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