he said, “don’t know a thing
Williams is on the side
that wants the government
– not citizens, whose meth-
ods to him are scattershot,
vicious, and ineffective – to
run euthanasia programs.
(PETA’s Teresa Chagrin
seconded this point about
cruelty. “We’ve seen it all,”
she said regarding public
cruelty to cats). Robinson’s
tribe thinks TNR alone can
work. Both approaches are
great in theory, but reality is
hard on theory. Each method has limitations, and each can work
only by expending considerable resources over many years.
For example, TNR’s successes – defined by colony elimination – have been observed almost exclusively in cities or
on college campuses where volunteers are many and habitat
is limited. Stacy LeBaron, who ran a successful campaign in
Newburyport, Massachusetts, cited only one stalwart rural
effort, in Nebraska.
While she says that TNR “can be successful anywhere as long
as the group manages its tenets thoroughly,” in practice this has
only been modestly achieved in urban settings. Rural townships
have fewer financial resources and people to volunteer and
perhaps place a greater emphasis on practicality than on the
animal welfare notions popular in metropolitan areas.
Similarly, feral cat culling may not work everywhere. We
can look to Australia, where poison and trap-kill projects are
ongoing, for a model of what an aggressive cull program looks
like. Dr. John Woinarski, a biologist there, noted undisputed
successes on islands, but cautioned against optimism in mainland environments.
“We’ve had eradication success on offshore islands, and
mainland enclosures have been remarkably successful, but
these latter aren’t feasible for the high fencing costs of even
small areas,” he said. “Air-dropping poisoned baits reduced feral
populations by 30 to 80 percent per year on the mainland but
must be sustained over years.”
In addition, Australia largely poisons only where few if any
people live in an effort to avoid killing owned cats. That would
be tough to do in America, especially in the heavily populated
areas of the Northeast.
SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE
When the debate comes down to data, TNR advocates are mostly
on the defensive, their main strategy being to question the sky-
high wildlife mortality numbers of certain studies. If wildlife
managers were flippant, they’d say the only data that cat-lovers
have is YouTube. Emotion counts, though, and calling for
government culls isn’t the
best ballot-box approach
in a country paralleling the
Pharaohs in cat worship.
To minimize the carnage
cats cause then, colony-to-
colony assessment empha-
sizing tailored approaches
might be the way forward.
E. J. Barnes recom-
mends just that, putting her
in rare company. If Robert
Frost lived today, he might
have written, “Three roads
diverged in a wood, and
I – / I took the one never
traveled by. / The one in the middle.” Having witnessed
contentious TNR-euthanasia debates around Greenfield,
Massachusetts, Barnes urged a mixed approach.
“TNR is more workable in cities. Wildlife isn’t nearly as
diverse, and colonies are concentrated. There’s also more shelter
and feeding opportunities for released cats, and fewer predators.
Out in the country, there are more dispersed populations
and more predators. Returning cats to that environment isn’t
humane, especially up here with the winters. They have access
to a broader, more sensitive prey spectrum, too, and providing
feeding stations slights native predators, who scrape by while we
Blending strategies – and science and emotion – will require
that each side accept frustration based on an individual’s sense
of what different animals are owed. Both sides want feral cat
populations sharply reduced. If TNR is accepted in urban
and suburban environments but other methods are approved
elsewhere, efforts could be funded and coordinated better
and wouldn’t necessarily entail killing. Building on Australia’s
enclosure successes, fencing unadoptable cats in rather than out
might be worth a look. Not what either side wants, but détente
has its blisters.
As with all issues, this one has a silent majority. Vermonter
Mollie Matteson, a biodiversity biologist, understands threats to
native wildlife while owning and adoring cats herself.
“For lots of people, cats are their sole window into nature,”
she said. “That can be criticized, but it can also be built upon.
There’s growing awareness that all creatures have a similar
intelligence and emotional life to the ones we’ve chosen for
pets, and as more people understand that the animals cats kill
are worth protecting while straight wildlife advocates come to
accept people’s love of cats as worth honoring, there’s material
there for a bridge.”
Maybe, maybe not, but just attempting it beats the status quo.
Mike Freeman writes about nature’s effect on autism at mikewfreeman.com. He’s
the author of the outdoor memoir Neither Mountain Nor River and the travel narrative
Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson.