Thursday, October 16, 2014

Today is National Feral Cat Day

And I feel I should say something. After all, feral cats are an issue in our fair city, Lincoln NE, and I have some relevant expertise ...

This post is thanks to Hannah Birge who knows I've thought about feral cats, and brought this listicle  by Beth Buczynski to my attention. 14 myths and facts about feral cats. Just to be pendantic, there are 8 myths and 5 actions for a total of 13 myths and actions. No facts in evidence, sorry. Even some of their myths are actually value judgements. I'm going to take each of these in turn.

Myth #1: Feral cats are just strays that someone used to own, and it's fine to invite them into your home.

I agree this is a myth. Ferals are unadoptable, and the numbers from Lincoln's Animal Control office support that. Most cats that they trap (humanely) in response to complaints are never adopted. In contrast most dogs that are captured are adopted out. 

Myth #2: Feral cats are a dangerous nuisance and should be exterminated like vermin.

I disagree that this is a myth. It is a value judgement, and therefore not subject to false/true evaluations. 

Myth #3: Feral cats attack humans.

Asserting that this is a myth implies that feral cats never bite or scratch. They do, and in Lincoln at least this often leads to a call to Animal Control. I agree that they're not hunting small children in the street, but they do bite and scratch when cornered, and that will happen where they overlap with humans. 

Myth #4: Feral cats spread diseases to humans.

Yes they can, including contributing to rabies prevalence, and in particular they are a source of Toxoplasmosis. You don't need to touch a free ranging cat to get Toxo, it is sufficient to contact soil where cats have defecated. You can say that the frequency of disease spread is too low to worry about (a value judgement), but you can't say they don't spread diseases. 

Myth #5: Feral cats hunt birds.

Yes they do. Buczynski admits this, but argues that "...the major threat to birds is man, through use of pesticides and destruction of habitat." Feral cats are caused by humans too, as long as we're throwing around responsibility. Again, this is a value judgement that the birds eaten by feral cats are less of an impact than wind farms, buildings, pesticides etc. From a management perspective the total mortality is what matters to protecting bird populations. However some components of that total mortality are easier to affect than others. For example, we're not likely to stop growing crops and living in buildings anytime soon. We can reduce feral cat populations. Even then, I'm not worried about the impact of feral cats on the Robins, Blue Jays, Juncos, House Sparrows and Starlings around Lincoln. In fact, please eat more starlings. However, if there's a feral cat colony in the vicinity of nesting habitat for an endangered ground nesting bird, then the gloves ought to come off. Sorry. That's my value judgement. 

Myth #6: Feral cats are loners who beg for food from humans.

I agree, this is a myth. They prefer to live in large destructive packs. Have you ever seen a pet cat beg? That's a dog thing. Although 
Before she even opens the door, seven cats — black, black and white, gray — surround her. Ghougasian reaches into a shopping bag, pulls out a can of Friskies and plops it onto paper plates.
from this article. But I guess that's not the same as begging.

Myth #7: Feral cats should be taken to an animal shelter so someone can adopt them.

Right. That's a myth, see Myth #1 above. 

Myth #8: Feral cats have a great life and should just be left to their own devices.

This is a value judgement again. "Fifty perfect of feral kittens die from disease, exposure or parasites before their first birthday." Yep, like any wild animal at or near carrying capacity. Is that bad? I don't think so.

Apparently I don't have a pulse. "If you're a cat lover (or just someone with a pulse) this is all very depressing." I knew it! I'm a zombie professor working at a cannibal rat infested ghost ship of a University.

Action #1. Find and support Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) organizations in your area.

Sure, if it makes you feel better to spend your time and money on something that doesn't help except in very specific circumstances. If your goal is population reduction, you need a closed population and a very high rate of sterilization (>75% see citations in [1]). These conditions rarely hold. For example, in Lincoln the biggest increase in cat complaints is in May, right after the semester gets out at UNL ... guess what kitty, it was fun having you for a roommate, but ... So the population isn't closed. Volunteers may be dedicated, but it takes a lot of work to trap cats, and some of them are just too smart to be trapped. When I watch the ferals on city campus, I don't see that many eartips (indicating a sterilized cat). 

Action #2. Volunteer to be a colony caretaker or assist an existing caretaker.

We've got one for you! Living right on city campus. Knock yourself out, but recognize that it doesn't help anything. I suppose it helps the colony maintain a higher population than it otherwise would. Wait, that doesn't seem like a benefit ... 

Action #3. Educate yourself about TNR and learn to trap feral cats and have them spayed or neutered.

This is repetitive. 

Action #4. If feral cats are causing a problem in your neighborhood, commit to using only humane repellants.

In an urban environment repellants just push the problem onto someone else. I agree that humane methods of trapping and euthanasia should be used. Be quick.
Edit: On my first pass I missed what this was about.
Studies have shown that when an entire colony is killed this way, it only creates a "vacuum effect" in which new cats move in to exploit whatever food source attracted the original inhabitants. 
Ahh, the vacuum effect. In population dynamics we call this "density dependence" and yes, it exists. As populations shrink in response to increasing mortality, other vital rates (like kitten survival) increase. In addition, if you have an open population, immigration plays a role. This doesn't mean you can't reduce a population by increasing mortality however. Increasing mortality decreases a population, and for a fixed level of added mortality the population will come into a new equilibrium with the resources. All this means is that eradication of a population is very difficult. Buczynski has the real seed of the solution already: remove the resource that attracted the colony in the first place. Certainly don't feed them!  

Action #5. Share this post with friends and family to celebrate National Feral Cat Day!

Umm. I guess I am, but I hope I've also helped to debunk the notion that TNR is a general solution. 

[1] Gutilla, D.A. and P. Stapp (2010) Effects of Sterilization on movements of feral cats at a wildland-urban interface. Journal of Mammology 91:482-489.

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