Dealing with Bird Conservationists

The last few years have been a very exciting time for cat advocates because the new community cat paradigms are revolutionizing how shelters deal with cats. Problems can arise in fully implementing community cat programs, though, including ordinances that restrict trap-neuter-return (TNR) or return-to-field (RTF). Just recently we have had a threat to the TNR program in Washington, DC and a scare as to the TNR and RTF programs in Jacksonville, Florida. We never know when or where the bird conservationists are going to pop up and propose a restrictive ordinance to stop TNR and RTF, or try to persuade government officials to adopt a trap-and-kill program.

Community cat advocates are fortunate to have great sources of help and information such as Alley Cat Allies and the Million Cat Challenge. Peter Wolf’s blog Vox Felina has many articles deconstructing the research that bird conservationists cite as support for their trap-and-kill agenda. In addition to those great resources, I thought it might be handy to have a short guide to the true state of knowledge about feral and community cats today. Here are some facts that sometimes get buried in the rhetoric about free-roaming cats .

  • We have no idea how many free-roaming cats there are in the United States. In 2013, a meta-analysis of cat predation on wildlife that came to be known as the Smithsonian study was published by three conservationists.* The paper received a great deal of attention and has been frequently cited by bird conservationists in arguing for trap-and-kill programs. The authors admitted, however, that the number of free-roaming cats in the United States is not known. In their words: “No empirically-derived estimate of un-owned cat abundance exists for the contiguous U.S.” What this means in plain English is that no one has ever done an evidence-based study on the number of outdoor cats in the United States. The authors then went on to acknowledge that the guesses people have made as to the number of feral cats range from 20 million to 120 million. So if you are ever at a city council hearing and a bird conservationist says that “there are 60 million feral cats in the United States,” feel free to correct them by citing their own flagship study. The fact is that whenever anyone claims there are “x” number of feral or free-roaming cats in the United States, they are purely guessing.
  • Cats are a commensal species.** That means that they live primarily in and near human habitations, much like squirrels, raccoons, and opposums. Commensal species are dependent on humans for food and shelter. There is no evidence whatsoever that significant numbers of feral cats live in wilderness areas in the continental United States.
  • There is no evidence whatsoever that the number of unowned cats in the United States as a whole is increasing. In fact, the evidence we have indicates that the number of free-roaming cats is decreasing. Bird conservationists often argue that cats are an “invasive” species. It is true that the domestic cat is not native to the Americas, but there is no evidence that cats are an “invasive” species in the sense of rapidly multiplying and taking over habitats. Cats were introduced to the United States before the Pilgrims arrived, and if they were a classic invasive species the country would be chock-a-block with cats by now. Instead of increasing, cat populations in cities, measured by shelter intake and anecdotal evidence of the number of cats on the street, appear to have been declining for the last 75 years. And since cats, as commensal animals, live mostly in cities, then if cat numbers are declining in cities they are probably declining overall.
  • There is no evidence that cat predation harms bird species at the population level, or that cat predation has ever affected the survival of an endangered bird species in the continental United States. The authors of the Smithsonian study attached a supplemental table where they listed bird mortality by species as found in various studies. As Peter Wolf pointed out in a blog post on Vox Felina, of the 58 species cited, 57 are plentiful. One, the Northern Bobwhite, is listed as “near threatened,” but its status is attributed to habitat destruction and sport hunting.
  • No one knows how many birds a typical outdoor cat kills. Studies that have been done in the United States have found everything from 1.64 birds per cat per year to 186.47 birds per cat per year (see Supplementary Table S1 in the Smithsonian study). With such a gigantic variation in study results, the only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that scientists have not yet discovered how to set proper parameters for effectively measuring cat predation on birds in the field.
  • Owned cats kill fewer birds than unowned cats. Although the studies cited in Supplementary Table S1 of the Smithsonian paper are extremely inconsistent as to the number of birds killed by individual cats, the studies are very consistent in concluding that owned cats kill far fewer birds than unowned cats. Owned cats are fed, so it is not surprising that they hunt less. Feral cats who have a colony caregiver are also fed. Therefore, the Smithsonian study provides strong support for the argument that TNR, with ongoing colony care, will lead to less predation on birds.
  • The trap-and-kill methods pushed by bird conservationists have never been shown to work. In order for trap-and-kill to work, the generally accepted view is that at least 70% of the target population has to be killed, and this has to be repeated every two years. Because cats live mostly in urban and suburban areas, especially in alleys and vacant houses and outbuildings where they can find shelter, extermination programs would have to trap cats in people’s neighborhoods. I am not aware of any city that has ever tried a mass trap-and-kill program, and I cannot imagine how such a program would succeed. First, it would be very expensive because it would require the purchase of a large number of traps and the employment of a large number of people to set and monitor the traps and kill the cats. Second, catching feral cats is not easy, and the people who know how to do it would not be assisting the city. Third, the traps would catch more pet cats and small dogs than feral cats, and it would be very expensive to house those animals for return to their owners. Fourth, there would be many highly publicized horror stories of pet cats who were caught and killed by the trappers. Fifth, people who sympathized with the cats would sabotage the traps and would not allow traps to be placed on their private property. Sixth, the bird conservationists are not offering to fund or carry out these extermination programs themselves, and instead urge the cities to pay for it and to take the heat. Advocates should make sure that city officials see the contrast between TNR/RTF programs, which are paid for with donations and carried out by volunteers, and trap-and-kill programs which would have to be carried out by hired help and funded by the taxpayers. And we should use every opportunity to point out that bird conservationists who argue against TNR and RTF are trying to destroy existing programs without having any practical solution to put in their place.
  • Our message is not “just leave the cute kitties alone.” Bird conservationists often try to paint cat advocates as irrational and sentimental people, and they sometimes invoke or hint at the “cat lady” stereotype. They try to portray cat advocates as supporters of an untenable status quo. We need to make sure that government officials know that TNR and RTF are programs that are designed to change the status quo. In fact, the purpose of TNR and RTF is to do exactly what bird conservationists say they want, which is to reduce the number of free-roaming cats. Government officials love to find a middle ground on contentious issues, and TNR and RTF provide such a middle ground.


