thoughtful case by case analysis.

Feral cats live and breed in drastically different settings, from sensitive wildlife areas to highly urban back alleys. Studies show that the predation habits of cats, as well as the efficacy of various feral cat management methods, vary widely by setting as well as other factors. Conservationists naturally focus on the critical conservation areas, where sterilize and return efforts are not only less tolerable to wildlife enthusiasts, but also less effective. However, by insisting on inflexible policies that do not distinguish between different settings and circumstances, some conservationists are ignoring the benefit of sterilization efforts in more populated areas where:

- predation rates are lower
- biodiversity is lower
- trapping rates are higher
- volunteer access is higher
- cat containment is higher
- lethal control methods are more difficult to implement
- nuisance to wildlife enthusiasts is lower

6. Ignoring the root causes

Free-ranging cats don't just appear out of thin air. They are the result of irresponsible pet ownership. Campaigns to increase early sterilization of domestic cats, keep domestic cats indoors and discourage pet abandonment are noble, but this kind of attitudinal change requires significant resources. More analysis needs to be done on where best to invest limited resources on this issue.

In order for wildlife advocates to protect wildlife from the very real threat of free-ranging cats, we need to focus on solutions, not just the problem, and not just on opposition to one solution that falls short of our ideal. We need to consistently measure all potential solutions against the same criteria. The additional pages of this web site attempt to facilitate discussion of this important topic.