It's baby bird season in Alaska. So when I read all the debate about feral cats and whether they should be sterilized and released or killed, I have to admit to being very torn. On the one hand, the thought of ending any animal or human life before its time is in many ways abhorrent to me. On the other hand, roaming cats provide an added layer of danger to baby birds and their chances of survival.
Full disclosure - I am a volunteer at Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage. This is our busiest season as we take care of hundreds of baby birds brought into our facility for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a tree is cut down, and only after it falls is the nest noticed. Sometimes a baby leaves the nest a tad too early and can't get back in. Sometimes a motorist doesn't stop when a momma is trying to cross the road with her babes. They become instant orphans. And far too often, babies and other little birds are brought into us with puncture wounds from where a cat bit them.
Whatever the reason, come summer our facility is filled with orphans. The littlest birds go home with volunteers who have taken our baby bird training class. They care for the babies until they are old enough to leave the nest. These are birds not easily imprinted on humans. Once able to fend for themselves, they can be released and almost immediately revert to their innate wild behavior. I have often felt that this program should be required for all teenagers as the most effective birth control program ever imagined. There is nothing like taking care of a clutch of little birds that awaken every few hours and scream until they are fed to make a teenager rethink the fun of parenthood.
Our other orphaned birds, like ducks, geese or gulls, are very susceptible to imprinting on humans. These birds are kept at the center to be raised and released by volunteers trained to not allow the birds to imprint, no matter how darn cute those fluffy little critters are.
The problem with feral cats is that the destruction they wreak on our bird population cannot be easily fixed. While we do our best to raise the little ones injured by cat attacks, often the damage to such tiny critters is more than they can survive. And this is not just a problem during baby bird season. All year long we receive "cat got" birds. They frequently have air sac damage that makes survival iffy at best. Between the trauma of the attack and the resulting injuries, nursing them back to health is often simply not possible. Sometimes all we can do is ease their passage from this life.
I am not one to advocate killing any critters outside of the need to hunt for food. I figure we all share this earth and we should learn how to share it fairly and equitably. There are many cat people who feel that allowing their cats to roam outside is merely allowing them to live out their inherent nature of stalking and hunting. This would hold a lot truer if those cats didn't have all the food and water they needed in their homes, thereby negating the need for that stalking and killing.
Other cat people will claim that their cats are miserable if left indoors and do nothing all day but cry and scratch at the door until they have to let them out. I don't buy that argument. And I don't buy it not only because of the destruction those cats cause to the bird population in this state, but also because of the "gifts" they've left me on my lawn and in my flower beds. I clean up after my pets. If you think your cat has a right to roam the neighborhood pooping at will in anyone's yard, then you should routinely patrol the neighborhood and pick up all those little gifts.
Loving your pets means controlling your pets. Cats doing what cats want to naturally do is not the problem. Owners letting cats dictate the conditions of life in their homes are. Give the baby birds a chance. Heck, give my flowerbed a break. Curb your cat.
Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.
By ELISE PATKOTAK