Feral Cats: A Conundrum for Wildlife Managers

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The Waikoloa Hilton parking lot is full of cats. Signs around the lot ask that visitors not feed them, as they are being cared for by AdvoCATS, a Kona group that, according to its website, helps “abandoned and homeless felines.” It supports the trap-neuter-return (TNR) approach to stray cat colonies – an approach that involves trapping the cats, neutering them and giving them other veterinary care if needed, and returning them to where they were found.

A few hundred feet away, at the meeting last month of The Wildlife Society inside the hotel, the attitude toward feral cats was somewhat cooler. Earlier this year, the society’s governing council approved a position statement on feral and free-ranging domestic cats that supported “the humane elimination of feral cat populations, including feral cat colonies, through adoption into indoor-only homes of eligible cats and humane euthanasia of unadoptable cats.”

The society’s policy opposes TNR programs as being ineffective in keeping cat populations down, harmful to birds and other wildlife they may prey upon, and as reservoirs of disease – rabies, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, typhus, and feline immunodeficiency virus, among others – that can affect humans as well as both domestic and wild animals. In the wild, feral cats can compete with native predators. The Wildlife Society attributes the extinction of at least 33 bird species globally to depredation by feral cats.

“Effects of cat predation and disease spread are most pronounced in island settings (both actual islands and islands of habitat), where populations of wildlife are already low or stressed by other factors,” the statement says. 

The Humane Society of the United States supports TNR programs, as does the Hawai`i Humane Society. In questionnaires given to candidates for public office in the 2010 November general elections, the HHS asked if they thought “Trap, Neuter and Return and Manage (TNRM) is an effective and humane strategy to reduce feral cat overpopulation.” (Governor Neil Abercrombie responded, “Yes.”) According to its website, in the last five years, the Hawai`i Humane Society has “helped more than 12,000 feral cats at a cost of over $250,000 for needed sterilizations.”

At last month’s TWS convention, a workshop on management of feral cats drew participation from wildlife agencies as well as Inge Gibson of the Humane Society of the U.S.A. Although organizers had feared the event might draw protests from cat fanciers, those fears did not materialize. According to Steve Hess, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystem Research Center in Volcano, agency representatives and Gibson agreed to sit down and try to work out where they might find common ground on this contentious subject.

“That’s a good exercise in theory,” Hess said. “But in Hawai`i, what we have is seabird fall-outs, especially on O`ahu and Kaua`i. Especially in urban areas birds are more likely to fall out, and that’s where cat colonies okay. That is to me one of the bigger issues.”

In addition to preying on fallen seabirds, in Hawai`i, feral cats have preyed on endangered burrowing or ground-nesting birds, such as the `ua`u (the Hawaiian petrel, Pterodroma sandwichensis). They have nearly wiped out whole colonies of `ua`u kani (wedge-tailed shearwaters, Puffinus pacificus) on Maui. In the subalpine mamane forest of Mauna Kea, cats continue to prey on the critically endangered palila (Loxiodes bailleui). Toxoplasmosis from cats was implicated in the death of several `alala (Hawaiian crow, Corvus hawaiiensis), and in the deaths of Hawaiian monk seals.

Last month, the American Bird Conservancy called on the nation’s mayors to oppose TNR programs and halt any municipal funding in support of the program. According to the ABC, some 95 million outdoor and feral cats in the United States kill at least 532 million birds a year, “and possibly significantly more.” A press release said that the National Association of Public Health Veterinarians, The Wildlife Society, and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals joined ABC in opposing TNR programs.

For Further Reading:

•The Wildlife Society position statement: http://joomla.wildlife.org/ (Click on the link to “position statements” and browse down to the “Urban Wildlife Management” category.)

•USGS Pacific Island Ecosystem Research Center fact sheet: http://biology.usgs.gov/pierc/Fact_Sheets/Feral_cats.pdf

•Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet: http://www.fws.gov/pacific/lawenforcement/Sam%20Stuff/October%202009.html

•An article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association in 2004 discusses TNR programs, including the Hawaiian Humane Society’s program on O`ahu: See Linda Winter, “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts:” http://www.avma.org/avmacollections/feral_cats/javma_225_9_1369.pdf

Patricia Tummons

Volume 22, Number 6 — December 2011

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