We need to talk about cats
Kawartha Lakes needs a more serious plan to deal with free-roaming cats.
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.