The world is rich in a great diversity of animals and plants, but many species are disappearing, including some in our own province. To stop this, we need to make clear choices about human behaviour, and make them fast. Among the many factors causing extinction are habitat loss, the influx of alien species, direct kill from harvesting, bycatch, highways, climate change, and pollution. Some of these may seem too daunting to tackle, yet there is one issue where it is easy to make a difference: controlling free-roaming and feral cats.
Cats kill a huge number of songbirds and small animals every year. It is estimated that they kill hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion birds and animals within North America alone. Cat Crazed, a lighthearted documentary aired earlier this year by the CBC, had an important message: abandoning cats to a feral existence by dropping them off in the countryside is cruel to cats raised as pets, as well as being a very bad idea for native wildlife.
This is the time of year that young birds and animals are most abundant and at their most vulnerable. Fledgling birds fluttering on low hanging branches as they learn to fly are no challenge for a cat that is able to jump and grab them. While a very few pet cats may not be so inclined, others have been seen to take three or four songbirds in the space of a couple of hours. Feral cats that depend on wildlife for survival are particularly rapacious. Such decimation can soon reduce local wildlife populations.
The cumulative effect is a sad decline of attractive and interesting species that are a vital part of the planet’s biodiversity, appreciated by many people. The consumption of rodents by free-roaming cats (stray, feral, or owned) also reduces food availability for hawks and owls, such as the rare short-eared owl which was once common in the Lower Mainland. It is not just the native wildlife that suffers. Roaming cats typically live short, traumatic lives, reaching only five years of age, compared to the 17 or more years that indoor cats can enjoy. They are at increased risk of having and transmitting diseases, such as roundworm infestation, and they often die violently.
Domesticated cats have a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptian times. They make fascinating pets and are a source of joy to a third of North American families. It's been estimated there are 4.5 million domestic cats in Canada. Census data show there are at least 60 million household cats in the U.S., and a further 40 million are considered to be feral. This many cats are bound to have an impact on native wildlife, even if one’s own cat is “not a hunter”.
Fortunately, there is a good way to avoid your cat attacking wildlife: keep it indoors. Many owners already do this, enjoying the company of cats even in high-rise apartments. Some houses may have an opportunity for a wire-enclosed extension from a ground floor window, where the cats can enjoy fresh air yet remain safe from coyotes and cars, while being unable to hunt garden birds and other creatures. Having contented indoor cats does require a little more time and thought on the owner’s part, but there are innumerable structures and toys that will keep them stimulated and active. A bird feeder within sight of a window will keep cats occupied for hours with no harm to them or the birds. Two cats will also amuse each other. For those who cannot bring themselves to keep their pets indoors, or need more time for them to adjust, ultrasound deterrents geared specifically for cats have been found to work in keeping animals within a limited area. This will not protect wild birds and animals also using the yard, but it will at least limit the impact on adjacent properties.
The illegal release of ex-pets into the wild and the feeding of feral cats must end. Trap, neuter, and release programs are not a solution to the heavy toll on birds and small animals. Comprehensive municipal programs need to be in place where alien species, such as cats, have taken over an area.
B.C. Nature, a federation of 50 naturalist clubs around the province, has just passed a resolution urging B.C. municipalities to implement control and restraint ordinances and cat licensing, to protect our native wildlife and to ensure cats receive the care and protection they deserve. B.C. Nature is calling for cats to be confined to their owner’s property or physically restrained when off the premises. They cite the example of cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Toronto, all of which have recognized the importance of responsible pet ownership and enacted requirements for cats.
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.