Contentious Cats of Cape May
In mid-October, the Cape May City Council voted unanimously to amend a beach management plan keep their Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) program for cats operating despite pressure by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt a plan that would have eliminated TNR. The USFWS had proposed a plan to protect endangered birds like Piping Plover, Least Tern, and Black Skimmer calling for a one-mile buffer zone between feral cat colonies and protected beaches. The effect of this plan would have been to completely eliminate colonies in Cape May due to the small size of the city.
In essence, the city of Cape May, long considered an epicenter of U.S. birding and a critical Atlantic coast flyway, has chosen cats over birds. Is it any surprise that this move has elicited massive protest? Rob Fergus, as compassionate a naturalist as you could hope to find, has gone so far as to promote a Birdchaser boycott of Cape May until this precipitous policy is reversed. Why is a program rooted in humane treatment of abandoned animals such anathema to bird lovers?
How about because cats kill millions, if not billions of smaller creatures a year?
It’s true. The domestic or house cat (Felis silvestris catus) is an inveterate slayer of wild birds, rodents, amphibians, insects, and virtually anything else vulnerable to its considerable prowess. Cats don’t just hunt for food; even well-fed felines track and terminate prey for fun. Sometimes, they’re happy just maiming their quarry. Ultimately, a single cat can be responsible for hundreds of bird deaths over a lifetime of slaughter. One would think that the council members of a city that sees more than its fair share of the birding dollar would be sensitive to the message it’s sending.
Proponents and cat lovers claim that the TNR program is the most humane way to manage feral cats, ending their ability to reproduce while allowing them to enjoy a natural lifespan. Organizations like the American Bird Conservancy disagree, reporting that free-roaming felines are vulnerable to the perils of fast cars, ferocious animals, rampant disease, and, of course, human cruelty. I’ll go on the record and say that I could care less about the cats. In fact, I hate cats. There, I’ve said it… I know this is certainly an unpopular opinion but I can hardly be alone in despising these arrogant killing and shedding machines. While I’ve achieved a certain detente with specific members of the species, including my wife’s former feline friends but excluding Corey’s sleep-disrupting pets, I cannot ignore what a bane this invasive species is to ecosystems in the U.S. and beyond. There is simply no natural place for Felis silvestris catus in the wilds of North America, Europe, or Australia. They’ve been directly linked to at least one avian extinction and are surely complicit in plenty more.
The National Park Service quotes research that estimates that invasive plants and animals cost the U.S. economy $137 billion annually and separately that invasive species contribute to the listing of 35 to 46 percent of all threatened and endangered species. Other studies suggest that nine million of the lithe killers are wreaking havoc on wildlife in the UK alone. Thousands of years of symbiotic social adaptation with humans doesn’t change the fact that cats, love them or hate them, are dangerous invasive predators. Despite their poor attitudes, cats are not to blame for being mistreated, abandoned, or released into fragile environments, nor can they be expected to transcend their native gift for mayhem. It falls to Homo sapiens, the species that expanded the threat of this tail-twitching terror globally, to act responsibly when one favored animal imperils many others.
Now that I’ve made my position (which is not necessarily shared by Corey though Charlie certainly concurs) clear as crystal, I should announce that I am NOT boycotting Cape May, since I’m about to visit for the first time to participate in the inaugural Cape May Autumn Weekend Bird Blogging Conference. (You’ll be there too, right?) However, while I’m there, I will seek out opportunities to share my outrage with city officials and merchants. I hope that nature lovers who recognize the threat hordes of free-roaming felines pose to the countless birds that drop in on Cape May every year will do the same.