Alaska is no stranger to predator control. In a concerted effort to reduce their numbers, the state's 7,000 to 11,000 wolves have been poisoned and shot from airplanes in addition to being hunted and trapped for the better part of a century. But a much more lethal predator has been overlooked.
Anchorage has 74,000 pet cats, based on national data compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association. That figure doesn't include feral cats. Animal Control doesn't know how many feral cats live within the municipality. National estimates suggest relatively high numbers, at least thousands in a community the size of Anchorage. Some people would like to see more.
Mojo's Hope, a local rescue group for animals with special needs, wants the city to allow residents to trap feral cats, neuter them, then release them back into the environment. Like-minded groups in other states have established hundreds of trap-neuter-release or TNR programs. A key feature of these programs is cat colonies, where feral cats can be fed without confinement. Volunteers who manage these colonies often attempt to capture and sterilize cats attracted to feeding stations.
Before trap-neuter-release is legal in Anchorage, the municipality's animal control ordinance must be revised. Title 17 requires operators of multi-animal facilities to ensure that all animals are confined or in control wherever the animals are kept. That's not what happens in feral cat colonies, where cats are free to come and go as they please. So Mojo's Hope has asked the Animal Control Advisory Board to help convince the Anchorage Assembly to revise the law.
Local groups like Mojo's Hope and national groups such as Alley Cat Allies exposit several reasons why trap-neuter-release is good public policy. They claim the "population will go down over time" and that the alternative, capturing and euthanizing feral cats, creates a "vacuum effect" which allows the "next colony" to move in and the population to "explode." They claim feral cats are as healthy as pet cats. They claim cats are natural predators, part of the environment, and that people are the main cause of wildlife deaths.
Scientists have looked into all of these assertions, and they don't hold water. In a perfect world all feral cats could be caught and euthanized; however many feral cats evade capture, and irresponsible pet owners continue to abandon unneutered cats that keep having kittens. The best test of TNR's efficacy would be the gradual disappearance of cat colonies, but most maintain their numbers. Meanwhile, new colonies proliferate. Washington D.C. has more than 300 of them.
Feral cats suffer from high infection rates of feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, the protozoan that causes toxoplasmosis, ectoparasites like ticks and fleas, rabies and other diseases, many of which can be transmitted to pets, wildlife, and people.
Admittedly, people are the cause of many accidental wildlife mortalities. Birds fly into windows and towers, cars run over mammals. And cats are just one more way that people affect wildlife.
High densities of cats are unnatural
Cats are classified as one of the 100 worst invasive non-native species, and have eradicated 33 species of birds worldwide.
When cats are sheltered and fed by people, they can exist at densities up to 100 times higher than similarly sized native predators. On islands and in fragmented urban and suburban habitats unnaturally high densities of cats are not only capable of reducing or eradicating populations of birds and small mammals, they can out-compete native predators like foxes and weasels.
Cats have a natural killing instinct, but that doesn't mean they belong in the wild or fill a natural niche. Even well-fed cats kill.
Scientists have recognized the problem for decades. A recent study published in a peer-reviewed journal analyzed the results of many previous studies in the U.S. and Europe. It estimates there are 30 to 80 million "un-owned" cats and 84 million "owned" cats in the U.S.
By extrapolation, researchers concluded cats kill up to 4 billion birds in the Lower 48 each year. An additional 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals – mainly mice, voles, shrews, squirrels, rabbits – fall victim. Feral cats cause most of the mortality. Most prey animals are native species, not such introduced pests as house mice, rats, pigeons, or house sparrows. The authors say cats may be the single greatest cause of human-related mortality in wild bird populations.
Everyone wants to argue about the numbers. For example, Peter Wolf, an influential trap-neuter-release advocate, took the study to task, pointing out that its estimate of birds killed by cats represented an "astonishing" 28.5 to 75.5 percent of the breeding population of North American land birds. However, Wolf cited a much smaller estimate of land birds than that used in the scientific article and failed to note that the breeding population is vastly augmented by the annual hatch of young birds, so his "astonishing" revelation is off target. Bird people tend to know a lot more about cats than cat people know about birds.
Why are cats special?
More than a handful of wildlife professionals are concerned about feral cats. The Wildlife Society, the largest professional organization of wildlife managers and scientists, encourages the humane eradication of feral cats. It also advocates prohibiting the feeding of feral cats and releasing unwanted pet or feral cats into the wild while encouraging pet owners to neuter or spay their cats.
The Wildlife Society's policy statement wisely sidestepped the debate over numbers killed. The exact number doesn't matter. It's perfectly clear to almost anyone who knows anything about cats that millions of cats can kill millions, if not billions, of wild birds and mammals.
Not only is Title 17 correct in banning cat colonies, other provisions of the law should be enforced more strictly. Cats seem to be beyond official reproach. Here's what I mean. Title 17 requires any domestic animal in a public place to be controlled by a leash or under direct command "in a manner that minimizes impact with the general public." Too many dog owners don't do so well with this law, yet how many cats do you see on leashes?
A domestic animal that injures or kills more than two domestic animals is classified "level four" under Title 17. If the owner is notified and the animal injures or kills another domestic animal it may be classified "level five." Level five animals "shall be euthanized" and authorities may suspend for a period the animal owner's right to possess any animal in the municipality. This law is applied to dogs -- in fact, state law allows any person to shoot a dog in pursuit of a wild animal under certain circumstances. But a cat that runs amok and kills dozens of wild animals is somehow less of a public nuisance or threat, and its owner suffers no consequence.
State law will trump any revision of Title 17 to allow feral cat colonies. Simply put, cats and other domestic animals cannot be released legally into the wild. State law also prohibits intentionally or negligently leaving food in a manner that attracts bears, foxes, coyotes, and several other species. Mounds of cat food left in the woods anyplace in Anchorage will soon be feeding bears.
Cat hoarding without walls
Trap-neuter-release programs have been called "cat hoarding without walls."
Advocates of trap-neuter-release haven't done their homework, and they are letting their love of cats obscure the big picture. If animal welfare is the main concern, what about the birds and small mammals that cats kill? For every feral cat saved, hundreds of wild birds and mammals may die. This is not an animal welfare issue, it's an environmental issue.
To put it bluntly, free-ranging cats are the cockroaches in Mother Nature's kitchen.
Like it or not, wolves are a natural and vital component of Alaska's environment. Cats are not. It would behoove us to exert some control over non-native predators prowling our backyards.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org