We need to talk about cats

Kawartha Lakes needs a more serious plan to deal with free-roaming cats.

By Lindsay Advocate

Cats have driven at least 63 species to global extinction.

By Matthew Robbins

In June, Kawartha Lakes City Council voted to adopt a two-year stray and feral cat pilot program requiring pets to be licensed, prohibiting free-roaming cats beyond one’s private property, and increasing funds for current stray management.

Around the same time, Toronto city councillor Shelley Carroll unsuccessfully proposed a bylaw amendment that would prohibit unleashed cats from roaming around the city, private property or otherwise.

Cats have been getting a lot of attention lately, and while there are many issues associated with free-roaming felines, the real kicker is their environmental impact. Domestic cats, both owned and feral, are responsible for roughly 197 million yearly bird deaths in Canada and 2.4 billion in the U.S. This puts them in the number one spot for human-related bird death, followed not so closely by windows and vehicle collisions.

Worse still, cats have driven at least 63 species to global extinction (that’s 26 per cent of all reptile, bird and small mammal extinctions, ever) and, by last estimates, are sending another 367 that way.  

So, what’s wrong with our approach to the issue? For one thing, the pending laws for owned felines only apply outside private property. Not only does this make enforcement impractical, it’s unhelpful for critters who don’t have a working knowledge of property boundaries. Studies have shown that even a well-fed cat will go hunting (a.k.a. surplus killing) and nothing beyond a shut door is really going to change that.  

Like most places, Kawartha Lakes has opted to invest in a process known as trap, neuter, release, or TNR, which essentially aims to reduce reproduction in feral colonies to the point of stagnation. But there’s a catch…

It doesn’t work.

Despite claims to the contrary by organizations like the national animal welfare organization Humane Canada, experts consistently label TNR an ineffective option. Although some places have experienced decreases in stray populations following its implementation, this is usually attributable to high adoption and euthanasia rates practiced alongside TNR. Plus, there are just as many studies that observe increases in stray numbers as those that find the opposite.

The point is, we continue to apply ineffective solutions not because they work, but because they appeal to the public’s sensibilities. Councillor Carroll’s proposal for Toronto, which had potential to make a measurable impact, was shot down almost immediately due to perceptions that keeping cats indoors would be cruel.

Meanwhile in Australia, after feral cats caused the extinction of 22 unique mammal species, a government-implemented culling program has animal activists declaring “cat genocide.” As ugly as this seems, though, wildlife managers were simply treating a non-native predator, an invasive species by definition, as they would any other.

Wildlife are desperate for us to take this problem seriously, and part of that means letting go of things we simply wish were true.

–Matthew Robbins is an invasive species specialist.


  1. Barry Nuttley says:

    Not to mention the destruction of peoples gardens by crapping in them

  2. Catherine Widjedal says:

    Great ending Matty – a truth that ought to be applied to many many issues. “…letting go of things we simply wish were true…” This is an important issue as it raises a real dilemma – what to do? How to choose the most ethical intervention; either way, animals will die.

  3. Judy Kennedy says:

    Well said, and I fully agree. While licensing may raise funds to assist is the control of cats, it doesn’t deal with the problem of strays. What should be adopted, is a free or financially subsidized spay and neuter program for qualifying households, along with an education program about responsible keeping of cats. Two years ago, we rescued a stray feral cat that had been trying to catch birds feeding on the seeds in our garden in front of the deck. She was very wild and I don’t think that she had ever known a house environment and it took a lot of love, tolerance, patience and perseverance to tame her. But once she had been spayed, she settled in and has become a wonderful pet and companion. Once or twice, she has ventured out, when a door was left open, but the trauma of the experience, compared to the safety of the house, brought her quickly back home. I must emphasize on the importance of spay or neuter, depending on the sex. It not only removes their ability to breed and multiply; it also decreases their desire to hunt down and kill innocent birds and small mammals, just for their amusement, especially if they are kept well fed. Cats will adapt, as long as you provide them with a safe environment, a clean litter box, good food, love and lots of toys and activities to keep them occupied, especially if they are young.

  4. Wendy MacKenzie says:

    So, we hear a lot from the people who do not like or keep cats in this thread. While we are thinking about the impact of such things on animals , it would be good to think of their impact on cats and cat lovers too. Imprisoning cats inside dwellings is not a humane solution by any stretch of the imagination. Making it hard for cat lovers to adopt cats will simply mean that more cats will be euthanized, and forcing cat-owners to restrict erstwhile outdoor cats to an indoor environment is inhumane. I’m all in favour of programs to deal with feral cats – spaying / neutering or even euthanasia if it is unavoidable – but please, stop trying to turn a beautiful outdoor animal into a domestic toy!

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