Commentary

Alaska is no place for feral cat colonies

Felis catus is one of the world's most destructive invasive species in terms of public health and wildlife conservation. Misguided individuals are currently pressuring municipal and state authorities to legally sanction maintaining colonies of "community" cats in Alaska.

Local "animal welfare activists" advocate allowing unrestrained feral cat colonies in Alaska, and have hinted they already maintain such colonies illegally. Anchorage Animal Control officer John Lees confirmed that private individuals maintain feral colonies in Anchorage, and he previously encountered activists identified with "Mojo's Hope" in connection with these colonies.

The group promotes "TNR" — Trap-Neuter-Return — whereby feral cats are trapped, sterilized, rabies-vaccinated and released where found. Normally only the first rabies vaccination is given, as cats become trap-shy and difficult to recapture for administering booster shots. Initial vaccinations are only good for one year, and even a vaccinated cat exposed to rabies must receive a booster and be quarantined for 45 days. Of course this never happens in TNR colonies — "colony" cats may be exposed to rabies repeatedly without their so-called "caretakers" being aware.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cats are the leading domesticated rabies vector, with about 300 rabid cats reported annually in the U.S. This is partly due to worthless 'no-kill' programs like TNR, which, combined with cat-dumping, have helped the U.S. feral population double in three decades. Also cat-feeding stations attract raccoons, the most common wild rabies vector.

TNR advocates argue that human rabies is nowadays very rare. They don't mention that people requiring prophylactic inoculations for rabid cat bites are anything but rare. Without inoculations, human rabies goes from "very rare" to "dead certain" — emphasis on "dead." Untreated rabies is usually fatal, and it only takes one bite.

Last year 52 people in seven states endured painful and expensive rabies treatments, at minimum $3,000 each, after being bitten by rabid feral cats — and that's just a small sample of 2015 rabid cat exposures nationwide. In the Lower 48 feral cats form an important link in the transmission chain from wild rabies vectors like raccoons to humans. In Alaska, foxes, wolves and coyotes can get rabies and be attracted to feral cat-feeding stations.

But the most rapidly spreading cat-vectored zoonotic disease is toxoplasmosis, caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that reproduces exclusively in feline digestive tracts. One in five Americans are infected by this parasite. Each year 325 of them die from it and 4,500 are hospitalized. Cats shed T. gondii oocytes with their feces into pasture, row-crop and garden soil, where they contaminate vegetables and are ingested by cattle, sheep, pigs and fowl. Humans eating these animals ingest them also, particularly if they like their meat rare. The CDC says only salmonella causes more fatal food-borne illness.

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The oocytes contaminate water sources through runoff, even surviving in seawater. Nearly all mammals and birds can be killed by them. Marine mammals are particularly vulnerable. If "Mojo's Hope" gets its way, we'll likely have toxoplasmosis-infected belugas, Steller sea lions and sea otters washing up dead on our shores.

Toxoplasmosis causes miscarriages, still-births and microcephaly, severe mental retardation and blindness in newborns. Ingested oocytes form brain cysts which may promote adult-onset schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. They also form ocular lesions causing blindness or even eye-loss to over 70 people — mostly children — annually. A child can become seriously ill by ingesting one oocyte. One child lost both eyes after a playmate threw cat-feces contaminated sand in his face.

NPR recently interviewed a woman who said she and several family members caught MRSA from community cats. Since 1988 it's been known feral cats transmit MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant Staph aureus strain, through their bites.

These are but three of over 30 diseases transmissible from cats to humans — on April 22, three Park County, Wyoming, cats were diagnosed with plague.

Most diseases like rabies (and plague) don't become epidemics because natural predators and limiting natural food resources control the numbers of animal disease vectors, so they don't achieve population densities sufficient to cause outbreaks. So, why would any sane person attract disease-ridden vermin to human dwellings and subsidize them with food?

Former state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott noted in a commentary that in Alaska feral cat feeding won't attract raccoons, but their larger, more assertive relatives — black and brown bears. "Community" cat colonies are bear maulings waiting to happen.

TNR was invented in England. It doesn't reduce feral cat populations. Despite half a century of TNR, England's feral population has almost doubled — from 4.1 million in 1965 to 7.9 million in 2014.

Mojo's Hope's president declared online she wants to foist such colonies on Alaskans by 2017 and that she's met with the governor's office, the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game permitting office and members of the Anchorage Assembly to sell her irresponsibly destructive program. For the sake of public health TNR must not be legalized.

Al-Hajj Frederick H. Minshall, a biologist by training, lives in Anchorage.

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, email commentary@t)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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