Wednesday, April 13, 2005

i taut i taw a putty tat

This Duluth News Tribune article was published in early March, but was only recently brought to my attention. Apparently a Wisconsin fire-fighter and hunter, Mark Smith, proposed that the state classify free-roaming domestic cats (also called “feral” cats) as an “unprotected” species. If the state were to do so, Felis catus could be legally killed by any hunter in possession of a small-game license.

Smith states, “I get up in the morning and if there’s new snow, there’s cat tracks under my bird feeder…I look at them as an invasive species, plain and simple.”

He's correct. In the United States alone, domestic cats are responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of birds, billions of small mammals and millions of reptiles and amphibians each year. Many wildlife biologists contend that cats are responsible for more extinctions worldwide than any other cause, with the exception of habitat destruction.

Yet my cat-loving friends contest these facts, pointing out that the numbers are “just estimates.” Or they will highlight my willingness to damn the domestic cat when I don’t condemn other superb predators such as mountain lions (Puma concolor) or red foxes (Vulpes vulpes). Estimates are often useful tools but, more importantly, there is a substantial difference between a native predator and the introduced variety. (Conservation-minded Puerto Ricans do not appreciate the mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) presence and few folks on Guam find the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) praiseworthy. Other than our association with house cats as just that, there is no difference between it and other feral, introduced species.)

Compounding matters is the protection and attention offered Felis catus. What other predator species has access to a dependable source of food and protection from disease? Also, unlike many other predators, the domestic cat does not demonstrate a marked decrease in hunting desire when already sated. Felis catus is a killer that enjoys the killing.

I grew up on a farm where any cat spotted without a collar fell victim to a .22 rifle. Most of these animals were large, filthy tomcats that had been living feral for months or years, but a few were groomed and well-fed. No matter. On a 300-acre farm designed to attract and protect wildlife, the appearance of an “unattached” cat meant dead or threatened wildlife.

The concept of predator control troubles many people, myself included. The balance is delicate; not every raccoon (Procyon lotor) or fox that a land owner or refuge manager spots should be killed, especially if the animal will not be utilized - eaten, worn - in a respectful manner. But when discussing an “invasive” species, the choice becomes more clear-cut. Why then, does Mark Smith’s Wisconsin proposal engender such an angry response all over the United States, especially when Minnesota and South Dakota already allow such kitty culling?

When I Google the topic, I find a link to this hateful blog. The author writes,
“So Mr. Mike Smith lets make a deal, we will allow open cat season just for you as long as you allow us to have an open season to hunt your ass down."
He also points out, astutely, that "birds can fly away from a bird" (one assumes he meant to write 'cat') whereas a cat has no chance against a 12-gauge shotgun. The writer clearly knows nothing about firearms or the hunting prowess of a cat. No individual seriously trying to kill a feral cat would use a shotgun unless they were confident in their ability to stalk within range, a difficult feat for even seasoned scouts. And, even outfited with a collar bell, a cat will learn to stalk so as not to let the bell ring, until the pounce...and bye-bye, birdy.

On another website discussing the issue, post after post bemoans Mark Smith’s proposal, suggesting we pursue “more humane” ways of controlling the cat population. The most often proposed alternative is a three-step process: live trapping, neutering, and release. Proponents of this approach argue that, within several generations, the feral cat population would plummet as a result. While true, what may be more humane for the cat does not afford other animal species much help – with an estimated 12% of the world’s bird species in danger of extinction this century, such measures do little to help sustain biodiversity – but, more pragmatically, tax payers aren’t very willing to foot the hefty bill for such birth control programs. As a result, The Humane Society of the United States and PETA have been encouraging cat owners to spay/neuter their pets and keep them indoors for years now, but many, if not most, cat owners continue to ignore this advice. On the one hand, then, pet owners are unwilling to take responsiblity for their pets and, on the other, they are unwilling to pay taxes which will help alleviate the problems their negligence contributes to. That's the attitude, America!

