team put bird mortalities at 1. 3 to 4 billion per year in the U.S.
Non-avian deaths, too, range into the stratosphere – 20 billion
at most. While this includes non-native house mice and Norway
rats, cats are infamously indiscriminate. An ongoing University
of Georgia study puts cameras on pet cats. Though two-thirds
mostly laze around, the remainder are Ripperesque. Lizards are
their most frequent victims in that region, demonstrating that
what’s killed is what’s available. In the Northeast, this means
the mice and voles (great for humans who want fewer of them
in grain bins and kitchen cupboards, not great for weasels,
rat-snakes, and screech owls), but also far touchier targets
conservation-wise, such as New England cottontails, monarch
butterflies, and piping plovers, all endangered or threatened. If
it’s snowshoe hare-sized down, it’s game, and cats come to play.
“It’s a shame,” said author Jim Sterba, whose book Nature
Wars dedicates a chapter to cat predation. “Few people under-
stand how lethal they are. Each ear is connected to thirty-some
muscles, and they’re beyond stealthy. One of the first to sound
the alarm was Herbert Stoddard, who studied the impact cats
have on bobwhite quail. Cats don’t molest eggs, but he found
they could hear them hatching and then move in. It didn’t
matter if they’re hungry or not. In the way rodents gnaw to hone
teeth, cats hunt to hone their own tools.”
Sizemore echoed this. “Chasing laser lights, pouncing,
pawing string balls – all that cuteness indoors is death outside.”
So what can be done? Many in the wildlife management camp
have called for feral cat culls, while the pro-cat side sees Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as the preferred way to address the issue.
TNR volunteers trap ferals at feeding stations, sterilize them,
then return them to their roaming ways. It’s touted as a humane
approach, yet not all animal welfare organizations are on board.
In 2015, New York hunters found themselves in a curious alliance with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Along with Audubon and many others, they defeated a measure
that would have legalized TNR in
New York. Rather than an isolated
concern for the cats, PETA touted
an encompassing empathy.
“I don’t know what it will take,”
said Teresa Chagrin, an animal care
and control specialist for PETA.
“With so many people, there’s
a disconnect between the cats’
welfare and what they kill. People
have to understand that cats are
non-native predators, ones indig-
enous animals aren’t equipped
to deal with. This compromises
native predators, as there’s less
prey, and the cats themselves can’t
handle harsh weather without sig-
Some cat advocacy groups, and even some in the scientific
community, take issue with the math and methods of many of
the studies used to shine a light on cat predation. “They made
a common error,” said Dr. Lynn, referring to the Smithsonian
study. “They generalized island-specific studies to mainland
environments. If that range’s top end was true, cats would kill
three-quarters of America’s birdlife annually. That’s why anti-cat
rhetoric has reached ‘zombie apocalypse’ heights.”
But Dr. Amanda Rodewald, a Cornell ornithologist, coun-
tered this: “They did include islands, but these were Britain
and New Zealand. A study similar to the Smithsonian’s by
Peter Blancher has cats killing two to seven percent of Canada’s
birds annually, with American studies showing at least that.
That would certainly affect recruitment [the number of young
needed to replace losses].”
Ted Williams, a Cape Cod-based writer and outdoorsman,
is as taken by Blackburnian warblers as by woodcocks, making
him as much a Thoreau as a Hemingway. Recognizing the dam-
age feral cats do, he’s waded into the debate, urging concerted,
government-sponsored kill programs.
“TNR doesn’t work, and it’s cruel to cats,” said Williams.
“I call it ‘Trap, Neuter, Re-Abandon.’ You have to trap a high
percentage just to neutralize colony growth. Some efforts succeed,
but they take enormous resources in terms of volunteer hours,
vet support, food, and trap maintenance. Meanwhile, released
cats continue killing while only living because of feeding
stations. Cats breed as early as six months and produce up to
three litters a year, so if TNR isn’t sustained at a high level, then
it’s a bust. There’s no reasoning with the Cat Mafia, though.”
Becky Robinson might be that mafia’s don, though in truth,
she’s simply someone who has laid herself out caring for cats. A
Kansan moved to Washington, D.C., Robinson is the founder
of Alley Cat Allies (ACA), the nation’s most prominent cat
advocacy group. Whatever its detractors think, ACA is a
remarkable, from-nothing success story.
“We started from my Tercel,” she said, describing the D.C.
neighborhood where she blundered into an alley cat colony and
acted. “In short order, we were
going door-to-door, finding who
owned what cat while caring for
the unowned ones, modeling the
TNR success they’d had in Britain.
Vets were hard to convince, but
many facilities now are exclusively
TNR has flourished. Despite
the legislative setback in New
York, the practice has been legal-
ized in more than 500 American
municipalities and was recent-
ly sanctioned by the American
Veterinary Medical Association,
though as author Jim Sterba points
out, the AVMA is comprised pri-
marily of pet vets, most of whom,