* “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra, Nature Communications 4, January 29, 2013, doi:10.1038/ncomms2380.

** Terry O’Connor, Animals as Neighbors: The Past and Present of Commensal Animals (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013).

20 thoughts on “Dealing with Bird Conservationists

  1. Ruth Rosenfield

    Having been personally responsible for managing one particular feral cat colony for 13 years, and having worked with property managers, boards of selectmen, boards of health, etc., for many years to promote TNR, I can attest to its effectiveness.

    The colony I personally managed is typical. We started off with 15 cats and kittens. We trapped all of them in one (very long) day, brought them to a local low-cost spay/neuter facility and had them all fixed. We then returned 12 of the cats to their outdoor area, while I tamed three of the kittens and was able to find them good homes. Meanwhile, we continued to feed the colony for the next 13 years. Occasionally someone would dump a tamed cat there, and we would trap it, have it fixed, and place it in a good home. Only once in 12 years did a strange feral cat move into the colony (probably because there was only one male cat in the entire colony.) We trapped that cat, neutered him and returned him to the outdoors.

    Eventually all the cats died off for various reasons, old age for the older ones, a couple of car accidents, etc. I took the last cat in after he’d been out there for 13 years, and he slept beside me for the next three years until he, too, died of old age illnesses.

    Also, in 13 years, I never once saw any indication of bird kill in or around the colony area…no feathers, no bones, no partially eaten bodies. It is quite obvious that cats are very opportunistic and, if well fed, they will conserve their energy and not bother to chase birds. In fact, it’s far easier for cats to catch rodents such as field mice and voles, as they typically remain in one spot on the ground when eating, unlike even ground-feeding birds who hop around quite a bit.