The only sound alternative to legalized hunting of cats, as I see it, involves trapping the cats, offering them up for adoption at a shelter (to be spayed/neutered at the client’s expense) and euthanizing them if they are not claimed within a given time. This method is undoubtedly more humane than shooting, as the needle will less often “miss its mark,” and it doesn't put the "murderers back out on the streets," but again we are faced with an intimidating price tag. I'm willing to add a few hundred dollars to my yearly tax burden to help alleviate Felis catus pressure. Are you? (Based on my informal poll at the office today, most people aren't. In fact, my much beloved co-worker tells me her parents' cats, which only come into the house at night, don't kill other animals but more than once every two years. Unfortunately, living in denial doesn't help biodiversity.)

In an ideal world, the hunters interested in shooting the cats would be steady marksman and the country’s biodiversity could be done a great service in a relatively humane fashion – a bullet through the brain or heart is only marginally less humane than a lethal injection. On the other hand, in a truly ideal world, pet owners would take responsibility for the creatures they choose to purchase or adopt, keeping cats indoors and dogs closely monitored while taking care to spay or neuter the animals. In this ideal scenario, we would also learn how to take better care of our own fellow man and approach human population, land use, and economic growth with some degree of thoughtfulness. Oh, wait...those continue to seem like unrealistic short-term goals? Well, then, lock-and-load, because the cat problem is far more pressing than the more socially acceptable white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) "scourge."

Do not misunderstand. I adore house cats and cherish the good times I have spent with my own (pictured above). Discovered on the side of the road as a kitten, Mr. Misi had not yet opened his eyes when I adopted him. He had to be fed warm milk from a baby bottle and, for those first months, he slept on my pillow, curled in the crook of my neck and shoulder. Would I weep were Misi shot by a hunter? Of course. Would I understand why? Yes. For that reason, Misi is not allowed outside and he was neutered years ago. When he visits a rural area, I put a collar around his neck, making him easily identifiable as a “pet” if he should manage to slip outside.

Note: As of this afternoon, I learn that the Wisconsin public has given the go-ahead for the cat hunting. It will be taken to the state legislature next.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2004


Devo said...

Man, I can't wait to see you sporting your freshly killed "Kitty Fedora"!!! That's an image that's gonna stay with me for a long time...

Seriously though, this issue is certainly much more intriguing than I'd originally thought. I saw a brief description of this bill a few days back and didn't think much of it outside of "Wisconsin is just weird", which I still think, but now the thought is completely independent of the decision to let people shoot cats.

Anyway, I had no idea that the common housecat was such a detriment to suburban (or rural) biodiversity! I knew those fuckers killed mice and voles relentlessly, but I never really connected the dots (shelter on demand, immunity to disease AND eons of genetic hunting experience to rely on) to understand that this makes for trouble. After some thought, I think I could certainly defend this type of legislation, as long as it was put forward responsibly and intelligently. If only PETA was anywhere near as collectively intelligent as it should be... same goes for Greenpeace. Both of 'em have such potential for doing the right thing, but both of them have been taken over by bleeding heart morons with no remaining connection with reality after ingesting far too many hallucinogens and Grateful Dead bootlegs. (don't get me wrong, I enjoy both hallucinogens AND the Greatful Dead, but seriously, these folks have taken their hummus eating, batik wearing concern for the world to a level far beyond what is rationally advisable) Besides, Minnesota is usually a good barometer for me in appraising the worth of potential legislation. That state is consistently one of the most progressive and intelligent states in the union when it coes to forward thinking governmental administration...

Great post, HH. Thought provoking and eye opening. Two things I have come to expect from this blog. Thanks for the brain munchies!!!

Queen G said...

I have been directed here by a good friend, Devo, and therefore forward all blame and comments to him. Having that said, I have read your blog on numerous occasions and found your insight and knowledge on invasive species to be a bit intimidating. But when I came across the very topic I had read about yesterday and have very mixed feelings about, I knew I would have to comment. So here it is.

