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Managing 'community cats' should include every available tool

Michael Haukedalen

The debate over outdoor cats (Daily News, July 6) has been raging ever since Teddy Roosevelt moved into the White House. At that time, Edward Howe Forbush, the Massachusetts state ornithologist, penned the first in a series of monographs that vilified cats as predators of birds that performed valuable service for farmers, and game birds of value to sportsmen. The lines of argument have shifted some in the more than 100 years since, but the controversy remains. This long-polarized debate obscures a stark reality: those who advocate for wildlife and those who advocate for cats are working toward the same endpoint -- fewer cats outdoors. If cats are bad for the environment, it’s also true that the environment is bad for cats. The irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone.

Rather than collaborate on positive solutions toward reducing the numbers of outdoor cats, some would increase the discord between cat and bird advocates by assailing one of the more pragmatic and effective tools utilized to achieve meaningful population reduction -- Trap-Neuter-Return. To use the terms common in resource management, why throw a tool out of the toolbox? With the population of community (feral and stray) cats in the U.S. in the tens of millions, doesn’t it make sense to consider all strategies?

Although the agenda of those calling for a ban on TNR remains unspecified, there is little doubt that lethal management on a massive scale is their idea of a solution. Yet such programs too have been tried, and repeatedly failed in the past. The economic argument alone would derail any effort to ramp up trapping and killing programs, since it would take an army to trap and kill enough cats to prevent them from reproducing their way out of temporary depopulation.  Importantly, our community is compassionate, and there is very little broad-based support in Anchorage for such a blunt and inhumane tactic. With TNR, there are ample motivated and engaged volunteers and agencies bringing time, energy and resources into a humane management equation, offering the kind of grassroots effort that is absolutely essential to progress on this issue.

There are legitimate and prioritized conservation concerns that TNR advocates have to understand, and there are places, like some islands, where cats cannot be tolerated. But the same is true of other species -- mice, pigs, goats, cattle, dogs, rats -- and conservation plans for such places must involve more strategic management planning than merely targeting cats. After more than 100 years of failure, we must be realistic about our chances of solving the outdoor cat problem quickly. We will need better technologies, particularly in the area of effective oral contraceptives, and more comprehensive and effective planning before there is any hope of real impact at the population level. Until then, prioritizing and executing more focused efforts where threats to rare and unique wild species exist will likely proceed, but need to be perfected, especially with regard to selecting the most humane means of control.

It is important that the dilemma of outdoor cats be understood within the context of the larger issue of the many non-native species transported and released by humans into sensitive environments. It is a shame we blame the animals for being “invasive” and make them the targets of sometimes draconian management actions without first acknowledging our own responsibility. This may do little in the short run, but it will seed the ground for the discussion of ethics, civility, and pragmatism so obviously lacking in the current climate.

Michael Haukedalen is the Alaska state director for The Humane Society of the United States.

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.