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Is your cat killing the environment?

In the East Bay, California officials have been faced with the problem of feral cats in a shoreline habitat of the East Bay Regional Park District killing threatened species of birds and mice. Their solution was to kill the cats that were unable to be controlled as a ‘last resort,’ resulting in thirteen cats being shot in 2020. This has led to public outcry, with 78% of six-hundred voters who participated in a survey saying that they were against shooting and killing free-roaming cats. Officials held a board meeting in June in which they committed to make an effort to capture cats more often and work with nearby animal shelters. Nevertheless, they have not yet gotten rid of the policy allowing for the killing of feral cats.

While much of the public disagrees with sacrificing stray cats for the sake of preserving native wildlife, those in favor of the policy contend that cats are an invasive species and a superpredator that causes ecological damage. In fact, cats are currently in the top one hundred worst non-native invasive species in the world. Cats have caused the extinction of thirty-three species throughout the world and kill more than four billion animals every year. Both feral and domestic cats kill billions of birds and mammals just in the United States, with feral cats causing the majority of these deaths. They are also responsible for fourteen percent of bird, amphibian, and mammal deaths on islands. There are also indirect ways that free ranging cats can affect prey species, such as by causing disturbance due to their appearance, presence, or smell. These fear and intimidation efforts can cause changes in foraging and defensive behaviors, stress responses, energy income, body condition, vulnerability to other predators, and reproduction input and output for prey species.

There are many different locations around the world besides the United States where cats have had an increased negative impact on wildlife than what is average. One of these places is Australia, where wildlife is twenty times more likely to encounter deadly feral cats than other wildlife predators. Feral cats have been declared a pest species due to their involvement in the extinction of at least twenty-five mammal species and endangerment of at least one hundred and twenty-four species. They also have a significant impact on small native mammals and ground nesting birds. Feral cats have also restricted the efforts to reintroduce endangered species to where they have become extinct by hunting and killing the newly released animals. People in Australia have sometimes even gone to the length of eating cat meat in an effort to slow the damage that cats inflict on wildlife.

New Zealand has also been facing difficulties with cat predation. Due to native New Zealand bird species being isolated for so many years without the presence of any predatory mammals, many have evolved to be flightless. When European explorers first came and brought cats, there was a massive negative effect on these native bird species. Feral cats in New Zealand have caused the extinction of seven endemic bird species and seventy localized subspecies.

Conversely, many people argue that cats can be beneficial to their environment. For example, popular belief is that cats are the solution to the rat overpopulation problem. What most people do not know, however, is that cats are surprisingly bad at catching rats. In a recent study conducted by Fordham University’s Micheal Parson, a group of cats living by a rat colony living in a Brooklyn waste management facility were investigated for their hunting patterns. The results showed that the cats only killed two out of the roughly one hundred and fifty rats living in a colony. A possible explanation for these unexpectedly low numbers is the size and aggressive nature of the city rats. The average rat in New York weighs roughly eleven ounces, or about ten times the size of the average mouse. When given the option between an eleven ounce rat or perhaps a smaller animal like a songbird or a lizard, it is logical why cats would choose the smaller option. This means cats being released into urban neighborhoods do more harm to the native species than good for the pest control.

From this information, it can be seen that cats’ hunting has gotten out of hand and needs to be brought under control in order to restore balance to global ecosystems. While there is currently no easy way to remedy the situation, there are a few ways that cat owners can be a part of the solution by preventing their domestic cats from hunting to excess. Methods, such as keeping cats indoors more often and putting a bell on a cat’s collar, can make a positive difference. Going forward, it will also be important to limit the number of feral cats living in neighborhoods and environments that may be more susceptible to the overhunting of native wildlife. Thus, while cats are beloved pets that will naturally display hunting behaviors, it is imperative that humans take action to prevent unwanted environmental damage.

Written By — Merrin Decker

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