Give Birds a Break. Lock Up the Cat.
The other day I looked out the window and saw a strange black cat sauntering through our yard. It was a beautiful animal, with bright penny eyes and fur that gleamed like a newly polished shoe, but still the sight turned me ghoulish. So I ran outside, hollered, stamped my feet and finally managed to chase the little witch’s sidekick away.
I am not superstitious. I have always been a cat lover. Yet if there is one thing I don’t want crossing my path right now, it’s another bored, carnivorous tourist, another recreational hunter on the prowl. Our yard is already a magnet for half a dozen neighborhood cats, all of whom I know to be pets with perfectly good homes of their own. But they are free to roam, while we, between our burbling bird fountain out front and our well-stocked bird feeders in back, just happen to look like a felid Six Flags — now more than usual with the busy fall migrations under way.
I would like to complain to the cats’ owners, demand that they come claw their property from mine, but I don’t. I’m a coward, complaining is unneighborly, and I’m all too aware that I could be accused of hypocrisy, of the pot calling the kitty black. Until she died two autumns ago, our cat Cleo was a notorious free ranger, yowling outside neighbors’ windows, climbing on top of their roofs. We tried to make her a housecat, but when she retaliated by using our living room as a giant cat box, we cravenly sighed and flung open the door.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have held my ground, plugged my nose, and kept Cleo inside. Experts disagree sharply these days over how to manage our multitudes of stray and feral cats, with some saying off to the pound, others preaching a policy of catch, neuter and release, and everybody wishing there were other options to click. Yet when it comes to pet policy, and the question of whether it’s O.K. to let your beloved Cleo, Zydeco or Cocoa wander at will and have their Hobbesian fun, the authorities on both sides of the alley emphatically say, No. There are enough full-time strays; don’t add in your chipper. It is not fair to the songbirds and other animals that domestic cats kill by the billions each year. New research shows that neighborhoods like mine are particularly treacherous, Bermuda Triangles for baby birds.
Peter P. Marra, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, pointed out that cats were the only domesticated animal permitted to roam. “Pigs have to stay in pens, chickens have to stay in pens,” he said. “Why are cats allowed to run around and do what their instincts tell them to do, which is rampage?”
It isn’t fair to the cat. Regular stints outdoors are estimated to knock three or more years off a pet cat’s life. “No parent would let a toddler outside the house to run free in traffic,” said Darin Schroeder, vice president for conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy in Washington. “A responsible owner shouldn’t do it with a pet.”
In the view of many wildlife researchers, a pet cat on a lap may be a piece of self-cleaning perfection, but a pet cat on the loose is like a snakefish or English ivy: an invasive species. Although domestic cats have been in this country since the colonial era, they are thought to be the descendants of a Middle Eastern species of wild cat, and there is nothing quite like them native to North America. As a result, many local prey species are poorly equipped to parry a domestic cat’s stealth approach. “People fool themselves into believing that by simply putting a bell on a cat they could prevent mortality to birds,” Mr. Schroeder said. “But a bell ringing means nothing to a bird.”
Moreover, free-ranging domestic cats are considered subsidized predators. They eat cat food at home, and then hunt just for sport, a strategy that allows them to exist at densities far greater than carnivores achieve in nature. “It’s estimated that there are 117 million to 150 million free-ranging cats” in the United States, Dr. Marra said. “They’re the most abundant carnivore in North America today.”