Cats have become a beloved companion for many. Over seventy-four million cats are owned by thirty percent of American households combined. However, over the years, a feral cat population has erupted and has grown exponentially. This overpopulation has created conflict among animal advocates because feral cats and endangered bird species are on opposing sides, creating the feral cats versus the wild birds controversy.
Although many domestic cats hunt as effectively as wild predators, they differ from wild predators in three important ways: (1) People protect cats from disease, predation and competition, which are factors that can control numbers of wild predators; (2) Cats often have a dependable supply of supplemental food provided by humans and, therefore, are not influenced by changes in the populations of prey, whereas populations of native predators will decline when prey becomes scarce; (3) Unlike several native predators, cat densities are either poorly limited or not limited by territoriality. These factors allow domestic cats to exist at much higher densities than native predators. For example, in some parts of rural Wisconsin in the 1990s, densities of free-ranging cats reached 114 cats per square mile. In those areas, cats are many times more abundant than all mid-sized native predators (such as foxes, raccoons, skunks) combined.
Because feral cat populations have been an issue in the United States, several approaches are taken to manage those populations. One approach has been the transition to categorize these colonies as “community cats,” with a focus on managing the existing colonies rather than eradicating them. These ‘Community Cat Programs’ began as a way to move away from the negative connotation the term “feral” carries and into a direction towards treating cats as part of our community, encouraging more humane management of the overpopulation crisis. This movement towards more humane treatment of community cats began as a response to the traditional method of managing community cats, which is to trap and remove them, often meaning to kill. Additionally, studies began showing that lethal methods were not as successful as was believed.
This prompted one important aspect of the Community Cat Program, Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return (“TNVR”). Here, cats are trapped (T), evaluated by a veterinarian and, after determining they are healthy, sterilized (N), vaccinated (V), and ear-tipped to signal to caretakers that they have been sterilized.
Despite the long-time use of TNVR in communities, the system has its critics. One argument is that the presence of TNVR programs that include ongoing caregiving may encourage owners to abandon their own cats knowing that they will be cared for. Therefore, opponents argue, TNVR may actually increase the number of community cats instead of decrease it.
Prior to legally-recognized TNVR programs, volunteers did what they could to control feral cat populations. While, there is no applicable federal law, there are now local and state laws that control the feral cat issue. These laws vary in their approaches. Currently, four states, Utah, Connecticut, California, and Rhode Island, have state laws that establish either definitions or programs associated with feral cats. The focus of the California code is more on the actions that prevent unwanted cats from ending up in feral cat colonies, rather than regulating the management of existing colonies, which is the focus of the Utah and Connecticut laws.
The success of these community cat programs over time has not gone unnoticed by wildlife and bird advocates. In fact, this has led to research showing the effects of free-roaming cat populations on native and even endangered species. Not only does wildlife face direct threats from cat predation, which is exacerbated by dwindling populations from other human impacts, but cats can also be disease vectors to native species. Data have also shown that cats may place competition pressures on native predators. For some time, as a solution, wildlife advocates have attempted to bring feral cat predation under both the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In April 2018, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) recently released two guidance documents that may signal an end to this argument. FWS clarified that an incidental take permit under the ESA is only needed when a project is likely to result in injury or death of a listed species, or alleged harm to a species due to habitat modification.
One federal case puts the challenge of bird advocates under these federal laws in response to cat programs front and center. In American Bird Conservancy v. Harvey, a wildlife conservation group claimed that acts and omissions by the State Parks Commissioner led to a situation where feral cats at Jones Beach pose a risk to a threatened species of wild bird. The group contended that the situation violated the ESA and required remedial action to remove the cats to restore suitably protective conditions for the birds. Am. Bird Conservancy v. Harvey, 232 F. Supp. 3d (E.D.N.Y. 2017). The merits of the case have not been decided by the court. The federal district court only found that the plaintiffs had sufficient standing to withstand a motion to dismiss.
Although there is plenty of data on both sides, there is no certainty that there is one correct answer to dealing with the feral cat overpopulation crisis. Both sides are advocating for the protection of animals and have almost become enemies advocating for different species. However, there are many different methods already implemented in different areas that, if taken together, may produce a significant effect in managing the problem.