Conservation Coalition Calls for Stop to Wildlife Deaths from Feral Cats

The largest coalition ever assembled on the issue of wildlife mortality from feral cats—including more than 200 groups—has called on Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell in a letter to take action to reduce mortality to wildlife populations on public lands stemming from the nation’s ever-increasing population of feral cats. The coalition includes a broad range of groups, from national bird and wildlife conservation organizations to animal rights groups and state government agencies.

“The number of domestic cats in the United States has tripled over the last 40 years and continues to rise,” said Dr. George Fenwick, President of the Washington, DC-based American Bird Conservancy. “We are asking Secretary Jewell to take actions that will protect our native wildlife from 150 million feral and outdoor cats that are decimating wildlife populations in the most sacrosanct of locations, such as wildlife refuges, national parks, and other important public lands.”

“Domestic cats have been either a direct or indirect factor in 33 bird species extinctions and have been identified by the science community as one of the world’s worst invasive species. Rational heads have prevailed in terms of how stray dogs are treated. Stray cats should be treated much the same way. Turning a blind eye to this problem will only perpetuate the escalating impacts to birds and other wildlife, as well as threaten human health and safety,” said Susan Elbin, Director of Conservation and Science, New York City Audubon Society.

“Cats out in the natural environment are rapidly proliferating and are also extremely efficient predators of wildlife, squirrel sized and smaller, often to devastating effect. If we are to conserve native wildlife, cat populations as well as other ecologically disruptive invasive species, must be controlled by natural resource professionals especially on lands dedicated for conservation purposes. Cat owners should also be educated as to impacts to the environment of their cats and as responsible pet owners should keep them inside,” said Manley Fuller, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

In spite of evidence showing the environmental harm caused by feral cats, state and local decision-makers continue to consider legislation supporting the practice of “Trap, Neuter, Release” (TNR) to maintain feral cat colonies. For example, the State of Maryland is holding a public hearing on Wednesday, March 12 at 1:00 pm to consider S.B. 1010, a bill that would support the continued growth of feral cat programs in the state.

The groups signed on to the letter say that feral cats are a common problem on many federal lands and ask that each agency, such as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management, develop a clear policy for the removal of cat colonies on the federal lands they are responsible for stewarding.

The letter to Secretary Jewell outlines that, in the past year, a series of new scientific studies has been published documenting extensive wildlife mortality resulting from cat predation, as well as a growing risk to human health from rabies and toxoplasmosis spread by cats and the ineffectiveness of TNR programs at stemming cat populations. “As Secretary, you are in a position to direct action to conserve wildlife and to adopt land management policies that will ensure public lands are not degraded by the presence of cat colonies,” the letter says.

The feral cat issue was raised earlier with former DOI Secretary Ken Salazar. While discussions with DOI officials have taken place, no meaningful actions have been taken by to address the problem.

The groups reference a 2013 study by scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that estimated that approximately 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals are killed in the United States by outdoor cats every year. While both owned and feral (or un-owned) cats contribute to this mortality, feral cats are responsible for over two-thirds of these bird deaths and nearly 90 percent of mammal deaths.

“People—and not the cats themselves—are responsible for this problem,” stated Fenwick. “It all stems from irresponsible pet ownership and, sadly, has led to cat predation becoming the number-one source of direct human-caused mortality for birds and mammals.”

Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that feral cat colonies pose a threat to human health. According to the CDC, cats are consistently the number-one carrier of rabies among domestic animals and disproportionately pose a risk of human exposure to rabies because of the increased likelihood of human-cat interactions. A recently published study led by CDC scientists stated, “The propensity to underestimate rabies risk from cats has led to multiple large-scale rabies exposures.” In addition, according to the Florida Department of Health, continued tolerance for roaming feral cats is “not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities.”

Another growing health concern is toxoplasmosis, which threatens the health and welfare of people and wildlife. This disease is caused by a parasitic protozoan that depends on cats to complete its life cycle. Up to 74 percent of all cats will host the toxoplasmosis-causing parasite in their lifetime and shed hundreds of millions of infectious eggs as a result. Studies show that any contact with cat feces, either direct or indirect, risks human and wildlife health. In humans the parasite often encysts within the brain, which may cause behavioral changes and has been linked to memory loss, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and other neuro-inflammatory diseases. Pregnant women may suffer sudden abortion or fetal developmental defects (e.g., blindness). Wildlife are similarly at risk. Perhaps most concerning is that the parasite may persist in water sources critical to humans and wildlife. Contamination of watersheds with cat feces has been linked to the infections of people as well as freshwater and marine wildlife (e.g., river otters, beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals).

The groups signing the letter to Secretary Jewell assert that TNR programs fail to reduce cat populations and cannot be relied upon as a management tool to remove cat colonies or protect people and wildlife—as multiple peer-reviewed studies, including the CDC’s, have found. According to one study: “No plausible combinations of life history variables would likely allow for TNR to succeed in reducing [feral cat] population size.” Scientists in another study said that, “We suggest that supporters of managed cat colonies seek a long-term solution to the pet overpopulation issue by redirecting their efforts toward the underlying problem of managing irresponsible pet owners.”

The issue of feral cat management was the subject of a lengthy Miami Herald article this past weekend by award-winning journalist Fred Grimm. The article chronicled the failure of elected officials to heed myriad warnings from a host of world-class scientists on the dangers and impacts of exploding feral cat populations while legislators, at the same time, pass pro-feral cat legislation that aids the decimation of local wildlife populations and poses a health threat to their constituents—all at the behest of a single interest group: cat advocates.

Article produced by the American Bird Conservancy.