    There have been NO new cats in that area for the past 10 years! As the former Vice-President of Neponset Vally Humane Society, I have seen results like this over and over again. TNR not only works, but it is the best and most humane solution to the problem of feral cat population.

  2. Tony Porcaro

    Ruth: I have had an identical experience with two different colonies over a period of 10-12 years; no new litters of kittens were born in all of that time and never evidence of a bird kill problem even in the midst of a high population of sparrows, jays, and cardinals; cats being territorial and especially established feral cat colonies I have found it a very rare occurrence for new unfixed cats to enter the area, although colonies have been known to accept outsiders from time to time; TNR works but it is not easy and not for those who can’t invest in a long-term commitment of proper management and ongoing care; it also works best in conjunction with adoption for those kittens and cats who can be socialized and given the opportunity to live in permanent homes.

  3. Mark Hahn

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a clear and effective article. (And to the commenters, for their care of colonies.)

  4. Donna Nespoli

    As a wildlife rehabilitator and zoologist I can tell you that cats kill many wild animals and are a global threat to biodiversity. Simply look at Australia’s plight and the studies done there on stomach content of feral cats. Also, I find it interesting how you refer to birds only on the population level and not as individuals who suffer. Ask the Stephen’s Island Wren how he feels about cats… oh wait, you can’t. They are extinct because of cats. From what I can see you care nothing for other animals, just another cat fanatic. Sad.

  5. Susan Houser Post author

    Donna — If an extinction of a flightless bird that happened more than 100 years ago on a small island off of New Zealand is the best argument you can come up with against TNR, then you are not exactly hitting it out of the park. Any time humans introduce a predator onto a small island, whether it’s cats or coyotes or even rats, you can expect trouble, and no one is arguing otherwise. If cats are causing a problem on a small island, I think the great majority of TNR advocates would support a humane trap-and-relocate program. TNR advocates are very familiar with relocation, they do it all the time.

    It’s interesting to me that you are criticizing TNR, yet, as always seems to happen in these discussions, you do not put forward any idea of your own for something better. What is your plan for feral cats? And how will you implement it? I find it ironic that you are criticizing TNR advocates as uncaring, when they are the ones who are spending lots of their time and their own money trying to reduce the number of outdoor cats. What are you doing?

  6. Bill

    Containment or Removal is the best and only option for feral cats. I find it amusing that TNR advocates will Re-Abandon a cat in the wild where it doesn’t belong, so it can eventually get run over by a car, die of disease or parasitic infections, or succumb to any number of other terrible forms of death and call that success. TNR=Death by Attrition. Since when is getting run over by a car more humane than euthanasia?

    As Donna already pointed out, the effect of feral cats on the environment is incredibly harmful. And if you want something more recent, the count of breeding Hawaiian Petrels population was just reduced from 50 to 48, courtesy of a feral cat, all caught on camera.

    The flaws with TNR are apparent. Not all cats can be captured, and these continue to reproduce. New individuals can enter the TNR area at will, and they will reproduce. And surgical sterilization does nothing to prevent continued predation on native wildlife. TNR can neither eliminate feral cats, nor reduce predation, and does not address illness or disease, facts supported by actual scientific study.

    Proponents of TNR ignore these facts. They downplay or deny outright the problems with rabies and other diseases. They counter that feral cats are a natural part of the ecosystem and play an important role in the biologic control of pest species, that the estimation of wildlife killed by cats is grossly exaggerated, and that conservation groups have more important things to worry about. They have provided no studies that refute the numbers of wildlife killed. The studies that they do refer to regarding the effectiveness of TNR are of limited scope, and often contradictory in their findings. All of these studies openly admit that TNR will not be effective at eliminating feral cat populations.

