Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cape May Feral Cat Colony

Kasey riding home from Ohio

Cape May, New Jersey, is one of the most important migration stopovers in the world. Shorebirds pig out on its beaches, getting essential fuel to continue their long journeys. Songbirds rest and feed in the vegetation, hawks fly over looking for easy meals. Cape May is naturally also one of the top destinations in the world for birders, who not only go there individually and in groups to enjoy the migration but also in huge numbers for birding festivals and other important gatherings.

Cape May has also become a safe harbor for feral cats. An organization that neuters, vaccinates, and releases cats flourishes in Cape May, and a recent City Council vote ensures that the program will continue. This program is sponsored by well-meaning, kind human beings who can’t bear the thought of abandoned cats being killed.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “If you have men who would exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” How we deal with animals reflects directly on our basic humanity—small wonder that children who torture animals so very often become sociopaths as adults. Cats bring out an ugly side of many cruel people. This ugly element sometimes colors the debate about how to deal with unwanted pets. And that makes the people who love cats over-react, and excludes from the shelter of their compassion and pity the millions of wild, native American birds killed every year by domestic cats.

I personally love cats. When an abandoned cat, part of a similar spay and release program in Ohio, was feeding on birds where my daughter’s friend lived, I talked the cat into coming into my car and drove home 800 miles with her. Kasey is now a treasured part of our family. That was the solution to one cat problem. But there are just not enough people willing and able to provide similar services for the millions of unwanted cats in America, and truly feral cats virtually never adapt to living indoors with humans. What can we possibly do for them?

So I can understand why some organizations put millions of dollars into these spay, vaccinate and release projects. Their rationale is that by vaccinating the cats, they won’t carry infectious diseases that could endanger humans, by spaying them little by little they’ll solve the long-term problem of cat overpopulation, and by providing food they’ll minimize the number of birds killed by them as well as keeping them within a smaller range.

Meanwhile, of course, there are bird-lovers who see the pain and suffering and death inflicted by cats on birds. And there are the scientists who can overlook individual deaths of both cats and birds, because they’re focused on effects to populations. It’s absolutely true that cats kill many millions of birds every year in the United States, and that some vulnerable species, such as endangered Piping Plovers and threatened Snowy Plovers, are killed in disproportionately high numbers. But it’s also true that if we were to kill all the feral and homeless cats in America, that would result in many millions of deaths, too. So what’s the answer?

There really and truly is no best solution to this horrible situation. But some solutions are far far worse than others. People say it’s “natural” for cats to kill birds while it’s “unnatural” for humans to kill cats, but really, the way nature keeps predator populations in check is via disease, fighting to the death when territories get too crowded, and starvation. This project ensures that cats have seriously unnatural advantages that allow their local population to be far more abundant than natural predator populations could possibly be. And the location of this cat colony exacerbates the problems for birds. Since Cape May is a migratory magnet, most of the birds that visit every year are unfamiliar with the lay of the land, with no way of knowing where the unnaturally high numbers of predators are hanging out until it’s too late.

The plumpest Piping Plovers weigh less than 2 ounces, including feathers and bones that aren’t particularly digestible. My cat Kasey eats about 2 ounces of moist cat food and about 2 ounces of dry cat food a day. That would be the equivalent of at least two birds the size of Piping Plovers, or 12 birds the size of chickadees, or between 8 and 16 warblers. It's true that the cats in this program are receiving supplemental food. But without needing more food, my Kasey searches out and kills mice in our basement. Spiders, flies, and moths that make their way into our house now never find their way out again. She can leap to get a bug on the wall seven feet off the floor.

There really are no win-win solutions for some horrible dilemmas. And when there are two sides, each gets stuck looking at the side of the tragedy they see clearly, and minimizing the tragedy the other side sees clearly.

I don’t know if anyone is truly impartial with regard to the Cape May cat debate. I know I'm not, not after holding in my hands so many birds dying from cat bites. The White-breasted Nuthatch whose tail feathers, entire lower end of its spine, and intestines were ripped out by a cat. The Evening Grosbeak whose ribs were crushed and whose lungs were punctured by a cat bite. The cardinal and the chickadee who had no apparent injuries because cat bite puncture wounds were hidden beneath feathers, yet who died horribly slow, painful deaths from infection.

