by Susan Roney Drennan,
National Audubon Society
If anyone ever needed more proof that people love cats, consider that the longest-running show in Broadway history, based on T.S. Eliot's poems in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, with music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, is none other than Cats. Now in its second decade on Broadway, it has grossed over $2.2 billion and been seen by 47 million people worldwide.
People have been captivated by the beauty and nature of cats for about the last 4,000 years, since the first cats were domesticated in Egypt. They were introduced to Europe about 2,000 years ago and came to North America when Europeans colonized this continent. In America, the domesticated cat is the most numerous pet, numbering about 60 million, according to U.S. Census data. In fact, nearly 30% of households have them. Careful estimates place free-ranging, feral cats at about 40 million. The combined total of 100 million cats nationwide is astonishing. Each of those animals must eat. Feral cats eat predominantly birds, rodents, and small mammals. Domesticated cats, even when fed regularly by their owners, retain their motivation to hunt. These cats also prey on the same animals that feral cats do. It is easy to see why the question of cats is a growing subject of controversy around the country.
At the most recent meeting of the National Audubon Society Board of Directors, the cat issue was addressed both as a policy matter and because some Audubon chapters have become involved in the issue in their local communities. After lengthy discussion, the Board voted to adopt a resolution regarding the cat issue. It took the following salient and science-based points into consideration before passing the resolution:
- Feral and free-ranging cats kill millions of native birds and other small animals annually;
- Birds constitute approximately 20%-30% of the prey of feral and free-ranging domestic cats;
- The American Ornithologists' Union, American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Inc., and the Cooper Ornithological Society have concluded that feral, homeless, lost, abandoned, or free-ranging domestic cats are proven to have serious negative impacts on bird populations, and have contributed to the decline of many bird species. Worldwide, cats may have been involved in the extinction of more bird species than any other cause, except habitat destruction;
- Feral cat colony management programs known by the acronym TTVNR (Trapped, Tested, Vaccinated, Neutered, Released) are not effective solutions to the problem. In fact, these cat colonies are usually fed by very well-meaning cat welfare groups. The unnatural colonies form around food sources and grow to the limits of the food supply. Feeding these strays does not prevent them from hunting; it only maintains high densities of cats that dramatically increase predation on and competition with native wildlife populations;
- Free-roaming cats are likely to come in contact with rabid wild animals and thus spread the disease to people. They pose a risk to the general public through transmission of other diseases like toxoplasmosis, feline leukemia, distemper, and roundworm.
The resolution approved by the Board states that the Society will convey these science-based conclusions to Audubon chapters so that they will be in a position to work constructively on this issue, if they wish. Audubon will also work with scientific, conservation, and animal welfare communities to educate the public about the dangers that feral and free-roaming cats pose to birds and other native wildlife. It will also work on this issue with federal wildlife agencies, public health organizations, and legislative bodies as it decides are appropriate.
The National Audubon Society advocates responsible ownership of all pets.