Feral Cat

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

To the Editor:

I was disappointed to read Ted Brancheau’s recent letter to the editor (“The negative impact of feral campus cats,” March 18), which provided readers with little more than tired talking points typically trotted out by those who dislike outdoor cats.

Worse, his rationale for opposing Eastern Kentucky University’s campus trap-neuter-return (TNR) program is based largely on badly flawed science (citation 1). If Brancheau’s estimates of bird deaths are to be believed, for example, the number of birds killed annually by America’s outdoor cats might actually exceed the total number of birds estimated to be in the country. One simply cannot reconcile such claims with the best population estimates available (citation 2) or with the population trends documented by the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey (citation 3).

Moreover, Brancheau’s suggestion that adoption and euthanasia are the only actions that can effectively reduce the cat population ignores both science and common sense. This is the very approach that’s been used in the U.S. for over 100 years in an attempt to “manage” free-roaming cats, with zero evidence that it can produce any long-term population reduction.  It is also extremely unpopular with the general public and very costly, the poster child for failed public policy.

To those who might argue that we simply need to kill more cats (“kill” being the appropriate term here, not the euphemistic “euthanasia”), the scientific literature provides cautionary tales. Take, for example, uninhabited Marion Island (belonging to South Africa and less than half the size of Lexington), where it took 19 years to exterminate an estimated 2,100 to 3,400 cats (citation 4).  Horrendous methods were used, including deliberate introduction of the feline disease panleukopenia, poisoning, hunting and trapping, and even shooting of cats. Ironically, the island was later overrun with mice, threatening the very wildlife whose protection was used to justify the cat eradication campaign (citation 5).  It should be emphasized that neither the killing of cats by poisoning, nor trapping and dumping them off campus is legal under Kentucky statutes.

TNR programs, by contrast, offer a common sense, animal-friendly, effective and economical alternative. The process is simple: cats are caught, evaluated by veterinarians, vaccinated, spayed or neutered and returned to their original outdoor homes. Numerous peer-reviewed research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of targeted sterilization programs to reduce local populations of cats (citation 7).

Indeed, TNR done by the Community Cats Volunteers at EKU has resulted in a reduction of the outdoor cat population from 150 to 53.   Our volunteers rescue and adopt out any friendly cats or kittens, and we track and care for cats that are truly feral and unadoptable.  We provide quarterly reports to the university administration that include a cat census. TNR enjoys broad public support (citation 8).  On the other hand, we know from our experience that an eradication campaign such as that suggested by Brancheau would lead to public outrage.

The bottom line is clear: TNR is better not just for the cats, but for the community—and for the wildlife we all wish to protect.


Dr. Nancy McKenney, spokesperson for Community Cats Volunteers and retired faculty member

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(1) comment

JJ McKibbin

Unfortunately Dr. McKenney's immense lack of factual knowledge about feral cat control is somehow surpassed by her ability to regurgitate propaganda by feral cat advocates like Peter Wolf and his employer, Best Friends Animal Society. Their only concern is keeping every single feral cat from euthanasia.

There is so much misinformation here it is hard to know where to start. She begins with the standard "cat hater" claim ("talking points typically trotted out by those who dislike outdoor cats"). So we know from the very start that Dr. McKenney has no concept of the real issues and the actual "big picture". She appears to think this is simply about caring more about a bird than a cat (or vice versa). It is not. This is about conserving and preserving biodiversity. Cats don't just kill native birds. Cats also kill frogs, toads, salamanders, skinks, lizards, snakes, turtles, native mice, native rats, shrews, rabbits, hares, bats, other small mammals, butterflies, moths, other native insects and more. And those are just the animals that cats kill directly. Domestic cats have spread feline leukemia to Florida panthers, killing them. They spread toxoplasma gondii, killing Hawaiian crows and Hawaiian geese. Toxoplasma gondii from cats also flows into the watersheds and oceans, killing Hawaiian monk seals, spinner dolphins, manatees, sea otters, and beluga whales. And those are just the sea mammals that we currently know are being killed by toxoplasmosis. Likely there are other species being affected. And that doesn't even touch on the human health issues that include rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonella, hookworm, ringworm, toxocariasis, plague, and more. So yes, Dr. McKenney, it's about more than "just" birds, and it is very serious.

She then displays her lack of knowledge further by repeating Peter Wolf's uneducated claim that if the estimated number of birds killed by cats in the Loss, Will, Marra study were accurate (median 2.4 billion birds annually), all the birds in North America would have been killed already. She (like Wolf) fails to understand that he is quoting population figures from the breeding bird census, a count of breeding pairs. Mortality estimates are based on predation occurring throughout the year, including on nestling, fledgling, migrating, and sub-adult birds that may never survive to be counted, or as occurs frequently with many bird species, do not attempt to breed every year. Cat depredation on birds seeking temporary refuge during migration may be particularly severe, since stopover migrants often use small patches of habitat in urban/suburban areas with which they are unfamiliar, and there is to date no reliable method of estimating the size of either a spring or fall migratory bird population. Likewise, cat depredation of "hatch year" birds may occur disproportionately in some circumstances, including in summer, fall and winter (e.g., see published studies showing high rates of cat depredation of Gray Catbirds and Spotted Towhees). Given that some species raise two, three, or more broods of young each year, the overall vulnerable population of U.S. birds is likely considerably higher. To Dr. McKenney, cats die as individuals, but birds are only considered as populations. Individual birds don't matter, and populations are only a concern when we get down to the last few birds.

She goes on to claim that removal has been used for 100 years without any sign of population reduction. It is true that removal has been used for years. It is also true that removal has never been implemented in a planned and concerted way. It has been used haphazardly and on a complaint-based basis. And actually, when complaints are made and the cats are removed, the problem dissipates. But it has never been used in a widespread systematic way in the continental U.S.

Her attempt to use Marion Island as an example is another red herring. Dozens of islands have been successfully cleared of feral cats since then. With each successful eradication of island cats we learn more. And every time another island is cleared of cats, the rebound of native seabirds is nothing short of astounding. See www. islandconservation.org.

Lastly she goes on to the usual cat advocate cheer of: "TNR - It works". She gives an anecdote about a reduction is a single cat colony as supposed "proof". The actual fact is that TNR does not work to reduce feral cat populations. There is no scientific research that suggests it could work over a large area. There is much scientific research indicating it cannot work over a large area. In reality TNR is nothing more than a euthanasia avoidance scheme for feral cats. The truth is that although there are many, many municipalities across North America that have been duped, bullied, or bribed into enacting TNR as their feral cat population management program, there is not one single municipality that can state that it has fewer feral cats today than it did when it started TNR. Not one. Anyone who wishes to dispute this fact should name the municipality along with its feral cat population when it started TNR and its feral cat population today. TNR does not work.

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