But I’ve also held my cat Sasha in my arms as she died from a stroke, after dragging herself with paralyzed rear legs into my bedroom desperately searching for me. She was another stray I took in—she’d been eating redpolls and other birds at my own feeder. I loved that cat very deeply, and was heartbroken when she died.

Individual life—cat and bird—is beautiful, meaningful, and irreplaceable. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put a mangled dead Piping Plover back together again, and they can’t bring back to life a dead cat. But saying that birds killed by cats aren’t our responsibility or our fault is simply untrue. Cats are not native to America—they were brought here by humans, and humans continue to release them even today. Like other forms of habitat destruction caused by humans, cats in the American landscape are a human-caused problem, and one that is our responsibility to solve. It is our moral imperative to find a solution that is humane for the cats. But it is just as imperative to find a solution that does not kill innocent bird lives. And at this point, we honestly are not just comparing innocent individual cat lives and innocent individual bird lives. We’re talking about populations of birds found on no other continents—populations that are entirely our duty to protect. There are fewer than 3000 pairs of Piping Plovers in all of the US and Canada, while there are tens or hundreds of millions of outdoor cats. In one of the most evocative stories in the Bible, God himself caused millions of individual innocent animals and human beings to drown, but put Noah to the task of keeping each animal species alive. Even the vengeful Old Testament God knew that extinction is forever.

Birds on Cape May include species that have been irreparably harmed by development and other forms of habitat destruction, pesticides, and other human-caused problems. How can people in good conscience support a plan that exacerbates these human-caused environmental problems, allowing so much individual death of birds at the teeth and claws of a species that has been altered by humans in its breeding, is not native to America or any of our wild habitats, and is given huge subsidies that keep it at local levels far above what wild predators could survive? Every single bird killed by a cat is a bird killed, indirectly but truly, by us. Closing our eyes to those deaths to support an inappropriately-located and misguided cat colony excludes some of God's creatures from our compassion and pity out of sentimentality and closed-mindedness.

Spay and release programs do not begin to approach the central problem. Domestic cats belong in domestic situations, not in the wild. When outdoor cats are captured for neutering and vaccinations, the people who wish to keep them alive should be able to do so, but not by releasing them back into the wild.

I’ve done my part—in my lifetime I’ve taken in five stray cats and given them a loving home. If feral cat colonies really are necessary, they should be entirely fenced with cat-proof fencing, located in habitat that is already degraded so as not to attract native birds, and situated far, far away from migratory bird pathways. But far, far more work needs to be done to find INDOOR homes for cats. And if we're going to err on the side of compassion, make it not by choosing individual life over individual life, but by giving preference to the most vulnerable populations over the tragically too-abundant species.

Until this Cape May feral cat colony is removed, I’m boycotting the city. I have limited birding dollars. Why should I support hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that support setting a lethal trap for the birds--individuals and whole populations--that I love? And why should I support birding organizations and events that value their prosperity and local popularity over making a REAL difference for birds?This is Cat, the cat I rescued from Stoney Point, up the shore from Duluth.


  1. Laura, I understand your distress over the feral cats killing birds.

    However, the research most frequently cited in claims that feral cats have a devastating effect on bird populations may be seriously flawed; other studies show cats' effect on bird populations is negligible.

    In places where feral cats are exterminated instead of trapped, neutered, and released, the rodent population has gone up. That's rodents, as in, disease-bearing. Which isn't so good for the other living beings in the neighborhood. So there's at least as much reason to tolerate the presence of feral cats as there is to eliminate them.

  2. There are a GREAT many studies, not just the two considered in that report, establishing that cats harm bird populations. American
    Bird Conservancy Cats Indoors
    page cites many other studies as well. And when rodent numbers go up, that provides food for shrikes, hawks, owls, and other natural predators, many of which are also suffering because of how we humans have skewed the balance of nature.

    People who love cats must find another solution to the problems facing unwanted pets and feral animals.

  3. Don't forget MEC, that rodents have many other predators too like foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks. We don't need cats out there messing things up, IMO.

    I have a friend who is a dedicated bird hunter (pointing dogs) and if he sees a cat in the wild, he kills it.

    Nature is about balance and human activities (like bringing domestic cats to this continent and letting them roam to mention but one of many) and now humans must intervene in a very thoughtful and intelligent way to restore some healthy balance. The kind that promotes the greatest diversity. That seems to be the healthiest ecosystem - the most diverse one.

