I come from a large family: five sisters, two brothers and almost everyone has kids. Most of my family lives in Indiana, but thanks to social  media we can easily keep in touch. They are all wonderful people and they are all animal lovers. But I’ve learned we love animals in very different ways.

Case in point: some of my family members have become active with feral cat colony organizations. It started with donation requests for spay and neutering cats but then quickly transferred to a trap, neuter and release organization. I have mixed feelings about TNR. On the one hand, it’s better than doing nothing with a feral cat colony. But I don’t agree with the supplemental feeding that happens with feral cats–if you’re gonna call them wildlife, treat them as such. And if a feral cat colony is near an endangered species, the colony should be eliminated.

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 9.34.50 AM

When the notices popped up on Facebook I initially hid them, figuring it’s better to pick my battles with my family. Then one of my nieces started updating about a feral family she was watching. She captured the cats, the “mom” kitty and her kittens were all taken from their neighborhood where they were not wanted, all were fixed and then…all were released in her yard.

I snapped. Against my husband’s warnings that talking about this on Facebook was a bad idea, I forged ahead.

“Why can’t the kittens be adopted,” I asked in her comments section.

“These kittens aren’t socialized or domesticated,” she said. “They don’t want to be inside. We do what we can by giving them food, shelter, and getting them their shots and fixed to prevent more feral litters.”

I argued that the kittens were young enough to be socialized and pointed out that she had pictures of them letting her hold them and pet them. But as she gave me the reasons behind her decision from the feral cat organization it was all based on emotion and anthropomorphism and not science: they still need to be around their mom, the feral cats have names and this was my favorite argument, “Even if they were to be adopted out, it is not preventable that the owner wouldn’t place the pet outdoors where it can still harm/be harmed.”

Then my sister weighed in who is as passionate for cats as I am for birds, “Nature is nature. Cats are a breathing warm blooded creature like so many others. They did not ask to be put where they are nor should they be treated like a plague. I have a dog, cats (domestic and feral), birds raccoons, hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, bunnies and mice…they all share the yard and the woods. There times when nature takes its course, but honestly it is the true cycle of life in nature. Just my two cents worth…don’t expect anyone to make change from it.”

“That’s all well and good,” I answered, “but cats are non native to the US and the ecosystem hasn’t quite had time to catch up to this introduced predator. And if we are going to count cats as part of nature, they’re like a foxes or coyotes. Are we going to put out food for coyotes? Does this mean we’re going to start trapping, neutering and releasing coyotes?”

My sister said, “Sounds like a plan to me :). Unfortunately the worst predator of nature is the human being…we selfishly take the land of the animals and give them nothing in return and that is all over the world. Cats may not be native to the US, but I don’t think they asked to be brought here and I know the didn’t swim here on their own :). This is like discussing religion and same sex marriage…You Just Don’t Do It! All joking aside, everyone has a purpose and a cause, I am just grateful that you, me and (our niece) have channeled our purpose to help rather than destroy those creatures we love. Now, go eat some bacon.”

And the conversation shifted to stories about how our mom drives us crazy (the universal bonding of all sisters).

Birdchick Sister

I took my furlough due to the government shut down as a chance to go down to Indiana and visit my family. My sister was waiting for my arrival and had a shirt made based on our feral cat discussion. Well played, older sister, well played.

But this discussion taught me a lot–First: it is possible to have a discussion on this issue without it resulting in disownership of family.

Second: I think my silence on this issue for so long may have led my niece to listen more to the feral cat people. She made the best decision she could for those cats with the information she was given by that organization, which wasn’t the best information.

Third: Science can’t trump emotion (wasn’t that the eternal issue between Kirk and Spock), you’re going to have to keep that in mind when talking with pro feral cat people. And that’s a tough thing to do without sounding like a condescending twerp. These cats have names and personalities and are like friends and in some cases family to them. Maybe we should go back to giving individual wild birds their own names. That’s something that’s frowned on in science but if that Yellow Warbler was called Zippy McFlashersons that maybe would make them seem less like just some random bird that a cat killed and more along the lines of something special that’s important to birders. I don’t think feral cat people see birds the way a birder does. We see several different types of species. Since cats come in all shapes, color and sizes but it is still at the end of the day a cat, I think they have a tough time realizing why something like a Piping Plover is special and different from a Killdeer or House Sparrow.  If one bird is gone, there’s always another.

So, don’t shy away from talking with those you know well about the feral cat issue. Try listening to their argument and understand where they are coming from. Don’t just dismiss them as some crazy cat lady who slept through her biology classes in school. Maybe we should talk about individual birds that are important to us that are affected by cats rather than the millions cats kill in a year–because that number is ignored by the cat people anyway. And they tend to love individual cats. Let’s show them why we love individual birds.



Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, Birdchick.com, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.