This column will undoubtedly make me very unpopular with some readers and very popular with others, but as a responsible wildlife biologist with a love for birds (and for cats too!), I simply cannot ignore it. I have actually written a whole book on the subject, but no publisher to date will touch it for fear of angering both cat-lovers and bird-lovers.
Two years ago, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States, both free-ranging pet cats and the feral variety, kill roughly 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals a year. To put this closer to home, between 100 and 350 million Canadian birds, i.e. 2 to 7% of our birds per year, fall victim to 8.5 million free-ranging pet cats and 1.4 to 4.2 feral cats, according to a scientific study run by the National Wildlife Research Centre in Ottawa.
Bird populations can ill afford this source of mortality. Approximately 1,200 bird species are expected to become extinct in the next 100 years for a variety of reasons, most notably habitat loss and degradation. Cats can wipe out the remaining few birds of an endangered species and they also offer competition for natural predators for food.
Roughly half of owned pet cats run free outdoors. While not all pet cats hunt birds, many of them do. They do so regardless of whether they are well-fed or not. Most cat-lovers do not believe that their pets kill birds or if they do, they are not convinced that it is a problem.
But putting one’s cat outdoors can also be a problem for the cat! Millions of cats are killed and maimed by vehicles each year all over the world. Both of my pet cats owned as a young man eventually became road kill. Cats also become caught in traps, ingest poisonous substances, or become wounded or killed by dogs or wild predators like coyotes and tree-climbing fishers. Sometimes cats are deliberately hurt or killed by cat-hating humans or stolen for either for the restaurant trade or for laboratory research. Occasionally cats simply wander off for no apparent reason.
Ignorance of this problem is not bliss. If we citizens do not act, then politicians will, sometimes passing draconian laws. More and more municipalities all over the world are passing legislation involving control of cats. Limits are being placed on the number of cats one can own and cat-owners are being forced to restrain their pets, either by use of leashes, outdoor enclosures, or keeping them indoors. Passing such legislation though, can be very divisive and usually ends up costing tax-payers money.
Many of my friends and former university students, all wildlife-lovers in their own right, own cats and many allow them to run free outside. I do not despise them for it either, but I do confess that it makes me feel sad and frustrated. And I know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to suddenly confine an outdoor cat to the indoors. So how about this suggestion --- why not at least make your next pet cat an indoor one right from the beginning?
Less wildlife will be killed and your cat will likely live a long and healthy life!