    What is not in dispute is that domestic cats are an invasive species, they are an alien species, altering the landscape, and causing- environmental, agricultural, and economic harm. There is no other small cat native to North America similar to Felis Catus, and thus they have a huge and disproportionately damaging effect on wildlife. Only the complete elimination of feral cats will provide the solutions that both conservationists and feline advocates want. Disease, health problems, public safety, and environmental concerns are all addressed successfully by eliminating the feral feline population.

  7. Susan Houser Post author

    You say that “containment or removal” is the answer, but then you admit that “not all cats can be captured.” How are you going to contain or remove cats that cannot be captured? The flaw in your argument for containment or removal, which none of you ever address, is that TNR advocates have an army of volunteers who will persist until they have trapped every last cat in a colony. TNR opponents who say that they want containment or removal never seem to have a plan on how, exactly, they are going to accomplish that.

    And the Hawaiian Petrel is another example of a bird population on an oceanic island. As I said in answer to Donna, I think the great majority of TNR advocates would support humane trap and remove programs for feral cats on oceanic islands. That isn’t even a controversy, so I’m not sure why you keep bringing it up. As to the video evidence, people have been talking about that video for years but the last time I checked, the video had not been released. Do you have a cite for a web page where it can be viewed? If not, then you should say that cats are “alleged” to have killed petrels. And by the way, mongooses are also alleged to be killing the petrels. Do you want all the mongooses exterminated too?

  8. Bill

    If you make the effort to trap a cat, why would you ever re-abandon it? That lacks all common sense. The human race it quite capable of complete eradication of animal species when we choose to do so, just ask the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, or Great Auks.

    There is plenty of objective evidence related to the predation of endangered seabirds by Feral cats. This has been well documented for some time now. I would support the removal of any deleterious invasive species where they negatively impact local wildlife, whether that is a feral pig, feral python, feral mongoose or feral cat.

  9. Susan Houser Post author

    Again, everyone, including TNR advocates, would be happy to see feral cats removed from oceanic islands. The only difference is that TNR advocates would want to see humane relocation, not extermination. We would all, bird conservationists and TNR advocates, like to see the Hawaiian Petrel survive. (By the way, the video does not show a Hawaiian Petrel, and you have to wonder why the bird is not moving. I hate to be suspicious, but bird conservationists have been caught faking evidence before.)

    The issue you keep dodging is that no one has ever successfully used a catch-and-kill method to eradicate feral cats from anyplace that is not an island. And even on most islands it has not proved possible to trap and kill all feral cats. You argue that people could eradicate cats if they wanted to. But apparently they don’t want to. Given that you cannot force everyone to agree with you, you might be better off accepting and supporting a solution – TNR – that might not be ideal in your view, but is something that people will accept and support.

  10. Bill

    Full scale eradication efforts on Feral Cats have never been attempted in the US. We did it with feral dogs back in the 50’s and we were quite successful We’ll have to wait and see how Australia does with their plan to kill 2 million feral cats.

    I would never advocate for TNR. It’s bad for cats and exponentially worse for wildlife and public health. TNR is cat hoarding without walls, all at the expense of dead wildlife and public health. I’m always amazed how TNR advocates, who claim to do what they do so cats don’t have to suffer, could care less about the suffering of wildlife. Why is the life of 1 feral, non-native invasive predator more important than the hundreds possibly thousands of animals it will needlessly kill?

  11. Susan Houser Post author

    You’re wrong about feral dogs being wiped out by trap-and-kill in the 1950s. In fact, the number of free-roaming dogs in the United States appears to have peaked in the early 1970s. Just look at all the publicity back in the period from 1971 to 1974 about the feral dog problem. The number of feral dogs began to decline in the early 1970s when low-cost spay-neuter clinics opened across the US and, more importantly, private veterinarians began to recommend spaying and neutering to pet owners as a routine part of pet health care. Once the population of feral dogs was no longer being seeded by offspring from owned dogs, the population declined rapidly. So the experience with feral dogs is actually a very strong example in favor of TNR, and not by any means an example of the success of trap and kill.

