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Overview of Feral Cat Population Control

Tony LaCroix


Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
2006
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Overview of Feral Cat Population Control

 

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      Controversy has arisen over how best to deal with populations of feral cats across the country. While cat advocates work to end kill policies, bird advocates and others see feral cats as a threat to protected species. The population dynamics of feral cats make the problem particularly difficult to deal with, while the effects of predation by cats and the spread of disease affect all of us to some extent. The difficulty of the problem requires comprehensive and intelligent policy-making with a focus on local measures.

      A feral cat is one which was born in the wild (or at least raised without a human caretaker), while a stray cat was born into domestication and then abandoned or lost by its owner. Feral cats live a dangerous and short existence because of the threats from fighting, disease, and often traffic. They can rarely be domesticated, and may carry diseases such as toxoplasmosis or cat scratch fever, both of which affect humans.

      In recent years, a method of dealing with feral cats without killing them has been developed. Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) programs involve trapping, altering, feeding, and vaccinating feral cats, and then monitoring them in a managed colony. This method is opposed by proponents of traditional kill methods, because even well-fed altered cats continue to hunt birds and other small animals, some of which may be legally protected species. Those opposed to TNR have suggested holding colony managers liable for loss of birds under federal and state conservation laws. Whether such legal action would be successful depends largely upon how cats are classified.

      In both biological and legal terms, how we classify feral cats has far-reaching consequences. For example, the law treats "wild" animals very differently than it treats "domestic" animals, which still are classified separately from "companion" animals. Fitting a particular species into one category or another often proves to be arbitrary and based on tradition rather than sound science or law. Meanwhile, ecologists focus on the role of the species in its ecosystem, and whether the species has destructive tendencies damaging to species diversity. Therefore, classification of feral cats is central to how we approach the problem of overpopulation.

      The law traditionally regards domestic cats as mere chattels of their owners, much like any personal property. At common law, a cat owner was liable for injuries caused by her cat only if she knew the cat to be abnormally dangerous. Some municipalities have specifically addressed this rule by passing ordinances making animal owners strictly liable for injuries caused by their pets. However, most of these laws are specific to dogs. Absent such an ordinance, a cat owner is generally free from liability for her cat's actions. However, conservation laws often apply without regard to animal ownership issues.

      The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal for anyone to "take" an endangered species. "Take" has been given a liberal definition by the courts, and includes almost any action which causes the loss of members of a protected species. Parties have been found liable for a taking where they have set into action a chain of events which indirectly results in the loss of habitat for an endangered species. In light of this precedent, there may be merit to the legal claims of TNR opponents. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act buttresses these claims by making actionable the taking of any migratory bird. Although it appears that legal action against colony managers could be successful, important questions include whether such action would be necessary or productive. Perhaps a hard look at the roots of the problem is in order.

      It is almost universally agreed upon that the feral cat problem begins with cat owners and other people. There would be no feral cats without the abandonment of unaltered cats into the wild. Perhaps more important, however, is getting a handle on how humans are feeding feral cats. Like all species, the number of feral cats is dependent on their food supply. Local governments can reduce feral cat populations by passing and enforcing ordinances requiring the sealing of garbage containers. This is evident when one considers that most feral cat colonies exist in and around dumpsters and open garbage dumps. Combined with responsible cat ownership, localized efforts to control how stray and feral cats are fed will yield more significant results than lawsuits would.

For a biological summary of the domestic cat, click here.

See the Detailed Discussion for an in-depth, legal analysis of feral cats.

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