I agree 110%. Your examples of the brown tree snake and the mongoose probably exemplify the case most closely. The brown tree snake, as you probably already know, was introduced into Guam by most likely in a ship's cargo, and to this day threatens the lifestyle of the humans that live there. They cause infant deaths and power outages extremely frequently. The mongoose was introduced purposefully for biological control of rats and snakes. It is also considered one of IUCN's top 100 invaders. Both are hunters. Now when comparing these species to that of a domesticated cat, it too is one of the WCN's top 100 world's worst invasive species. Although, some people would not like to identify the connection of wild dogs, toads, rabbits, camels, horses, pigs and water buffalo as threats to the environment, indeed they are. And as a true naturalist and scientist, I should be able to look at these facts and figures and say "Shoot away!” Believing that this is they way to control an overtly aggressive species destroying diversity and the fragile balance of nature. However, I can't. I have tags on my cat and keep him inside but he manages to get out anyway and somehow I think he can take off his collar too when he wants too.

This being said, where is the balance? If we declare open season on feral cats, aren't we creating just another rift between "so called" animal lovers and naturalists? I agree that invasive species, especially the zebra mussel and the Eurasian Ruffe, need to be controlled and contained but it isn't so easy for me to agree to the idea that would allow my cat to possibly come between the crosshairs of a rifle, shotgun, pistol or bow and arrow. The idea just makes me uneasy. So where is the balance? Do we create a registry for all cat owners, frog owners, dog owners, rabbit owners, etc…to sign? Do we send out “I’m sorry I killed your cat” letters? Hallmark will be thrilled. I don’t know what the answer is but I’m sure that in my idealistic world it is not open hunting season. But that’s just me.

Hungry Hyaena said...

First of all, Queen G, do you have a blog? I've seen your comments on a couple of other sites and I know you have a "Blogger" profile. Just curious.

Secondly, thank you for the encouragement, but I'm not so knowledgeable about "invasive" species that I don't have much to learn from other folks.

Anyway, by tagging your cat and, most importantly, keeping him indoors, you are doing what every cat owner should. I, too, sometimes wonder about Mr. Misi stripping himself of the collar, but you can always tighten it if necessary. So long as you leave enough room for your pinkie to slip underneath relatively easily, you are not harming/choking your pet. Also, it helps to get a cat used to a collar early in life. I'm sure you know all this; I'm really writing it for others with similar concerns.

As for the question of balance, I'm in total agreement. Trappers on the farm I grew up on recently took over 30 foxes in two days! Over 30 red foxes! Incredible. Even more incredible...Despite my initial horror at such a large number of murdered animals, I learned that new resident foxes are now being seen with regularity. They are stepping into the open niches, pouring over from neighboring farms which, apparently, must also be over-crowded with predators. My negativity - "Oh, that's too many. Why should so many be taken?" - was proven wrong-headed. How does one regulate predator control? It is a very difficult question to answer, unless you have all day to observe the land and animal interactions. Few of us do.

A pet registry is an excellent idea. I have pushed for such a move in the herpetoculture "pet" industry for some time now, but most pet owners say it's "un-American." If that's the case, so is a social security number or a driver's license. C'mon,'s time we start treating our "pets" with the respect and care they deserve. It may seem odd to make such a statement and then repeat that I am in favor of this cat "hunting" proposal. In truth, it is a little difficult for me to accept, but I am not so angry at the landowners pulling the triggers as I am the ignorant "kitty" owners and goo-goos of the country. They caused the problem, but now they are unwilling to acknowledge the mess.

Thanks for the comments, Queen G. You're on point.

Queen G said...

Sorry, no blog. Haven't enough thought provoking ideas/opinions and I rarely comment. I don't like to be judged by strangers. Something about a fear of being "found out." See, unbeknownst to friends of mine, I am not the coolest person they know. I allow the charade to go on as much as I can but as soon as I start writing things, I know I'll be outsed. I am extremely paranoid and slightly out of my mind but I definitely mean well. I appreciate the comments, HH and I will try to overcome my pychosis to comment more frequently.