  4. I agree that domestic cats [and that includes ferals of domestic breeds] don't belong in the great outdoors. I have two cats, and they do not go outside. Period. I keep them inside for their own safety (and my peace of mind) as much as for the protection of the birds.

    Unfortunately, there's just no convincing some people that there's no need for cats to go roaming the neighborhood.

  5. Great post Laura! I too have been wrestling with this conundrum. Thanks for giving me some more insight into the problem.

  6. One other issue regarding disease is that cats who toy with birds are the ones most likely to harbor toxoplasmosis in their droppings. Pregnant women should NOT clean litterboxes. Small children should not play in sandboxes where a stray cat may have pooped. Nor should pregnant women or small children play on beaches that harbor cat feces.

  7. Nuthatch pointed me in your direction Laura. Thank you for an excellent thoughtful post on TNR. I've also added my voice among those who feel that a boycott of Cape May is in order. I only wish I could have said it half as eloquently as you.

  8. Diseases and parasites which feral cats are known to
    transmit to people

    1)Rabies virus- fatal in humans
    2)Psittacosis –bacteria- parrot fever – fever, pneumonia- fatal in humans
    3) Campylobacter- bacteria -diarrhea- fatal in humans
    4) Ringworm fungus- round, scaly eczema-like skin disease
    5) Conjunctivitus (sporotrichosis)- swollen eyes , lymph nodes
    6) Streptococcus / Staphlococcus – bacteria, some antibiotic resistant
    7) Pasteuralla – bacteria - meningitis, peritonitis, liver abscesses
    8) Salmonella- bacteria -can be fatal in humans
    9) Cat Scratch Fever- bacteria- fever, swollen lymph nodes, pus filled lumps
    10) Helicobacter pylori – bacteria- causes gastric ulcers
    11) Mycobacterium tuberculosis – bacteria - tuberculosis- fatal in humans
    12) Cowpox Virus- lesions
    13) Roundworms- from cat feces – invade liver, lungs , brain , eyes
    14) Hookworms- from cat feces- skin lesions, intestinal bleeding
    15) Ascarid worms- intestinal worms- invade brain, spinal cord, liver, lungs
    16) Tapeworms- from cat feces - solid masses in brain,liver,lungs,
    17) Fleas- carry a host of diseases transmitted to people- Lyme disease
    18) Ticks- carry a host of diseases transmitted to people –Lyme disease
    19) Crytosporidiosis –chronic diarrhea, no cure
    20) Giardiasis- from cat feces- protozoan- diarrhea , abdominal cramps , fever
    21) Toxoplasmosis – protozoan -brain parasite, transmitted to fetus, brain
    damage, autism
    22) Skin mites- itchy rashes, viral host
    23) Ear mites- itchy rashes- viral host
    24) Chiggers- itchy rashes- viral host
    25) Feline plague- bubonic plague, pneumonic plague – fatal in humans
    26) Capnocytophaga –bacteria – saliva -fatal in humans
    27) L-Form bacteria – autoimmune diseases, antibiotic resistant - fatal
    28) Strongyloides – worms - parasite, peptic ulcer, gallbladder, Crohn-like, fatal
    29) E. coli – bacteria - from cat feces- fatal
    30) Bordetella – bacteria , meningitis, pneumonia –like , whooping cough
    31) Q Fever- bacteria - heart disease, liver dysfunction, acute fever, fatal in humans
    32) Anthrax- bacteria – vomiting, fever, diarrhea, fatal in humans
    33) Leptospirosis – bacteria /cat urine, liver disease, fatal in humans
    34) Typhus-virus/cat fleas, vomiting, fever, fatal in humans
    35) Tularemia (Rabbit Fever)- bacteria, cat ticks and touching cat, fever, fatal in humans

  9. TNR = Trap, neuter and rabies for your kids. Our parents and grandparents understood the simple facts... vermin running around with your kids will kill them!

  10. "An organization that neuters, vaccinates, and releases cats flourishes in Cape May"

    The only way we will ever defeat them is to organize too!

  11. I believe the following link would be useful as additional information to the bird advocate point of view. Not saying that bird advocates don't have valid points, but that the feral cat advocates disagree with their assumptions/contentions and offer their own arguments backed by science, too:

  12. Subsidized feral cats simply do not belong in the natural landscape of America, where they are not native, compete against native predators, and kill literally billions of birds. Period.

