I left my last post alluding to a run in with a neighbour which spurred me to write about threats to having and maintaining a wildlife garden, particular in the urban sphere. I touched on the high rate of mortality due to window strikes incurred by birds during migration, which is second only to habitat loss, and ways that we, as wildlife gardeners, can avoid being part of the problem.
Well, that neighbourhood run in was a collision of opinions, to put it mildly. The clash had to do with a cat running loose, harassing and killing wildlife. A week previously, I had seen the neighbour’s cat, an orange tabby, trotting across the road with a bird in its mouth. With heart in mouth, I ran down the street to intervene and clapped my hands very loudly as I approached. The cat was startled enough to release the bird which thankfully, flew up into the trees in a flurry of flapping.
The cat’s owner arrived a short time later and I informed her of her pet’s activities (I didn’t mention that I’ve chased her cat away on numerous occasions from hanging around my front yard bird bath and from using my backyard as a thoroughfare and litter box). She promptly dismissed any concern for wildlife by stating that her cat had a bell on his collar and was providing a needed benefit by killing mice and rats. I didn’t see or hear a bell. Cats learn to hunt without making a sound and birds don’t necessarily equate a bell with danger. Besides, we have predators that are neither invasive, nor a pest and are able to hunt mice and rats. A neighbour three doors up has a bird feeder that attracts an array of raptors. They may predate native birds, but they are also taking non-native Rock Doves, House Sparrows, and Starlings.
Bird feeders attract all sorts, wanted or unwanted; it goes with the territory as mentioned by Susan J. Tweit in her post. A better way to attract songbirds to your garden is to plant native species which will encourage insects to populate your yard and provide food for birds and other wildlife.
I mentioned to the neighbour that the Mourning Dove her cat attacked is a protected species. She drew a blank stare. Obviously, the information that I was giving her was not being received well…or at all. So, it was time to delve into the issue of wayward cats and get some facts and figures to arm myself for the next round of educating the neighbours.
Most species of birds in Canada, over 500, are protected under The Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA). We signed a Treaty with the U.S. almost one hundred years ago, which has similar legislation, though the list of bird species protected by each country can be different (about 800 species in the U.S.).
Under the The Migratory Bird Treaty Act which pertains to native birds:
“…it shall be unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill…”
By any means? Can a cat be construed as an instrument of some such means or manner and thus subject to regulation through the pet owner?
My property is a tiny wildlife oasis amongst the traditional gardens surrounding me that offer little benefit to wildlife. They are backyards for the sole purpose of human activities.
We’ve all heard: “build it and they will come”. Well, I “built” my wildlife garden for wildlife not for domestics. I don’t expect encroachment by uninvited people or pets, i.e., intruders. I’ve taken precautions to make my garden a wildlife haven and minimize attracting some wildlife, like raccoons of which we have a very large population in Toronto. However, one particular trespasser invades with impunity – the free-ranging pet cat. And I know I’m not alone in voicing my displeasure.
The concern over the ecological impact of free-ranging cats is a fairly recent issue.
Domestic cat (Felis catus) has been listed as the fifth leading cause of human-induced mortality in birds with 118 million in the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, cats also kill untold millions of mammals, amphibians and reptiles. With approximately 33% of households or 86.4 million owned cats in the United States and another 36% of households or 8.5 million cats in Canada (2008), the number of cats with access to the outdoors and wildlife smorgasbord could be quite substantial, and that doesn’t include the semi-feral and feral cats.
While cats have a mutualistic relationship with humans, they differ in comparison with dogs. Cats have not undergone major changes during the domestication process, as the form and behavior of the domestic cat are not radically different from those of wildcats, and domestic cats are perfectly capable of surviving in the wild, hence their easy transition to feral status. Combine the ease of going wild with a high proficiency in hunting, high fecundity, and being a charmer with humans who wouldn’t leave home without them, you have a very dangerous, invasive species, particularly in isolated situations such as islands with few natural predators, e.g., New Zealand. Note: F. cattus species has been nominated among 100 of the “World’s Worst” invaders by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), at number 38.
Dogs as invasive species are not quite as adept as cats. Cats also differ from dogs and hold a special status in society – call it a double standard; a carry over from the past with dogs being deemed more valuable, potentially more dangerous, and thus in need of legislation to control them.
“Dogs have historically been the symbol of the hydrophobic, marauding beast, ravaging small children and livestock alike. Cats, by virtue of their general overall size and jaw strength, were not seen as a threat to civilized society. Further, cats in agricultural locations kept to themselves in barn communities, surviving with little concern or connection to human life. As times change, however, so do the concerns of pet owners.”
Only recently have cats attracted attention with licencing, and in some areas, bylaws prohibiting their unrestricted wandering.
Besides wrecking havoc on wildlife, cats can also be carriers of zoonotic diseases that can be shared with humans, such as Rabies, Toxoplasmosis, Cat Scratch Fever or Lyme Disease (tick as vector).
And then there are the threats to the cats themselves which may lead to a shorter lifespan:
- Attacks from other animals
- Human cruelty
- Poisons and traps
- Disease (including cats as intermediate host to Raccoon roundworm)
The degree to which we keep our pets under control is one of the few areas that we can make decisions as individuals and have an impact on our environment. If you live in certain areas of Australia, decisions regarding the keeping of pets might be made for you. A number of residential areas that border bushland in Queensland for example actually prohibit the keeping of cats and restrict the number of dogs kept to protect indigenous, at risk species. It may appear to be an extreme measure, but the Aussies are dead serious about protecting their endemic, native wildlife and habitat.
Cat collars or bibs that are worn to prevent cats from catching birds are laudable, but don’t eliminate all killing and don’t address the threat to other wildlife – amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. As well, these devices don’t reduce the exposure to risks to your cat’s health while Fluffy can still roam freely.
Certainly, restricting cats to your own property, either through a method of harnessing or a secure cat enclosure will reduce the risks inherent in roaming, but not eliminate them.
The best solution for both the welfare of your cat, wildlife and the environment, including our wildlife gardens, is to keep your cat indoors at all times. Be a responsible pet owner!
Keep only as many pet cats as you can feed and care for. Neuter your cats or prevent them from breeding and encourage others to do so. Locate bird feeders in sites that do not provide cover for preying cats. Don’t dispose of unwanted cats by releasing them in rural areas. Eliminate sources of food, such as garbage or outdoor pet food dishes that attract stray cats (and mice, rats, skunks, raccoons). Don’t feed stray cats. Feeding strays maintains high densities of cats that kill and compete with native wildlife populations.
American Bird Conservancy has many materials available including information on Trap Neuter Release (TNR), although a more effective solution is Trap Neuter Remove. The Kitty Cam Project (what’s your cat up to?) Cats as Invasive Species (several articles) Detailed Discussion of State Cat Laws (U.S.)
Originally published October 26, 2012 on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens