Killer's cradle: Domestic cats are wildlife enemy No. 1

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"Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?" That question, asked by an old children's rhyme, has been answered by a scientific study. In the company of countless others, the cat has been out hunting and the results are not pretty.

For all their cuteness, cats are killers -- of birds and other animals. This isn't a revelation, but the extraordinary extent of their homicide is. Their deadly predations are two to four times higher than previously estimated. Worried about the animal-life carnage caused by windmills or automobiles or poisons in the environment? Their damage is nothing compared to the work of cats.

According to scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. domestic cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 mammals (such as chipmunks and voles) a year. The culprits are both cats that live in homes but are allowed to roam and their feral brethren.

What is to be done? Some will argue that cats are doing only what their nature dictates. But the domesticated cat, while retaining its primitive instincts, is a creature of humankind. This human-crafted problem needs a human-tailored remedy or else we must live with a permanently unbalanced environment. Birds and other small mammals that are the prey of cats are not just beautiful creations, but serve a useful ecological purpose -- for example, keeping insects in check.

Feral cats pose a particularly big problem for which a particular humane remedy is being applied in parts of the country --trap-neuter-return programs, or TNR. Critics such as the American Bird Conservancy say TNR has been ineffective in reducing outdoor cat populations. But clearly the public won't accept cat hunts; that would seem like animal cruelty even if the aim is to stop the cruelty to other species at the paws of cats.

The real solution may be education. Pet owners must be persuaded that cats are exclusively indoor pets.

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where should you have been? In the living room, not outside where birdsong needs to ring.


First Published February 13, 2013 12:00 AM


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