  13. I got married in Cape May. I love Cape May. Reading these recent post it seems if it is Bird against Cat.

    Birds carry disease too. So do rats and mice. I live on a farm with 18 cats. Some feral. Then the farm I live on is a conservation. We have endangered species of birds, turtles and some plant I forget.

    The thing is. We do not have to destroy either. It is so like human to destroy what God has given.

    If I have to boycott Cape May to save feral cats I will and so will a bunch of people. I can pass that along.

    We have no right to destroy as nature does that herself. We do not eat cats do we? Do we eat birds? For those who are against ferals know this. A cat can do more for you then a bird. I love birds. If my cat starts staking a bird I break the hunt. Cats have a good reputation for helping us survive. Do you remember the plague?

    Education, education, education.

    A lot of those disease are not transmittable like the one poster suggests. Unless you are pregnant or have HIV you should not bother with cats that is true.

    Dogs carry ticks, fleas, etc. I got Lyme Disease as a vet tech. I also got cat scratch fever and bitten and developed cellulitis. Big whoop. I am still alive. I could have gotten the later from any animal. Even the tick that made me sick, I could have got it on the wind as that how ticks travel as well.

    People who hate one kind of animal enough to end it's life over another is no more then .... Ok I will stop but you get it.

    It all comes down to being civilized loving people. Together we can save lives.

  14. Again, this has nothing to do with hating cats, or wanting them to die. This has everything to do with managing natural populations of animals in natural areas, and restricting domesticated animals to places where they are safe and natural animals are safe. Cats belong indoors. If people who love cats so much they would sacrifice wild populations of birds for them, they should love them enough to track them down and bring them indoors. Tragically, there are too many cats relative to the number of people willing to take them. If people would let them go the way of wild predators when they run out of food--meaning to die naturally or to move elsewhere--cats would probably not have a horrible impact on birds. But people subsidize them. They are literally subsidized killers, being fed and even getting veterinary care, keeping their outdoor population much higher than natural systems would EVER allow, and wreaking far more havoc than natural, native predators can.

    Loving animals is fine. But love means really sorting through what the needs of everyone are; not deciding that since you love your son who happens to be a serial murderer, you'll not just leave him on the loose but supply everything he needs to keep killing.

    And yes, I'm still waiting for ONE peer-reviewed study showing just one single TNR program that has reduced bird kills in a single area.

  15. As a rescuer of any creature in crisis for more than 25 years, I am saddened to read so many of these posts. My own animal family consists of several beautiful cats, six dogs, two cockatiels and one large and very vocal Cockatoo. All live harmoniously under my watchful eye. My organization also traps, sterilizes, vaccinates and releases feral cats back into their community where they continue to be fed and monitored by many volunteers. I also agree that cats ideally do not belong in the great outdoors, however, I ask you for your suggestions to the alternatives. Do we simply allow ill and hungry ferals to roam our communities? How much more sense does it make to insure these colonies are being well fed and much less likely to be constantly on the prowl for their next meal which is usually our beautiful birds or small rodents. The life expectancy of a feral cat is less than two years. By supporting these programs you just might be helping to eliminate the feral population completely in less than ten years as predicted by many experts. A victory I hope for both cat and bird lovers alike. I happily watch over my rescue property where the cats spend the days lounging the ten acres right along with the small birds, ducks, geese, sandcranes and other feathered visitors without incident. My only fatality of a bird was a night raid of a Florida Bob-Cat. I absolutely believe that feral and domestic cats are the least of our worries as bird lovers.

  16. I strongly recommend that everything possible be done to place feral cats in homes. And I strongly recommend that those that cannot be placed be humanely euthanized. It is VERY sad. But this reduces the death count ENORMOUSLY, when we count the avian victims of these non-native animals that have no place in the North American wilds.

  17. I would also like to reiterate that there is NO scientific proof that these feral cat communities have EVER reduced the number of feral cats ANYWHERE.

  18. There really needs to be better follow-up after a town adopts TNR. The problem is that no one ever does a county-wide census pre and 5 years post TNR. All we have in anecdotal evidence by the cat feeders about the numbers they neutered (not the numbers in their area). TNR (but mostly the act of feeding) reduces territory size opening up more territories for cats outside of a TNR colony. Hence...more cats overall. Mathematical models show a need to neuter 75% of the population ANNUALLY to achieve population reduction. No TNR program EVER has that consistency. Even with the 6O-100K budget at ORCAT in south Florida, they can't get below 200-500 cats. Sure that's down from 2000 but when it's next to endangered small that really success?