    Bringing down the number of feral cats by TNR and RTF has taken longer than bringing down the number of feral dogs, because cats are better able to live and reproduce outdoors than dogs are, but it does appear that the number of outdoor cats is declining. For example, just as with dogs, shelter intake of cats has declined sharply since 1970. And counts that were made of feral cats in Baltimore and Brooklyn in the 1980s showed far higher numbers than we see in neighborhoods today. Unfortunately, the statistics on dog and cat populations are not widely known. I never heard about them until I started doing research for my book on animal shelter history. I really believe that if bird conservationists had all the facts about cat population dynamics and would look at the facts with an open mind, they would realize that we are making good progress at reducing the number of outdoor cats through spay-neuter of owned cats and TNR-RTF of unowned cats. These are methods that are practical and that work, whereas the idea that somehow people can be persuaded to put forth a gigantic, ongoing surveillance to catch and kill 70% or more of the cats in the world is unrealistic.

    But then, some people just seem to hate cats in particular, and they are looking for an excuse to kill cats. Fortunately, the number of such people is very small.

  12. Sue Scott

    We at Kauai Community Cats agree that there should be no cats near bird sanctuaries. There are none as far as we know. The cats we TNR are in neighborhoods and shopping centers and other heavily populated areas where there are not likely to be nesting birds. Most of Kauai’s endangered birds reside in the mountains in areas where there is little accessibility for humans. One problem is that Princeville and Poipu for example, were built on the very sights where seabirds once nested. There is no county funding for trapping cats so we are the only hope of reducing the numbers of unowned cats on the island.

  13. Basil

    I live on an Oceanic island (Kauai Hawaii), and conservationists here want to remove or contain all outdoor cats. Problem is, that’s not practical, in fact, nowhere near feasible. Interestingly, in managing the closed wildlife areas on Kauai, conservationists do not try and remove all cats. Instead, they take a fairly surgical approach to trap and remove near known nesting areas. Removing all the cats would require too many resources, and it’s just not worth it. So, maybe we should follow that lead…?

    As far as removing all the community cats in the towns and neighborhoods on my island. I say “no thank you.” In places where cats have been removed, we have tremendous problems with rats and mice. There a lots of real examples. One of my favorite is a local shopping center. They wanted all cats gone, and over a 6 month period or so, they did that. Then, they had mice and rats in the offices and in the two restaurants in the center. They went to the local humane society looking for some outdoor cats to fix their problems. They made sure they were spayed/neutered so the wouldn’t have a population problem.

    The article states that fed cats kill less, but the latest studies sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy and National Geographic show that they kill 40 times less. These are the “kitty cam” studies done in Georgia, with one complete and a follow on in progress. Killing 40 times less means that the group of fed cats in this study killed only 2-1/2 % what an equal number of unfed cats would have had to kill to in order to survive. This means that feeding, as is done in managed TNR, reduces cat predation far better than trap and remove, since it is extremely difficult to trap 98% of the cats in an area. This, combined with the fact that managed cats roam over 1/3rd the distance as unmanaged cats do, means that TNR provides very powerful protection for wildlife.

    It’s true that cats can’t be right next to nesting areas for sensitive species. Removal efforts need to be concentrated in just those spots. Even that is difficult and expensive, but at least it’s realistic. In a good world, perhaps it would be possible to conduct such a program as a rescue removal rather than a lethal removal.

  14. Susan Houser Post author

    Completely removing “invasive” species even from small, uninhabited islands is virtually impossible. As I recounted in an earlier blog: “The first invaders on Macquarie Island were rats who had stowed away on sealers’ ships. Then cats were brought in to control the rats, and rabbits were brought in for food for the sealers. Many years later the rabbits were eating a lot of the island’s vegetation, so conservationists wiped out most of the rabbits by introducing a disease. But then the cats, with few rabbits to hunt, started killing the birds. The cats were shot, and then the rats, with no cats to control their population, ate the birds. Meanwhile, the remaining rabbits, with the cats no longer there to keep them in check, began to multiply again. (Today the invasives are thought to be gone, but how long will that last?)”

