By Steve Grant
LATE LAST month, Joan Kloth of Southbury, CN showed up at a bird-rehabilitation clinic in Southington, CN with a cardinal and a Mourning Dove that were mauled in her yard by two of her five house cats.
Jayne Amico, who runs the clinic, told the woman that in the future, she wAdd Newouldn’t be able to care for any more injured songbirds if Kloth continued to let her cats roam outdoors. Cats should be kept indoors or in an enclosure so they won’t harm native wildlife, Amico told her.
Kloth was incensed. “Just like you need fresh air, my dogs need fresh air, my cats need fresh air,” she said. Moreover, Kloth said, she doesn’t want to clean litter boxes.
It was yet another clash between those who love cats and believe they should be allowed to roam unrestrained and those who believe outdoor cats kill too many songbirds and should be kept indoors.
Amico describes herself as an avid cat lover who became appalled at the wildlife her cats killed when she let them loose in the backyard. She now keeps them indoors or in an outdoor enclosure.
“The effect cat predation has on songbird populations is enormous,” Amico said, “and we as responsible cat owners can completely eliminate this problem with our cats by keeping them indoors.” Even without cat predation, songbird populations already are under pressure from loss of habitat, exposure to chemicals and collisions with buildings and windows, she said.
Cat lovers and bird lovers do not have to be at odds, of course, and some people count themselves in both groups. Many bird watchers own cats and keep them indoors, and some cat lovers keep their cats indoors or in enclosures to protect the birds or their cats or both.
But often the issue of cats’ preying on small birds is an emotional one that sharply divides the birders from the cat lovers. Only last month, James M. Stevenson, a birder who founded the Galveston Ornithological Society in Texas, was prosecuted on animal-cruelty charges for shooting a cat that he said was stalking Piping Plovers, an endangered shorebird species. The case ended in a mistrial.
Many cat lovers like Kloth think their cats have a right to be outdoors unfettered.
“Hello. This is my backyard,” she said.
What there is little disagreement over is that cats do kill songbirds, in big numbers. The cardinal Kloth brought to Amico died; the dove, badly injured, is still alive. Last year, Amico took in 31 birds seriously injured by cats, including a female Wood Thrush that laid an egg three days in a row “while dreadfully wounded.”
One study by biologists and ecologists in Wisconsin estimated that “hundreds of millions” of birds are killed yearly in the U.S. just by rural roaming cats, 39 million birds in Wisconsin alone.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection are among numerous agencies that advise cat owners to keep their pets indoors for the protection of both the pet and wildlife such as birds.
“We get people concerned about coyotes’ attacking their cats. We’re constantly saying, ‘Well, your cat doesn’t belong outside,'” said Laurie Fortin, a wildlife biologist with the state environmental agency. “People don’t like to hear it, but that is the bottom line. It is much better for the cat, and the wildlife.”
Songbirds At Risk
Fortin said agency statistics show that of 5,032 songbirds brought to animal rehab clinics in Connecticut last year, about a quarter of them, 1,333, involved cat attacks. In all likelihood, that figure is but a fraction of the actual number of cat attacks because most incidents of cats’ injuring or killing birds are never reported.
In a situation analogous to the one in Texas, cats in Milford, CN are thought to have been a factor in deaths of Piping Plover chicks on town beaches in recent decades. Piping Plovers build their nests on beaches, and their eggs and young are highly vulnerable to trampling or predation by pets such as cats and dogs.
“Your best bet is to keep it inside as an indoor cat, but especially in inappropriate areas” such as wildlife preserves, said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut.
The Connecticut Humane Society, which places more than 5,000 cats each year, strongly recommends that people who adopt its cats keep them indoors. “When we educate our adopters, we talk about the real need for them to have their cats be indoor cats,” said Alicia Wright, public relations director for the society.
An indoor cat can be a happy cat if the owner remembers that cats need exercise, she said. “Part of having an indoor cat is interacting with the cat, playing with them, providing them with a lot of fun and stimulation.”
The common house cat in the U.S. is not a native species, unlike, say, the Bobcat. House cats are descended from a wild European and African species, domesticated long ago.
“Our wildlife has not evolved to cope with cat predation,” Amico said, a point echoed by wildlife biologists. By that logic, Kloth said, she shouldn’t be here either. “I’m not natural to the United States. My ancestors were brought over here. The only people natural here are the American Indians.”
Still, many thousands of pet cats are allowed to roam, Kloth’s among them. She said it would be too hard to try to keep her cats indoors while putting leashes on three dogs and opening the door. The cats would just get out anyway.
Besides household cats, there are colonies of feral cats throughout the U.S. that also contribute to bird predation. In some cases, local groups have adopted these feral colonies in which feral cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned to the outdoors. –Hartford Courant