How Important is it to Control the Cat Population?

Feral Cats

Want to know how many birds get eaten (or at least killed) by cats every year? 1.3 -4 billion. Even if we look at the lower end of the spectrum, that’s still a significant number, and one that for most people with their hearts and minds in the right places, is 1.3 billion too many. The worst part? Birds constitute only 20% of the diet of feral cats. Now, I’m no math’s whizz, but if 1.3 – 4 million dead birds represent only 20% of the small mammals and creatures that meet their maker via the jaws of a cat, we’re looking at a LOT of dead animals.

If we want to stop the daily massacre, there seems an obvious solution: control the feline population (and no, we’re not talking about introducing some draconian 1 cat per household type measure, we’re talking specifically about the many, many feral cats roaming our streets). According to Phys.org, there are around 10 -120 million free-roaming and feral cats…. and that’s just in the US. Granted, there’s also a substantial number of domesticated cat’s as well (around 100 million in North America), but considering domesticated cats are, for the most part at least, supported, cared for, and too well fed to be much of a menace to the rest of neighborhood’s wildlife, they aren’t too great a concern.

Feral cats, on the other hand, most definitely are. As Orietta Estrada of The Week notes, one of the primary reasons feral cats are so bothersome is that, unlike wild species native to a particular area, they’re neither truly wild nor truly native. Feral cats are an invasive species, meaning they’re capable of having a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Destroying natural habitats, bringing other species close to extinction (or in some cases, past it- in recent years, 33 bird species have been declared extinct as a result of feral cats), providing unnatural competition to other predators… if there’s a way of creating disharmony, you can bet your bottom dollar feral cats have it nailed.

In Australia, the problem has become so severe (80 percent of the environment has now fallen victim to feral cats and their activities), the government has taken the drastic step of introducing a nationwide culling program. By the end of 2020, it aims to have reduced the cat population by around 2 million. The step may seem extreme, but essentially, it’s the same policy used throughout the US and many other countries to control pests. But, even so, is a nationwide cat cull really the answer?

The problem we’re currently facing with feral cats is less a problem caused by the cats themselves, and more a problem with how we’ve consistently failed to find a way of effectively managing their population. We invited them into our homes, spent thousands of years domesticating them, but still haven’t quite got our heads around the fact that a duty of care is owed, and not by them.

So, how do we rectify the situation? First of all, we need to know exactly what we’re dealing with. Up until recent years, estimating the number of feral cats in a community was nigh on impossible. As Professor Jason Coe of the Department of Population Medicine has previously noted, “There is a growing concern around managing (feral and free-roaming) cats. Yet we have very few tools or techniques that allow us to know what their population actually is or that facilitate our understanding of how we might best control these populations.”

Fortunately, there now seems to be a solution, at least to the question of how to determine the number of feral cats in an area, if not to the problem of what to do with them afterward. In 2018, a team from the University of Guelph developed a dynamic population model that uses data from various sources to accurately predict the total feral cat numbers in a community. “This model offers a tool that allows communities to address needs, questions, and problems related to the feline population,” Tyler Flockhart, a member of the development team and a professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, has said. “If we have issues with free-roaming cats, this new model will help us approach the matter in the best way,” adding, “It’s about healthy animal populations and managing things in a humane manner.”

But what constitutes a ‘humane manner’? Feral cats tend to be sickly, neglected, hard to adopt, and unable to easily adapt to life indoors. If they’re caught young enough, there’s a chance they can become well enough accustomed to humans to stand a chance of finding a home. Adult cats, on the other hand, aren’t quite so lucky. Although a significant number of free-roaming cats are strays who’ve been abandoned, still more were born on the streets, raised on the streets, and, with no hope of living the life of a domesticated cat, will die on the streets.

In many cities, Trap, Spay/ Neuter programs are being adopted as a way of managing the problem. Stray cats are caught, either by volunteers or by members of the community, spayed or neutered, then released back into the wild. Although it’s not actively reducing the existing population, such programs are working on the long game: with most adult cats capable of spawning multiple litters over the course of their life, taking away their ability to breed effectively, and dramatically, cuts the number of new feral cats being added to the population on a year on year basis.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of rolling out the program to the point that every feral cat benefits. But short of introducing the same culling measures as Australia, for now, it seems the most efficient and practical answer to a problem that’s rapidly spiraling out of control.

Photo via Sara Golemon / CC BY-SA

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