  15. Stacy LeBaron

    Ruth, thanks so much for the comment. I think in Massachusetts we have all done some great work with TNR and yes, it most certainly does work and can work across the country. At the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society in Newburyport, MA, the same scenario happened for a colony area that started out with over 300 cats. We have continued our work in MA and assisted over 105,000 cats since 1992. If people are familiar with the area we have quite a large birding population and we have the piping plovers on the beaches. Many of our volunteers at the shelter also volunteer as plover wardens. We have a very large Audobon center in town and have never had any issues with them. I believe that the Bird Society’s and the TNR programs have a very similar goal which is to reduce the unowned cat population in a humane manner. Hopefully, by continuing our good work with TNR/RTF the predation issue won’t be a barrier to our success.

  16. Bill

    And yet Feral cats continue to kill endangered seabirds. Go figure.

  17. E. Benson

    Thank you Susan for your intelligent facts….which all happen to be true…how would they know?? They would have to open their minds first…how do they explain wildlife death caused by habitat loss, urbanization, and pollution…all caused by people not cats….or the fact that more and more forward thinking communities including mine, in the Boston area, are welcoming TNR….Because it works.

  18. Bill

    No one disputes the effect of humans on native wildlife, but certainly you understand the domestic cat is indeed a direct anthropogenic source of wildlife mortality. Deflecting the problem does not solve it. Should we stop all research into curing cancer since heard disease kills more people? Of course not. All threats to biodiversity need to be taken seriously, even the cute and furry ones. Outdoor and feral cats kill native wildlife by the BILLIONS, what gives you the right to release a non-native, invasive species that will continue to needlessly kill, maim and torture other animals. And I see no one here who support TNR is able to answer my very simple question. Why is the life of 1 feral, non-native, invasive PET, more valuable than the hundreds, possibly thousands of native animals it will kill in it’s life? Why do you all have such disdain for our wildlife?

  19. Susan Houser Post author

    Bill, we have answered your question many times. I doubt if anyone who supports TNR thinks the life of a feral cat is more important than the life of a bird. What you are failing to understand is that TNR is the fastest and most effective way to reduce the population of outdoor cats. That is why we support it. TNR respects the lives of both birds and cats, and it is something that the great majority of people will accept and support.

    Trap and kill doesn’t work. It never has worked. It never will work, for the reasons I discuss in my article. You are actually hurting the effort to save birds by opposing the only method of control – TNR – that has a chance of succeeding.

  20. Patricia Grimes

    Bill, I’m not sure you understand what TNR is completely. If done correctly, cats are never “abandoned” in the wild. The wild, as you call it, is no place for cats. They, too, are preyed upon, by other invasive species, such as coyote, Fox, etc. I know of no reputable person or organization that would abandon cats in the middle of nowhere, with no shelter or food source from humans. With regard to disease, TNRd cats are actually much safer, having been vaccinated against rabies, which some times owned or neighborhood cats and dogs are not. It’s also known through scientific research, that outdoor unowned cats, have the same percentage of disease that indoor, owned cats have. And in my many many years of working with colonies, these cats tend to be healthier, have a better immune system, and more free of disease, because that’s the way it goes in nature. Survival of the fittest.Same goes for reproduction. If they’ve been TNRd, they’ve been sterilized, and cannot reproduce. So, when you have a healthy, managed colony with a responsible caretaker, it’s probably the best case scenario for everyone involved. If all owned cats were kept indoors, and all unowned cats were in managed colonies, then you would have the best result possible.
    The biggest invasive species of them all is humans. We destroy such an incredible amount of wildlife and habitat, and if you want to protect wildlife and slow down the elimination of so many species, not just birds, fight the real fight. Fight to protect habitat, and conserve where they live and nest. That’s the big deal. Not stray cats.

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