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.