Structured Decision Making – Cats vs wildlife

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making. The reading was Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-68, in Gregory, R., L. Failing, M. Harstone, G. Long, T. McDaniels and D. Ohlson. Structured decision making: A practical guide to environmental management choices (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

While I was reading the first two chapters of Gregory et al., I couldn’t help but think about an issue I have followed that I now recognize as using structured decision making to address a very thorny problem: outdoor cats vs wildlife. This is probably going to make all the scientists / environmentalists in the room shudder. But hear me out.

In December 2012, the Humane Society of the United States convened a conference with some of the top wildlife experts and top experts in cat shelter and rescue in the country. To say these groups are at war is an understatement. A few years ago a researcher at the Smithsonian was convicted of animal cruelty for setting out poison for a managed feral cat colony near her office in Washington, DC. The Smithsonian later turned out a metastudy concluding that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals a year.

Meanwhile cat are the most popular pet in the country with an estimated 95 million owned pet cats, many of whom let their cats run freely outdoors, as well as an estimated 50 million unowned free-roaming cats. About 4 to 6 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year, and of those about half make it out alive. However, cats are much more likely to be euthanized in shelters than dogs, and much less likely to be reclaimed by their owners. Because of this, the millions of people who feed outdoor cats don’t want them going to a shelter. They are not adoptable, so the only alternative for them if the shelter takes them is to euthanize.

So how to reconcile this impasse? The conference included stakeholders from the humane, wildlife, veterinary, and research communities, including Stan Gehrt from Ohio State and Don Burton of the Ohio Wildlife Center. The conference itself was mainly to start the dialogue and identify points of common ground, of which there was a surprising amount. For example, all stakeholders want to see the number of feral cats in the environment reduced. All want to preserve wildlife populations, especially endangered species, while also instituting humane management of outdoor cats. Their presentations at the conference can be found here.

One place where some of the principles discussed at the conference are being put into practice is in feral cat management in Hawaii, which as you can imagine is also a very sensitive ecosystem for wildlife. There a group of stakeholders was convened that included The Wildlife Society; University of Hawaii researchers; biologists from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service staff; representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors monk seals; volunteers with CatFriends and the Hawaii Cat Foundation; representatives of local humane societiesm and even staff of the American Bird Conservancy. The group took the name Hawaii Coalition for the Protection of Cats and Wildlife.

By working together, they were able to come to agreement on several points:

  • A fence to keep out predators was built around a sensitive monk seal and albatross hatching area. This successfully kept the cats out, and the number of offspring grew the following year.
  • An educational campaign promoting the idea that people keep their pet cats inside. Outdoor cats face dangers with cars, accidents, cruelty, and more. Feral cats only live a few years on average, but pet cats kept indoors can easily live 10 to 15 years (two of mine are 15 and are in great health). Make sure people know it is a crime to abandon a pet, and provide education on how to enrich the indoor environment.
  • Another campaign for feral cat feeders promoting the idea that if you feed outdoor unowned cats, you are also responsible for getting them spay-neutered and getting veterinary treatment for sick cats, along with creating programs for low-cost care. Also providing education on when they are dealing with a dumped pet cat that could be adopted into a new home, and working with shelters to make that happen.
  • Letting feral cat caretakers know that cats in areas designated for federal wildlife management are subject to trap and lethal removal, and offering alternatives for relocation.
  • Providing educational materials for how people can bring free-roaming cats indoors. Although it takes patience, in many cases it can be done. My other two cats are street rescues and have no desire to go back outside.

In the end, attitudes on both sides need to change. Cat caretakers need to recognize that cats were evolved to be predators, and that some of them do kill wildlife. The extent of that can be debated – I personally think many of the assumptions of the Smithsonian study were flawed, leading them to a inflated figure. But it does happen, and it can impact the ecosystem, especially where endangered species are present. Cat people also need to start bringing pet cats indoors, a change that will likely take a generation or so to occur. When I was a kid, people let their pet dogs run loose all the time, and now most places have leash laws. They will likely be passing ordinances not allowing pet cats to run loose either in coming years, and norms for this can change.

On the other side, wildlife people need to recognize that cats are the most popular pet in the country, and millions of people have a close bond with their pets. Millions more feel the responsibility to feed stray and feral cats that have been dumped and cannot take care of themselves in the environment. The army of “cat ladies” is not really what people expect. In many cases it is “cat men.”

These people are not going to go away, and banning feeding will only drive them underground. It is much better to take advantage of the free services that these people are providing on a volunteer basis by supporting open management through trap-neuter-return, where all the ground rules are clear up front. Most locations have practiced trap and euthanize for decades, yet we now have more feral cats in the environment than ever. So it’s time to give a different kind of management a try.

I don’t think the agreement that the stakeholders in Hawaii came to is a panacea. People will still dump pet cats, and still feed them without spay-neutering. But it’s the start of a process that could greatly reduce the problem over time. Hopefully the stakeholders there will be willing to stick with it long enough to make it work.

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