The terms “feral” and “stray cat” are no longer politically correct. “Trap-neuter-and release” advocates demand we henceforth refer to abandoned and wild-born Felis domesticus as “community cats.” For honesty’s sake, I propose they be called “invasive species” — because that’s what they are, no more and no less. TNR proponents argue it’s our duty to assume “community ownership” of deleterious invasive species' populations.
Feral cats worldwide have caused 33 bird extinctions, are the primary cause for 14 percent of insular wildlife extinctions, and are the principal threat to 8 percent of critically endangered species worldwide. Hawaii’s state bird—the semi-flightless nene’ goose — was nearly wiped out by introduced cats and mongooses, its population reduced to 30 by 1952. Today most nene’ geese live in zoos.
Hawaii has more endangered species than any other state. Amazingly, TNR activists foster feral cat colonies there, members of which were caught on tape destroying Hawaiian petrel nestlings, an endangered seabird — population 50.
Cats kill more birds and mammals in the U.S. than do automobiles, poisonings and collisions with human structures combined. A Smithsonian Institute study found that 84 million “at-liberty” house cats and 30-65 million feral cats destroy from 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and from 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals in the U.S. annually.
I recently asked “Mojo’s Hope” founder Shannon Basner, a proponent of TNR in Anchorage, to provide ONE example of successful feral cat colony attrition via trap-neuter-release. She admitted she couldn’t. The only “data” she offered were testimonials from fellow TNR proponents who claim it’s working. I wasn’t impressed.
Every spayed cat returned to a colony enhances survival of un-spayed colony members’ kittens by reducing competition for resources. Thus TNR can actually INCREASE the growth rate and persistence of feral colonies, particularly if they’re fed.
The heartwarming stories of fewer kittens turning up in shelters thanks to TNR are wishful thinking at best. With less competition, smaller, weaker animals—i.e. kittens of cats NOT trapped, spayed and released — risk baited traps less often, so they don’t show up in shelters as much. And those un-trapped, un-spayed cats? They have between one and five litters of up to 12 kittens a year.
Most importantly, TNR advocates utterly ignore that a released spayed cat continues merrily destroying wildlife as long as it lives regardless of whether or not humans feed it. Each feral cat kills from 23 to 46 birds and 129 to 338 mammals annually. One of my two cats is 14 years old. If instead of keeping her inside I’d “spayed and released” her, she would have by now likely consumed up to 644 birds and 4,732 mammals.
There are, however, numerous examples where eradicating invasive species not only succeeded, but halted and reversed environmental damage. The following are examples from among 41 peer-reviewed scientific studies listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature website:
Long Cay Island, British West Indies — re-introducing endangered rhinoceros iguanas into their native habitat became possible after the feral cats which extirpated them from Long Cay were eliminated. The iguanas are now thriving. TNR advocates may not find iguanas as “cute” as cats, but that’s no basis for wildlife stewardship.
Northwestern Mexico — the Island Conservation and Ecology Group, Instituto de Ecologia del Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, Centro de Investigationes de Biologias de Noroeste and offices of the Areas Naturales Protegidas in 1994 aided local people in eradicating feral cats from 26 islands off the northwest coast of Mexico. By 2001 they’d succeeded on 16 of them. Twenty-six endemic reptile, 21 endemic mammal and one endemic bird species recovered once the cats were gone. For two other endemic birds it’s too late — they’re extinct.
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge personnel started eradicating introduced foxes from 39 Aleutian Islands in 1949. Native waterfowl, ptarmigan, shorebird and seabird populations quadrupled or quintipled. Endangered Aleutian cackling geese were reintroduced to those islands and by 2000 had rebounded from near-extinction to more than 35,000 birds.
Felis domesticus, the "house" cat, is a selectively-bred hybrid bearing little resemblance to its wild parent species, the European and African wild cats, Felis sylvestris and F. lybica. Therefore F. domesticus isn’t a “natural” part of ANY environment, including that of its wild forebears. Want proof? European and African wild cats are critically endangered because they’re being displaced and genetically swamped by their own “domesticated” hybrid descendants.
Feral cats are an ecological disaster even in the home ranges of the species from which they were bred. When they’re introduced into regions were NO wild cats naturally occurred, their impact on native fauna is incalculably worse.
I ask TNR advocates — why do feral cats deserve special treatment? Why not feral Norway rats? Why not feral pigeons? Why not feral Burmese pythons, brown tree snakes, snapping turtles, African clawed frogs, cane toads, lionfish, grass carp, northern pike?
All those species were introduced outside their native ranges by humans and have adversely affected wildlife populations, human populations or both, where they became established. Why should feral cats be treated differently from other harmful invasive species?
TNR apologists flail and screech that killing feral cats is “cruel,” but say nothing about the cruelty of allowing precious outdoor “pets” to destroy billions of wild animals. Biologist and columnist Rick Sinnott called TNR “cat hoarding without walls.” It’s worse than that — this selfish, hypocritical practice constitutes cat hoarding without commitment, cost or inconvenience. Wild animals and birds pay the cost in blood, and human communities through exposure to disease.
Al-Hajj Frederick H. Minshall is a U.S. Navy veteran with a degree in fisheries biology who has lived in Alaska since 2004. He's an Ithna-Ashari ("Twelver") Shi'a Muslim whose chief hobby is overindulging his five grandchildren. "Al-Hajj" (Arabic root "Hijr"—"journey") means "the Pilgrim," and is a traditional title for one who has made pilgrimage to Mecca.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.