29 January 2013


Over the course of my lifetime, I've had one horse, three parakeets, six dogs, and nine cats as pets.  During the past thirty years my animal companions have been exclusively cats.  When you have a feline friend for whom you've taken responsibility, one of the fundamental questions you must face is whether to allow your cat to roam outdoors or be kept inside.

If you're a cat, the lure of being outside is obvious ~ being able to laze in the sun, patrol your territory (which can be surprisingly large, depending on the habitat in which you live), graze on grass or any succulent greens, and chase the occasional bird or butterfly.

Being kept inside feels more restrictive ~ how many times do we see indoor cats perched on a window sill, gazing wistfully out at the world?  And yet for the health and longevity of the cat, it offers major advantages ~ no exposure to vermin like ticks or lice, no risk of being run over by a car, no possibility of getting chewed up in a fight with a dog or another cat or some form of wildlife, no nettles or burrs to cling to the fur, no risk of over-exposure to the weather.

In my youth, I allowed my cats to roam outside during the day (weather permitting), and brought them in before sundown.  They totally enjoyed their freedom, and seemed to have the best of both worlds.  But as I matured, I opted to keep them indoors.  The benefits of doing so greatly outweighed the risks of outdoor freedom.  Like my cats, I wish the world were a safe place for them to be allowed out.  But I love them, and want them to live long and healthy lives.

A number of years after making that change, I learned that free-roaming cats are responsible for the deaths of millions of birds each year.  A more recent study discussed in today's NYTimes fleshes out the numbers, alarmingly ~

"Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that domestic cats in the United States ~ both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it ~ kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year (my emphasis), most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.

"The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation.  More birds and animals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills, and other anthropogenic causes.

" .... the new report is likely to fuel the sometimes vitriolic debate between environmentalists who see free-roaming domestic cats as an invasive species ~ super predators whose numbers are growing globally even as the songbirds and many other animals the cats prey upon are in decline ~ and animal welfare advocates who are appalled by the millions of unwanted cats (and dogs) euthanized in animal shelters each year.  All concur that pet cats should not be allowed to prowl around the neighborhood at will, any more than should a pet dog, horse or potbellied pig, and that cat owners who insist their felines 'deserve' a bit of freedom are being irresponsible and ultimately not very cat friendly.

" .... the new study estimates that free-roaming pets account for only about 29 percent of the birds and 11 percent of the mammals killed by domestic cats each year, and the real problem arises over how to manage the 80 million or so stray or feral cats that commit the bulk of the wildlife slaughter .... Yet even fed cats are profoundly tuned to the hunt, and when they see something flutter, they can't help but move in for the kill."

That last paragraph is worth thinking about.  One cannot assign blame to the cats themselves.  Stray and feral cats are simply trying to survive, and even well-fed home cats are responding to their hunting instincts ~ in short, just being cats.  In all cases we humans bear the mantle of blame.  We allow our pets to breed indiscriminately, and those young which can't find adopted homes are either turned loose to fend for themselves, or are placed in animal shelters (where the odds of euthanasia to adoption can reach 20 to 1).  Thus we are the source of the stray and feral cats.  And our choice to let home cats roam outside is also a failure of responsibility.

The long-term answer is to spay or neuter all pets.  I adopted my two cats from the local Humane Society.  The fee for each included neutering, innoculations, and a clean bill of health.  If you adopt from a private owner, the same precautions should be taken.  Similarly, programs exist to live-trap and neuter stray or feral cats, to reduce their population over time.

We owe it not just to our cats but also to the billions of wildlife victims, for whose deaths we humans are ultimately responsible.

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