Tag: strays and ferals

Keeping Cats From Killing Local Wildlife May Be Easier Than We Think

For the past two decades, a handful of birders and “conservationists” have claimed cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and 22.3 billion small animals every year in the US alone.

Their claims, repeatedly credulously in the press, have been catastrophic to cats: Hyperbolic headlines have labeled them “stone cold serial killers,” “God’s perfect little killing machines,” and posed questions like “Is your cat a mass murderer?” The headlines, often running in otherwise respectable publications, envision brutal “solutions,” like this one in Scientific American: “Cats Are Ruthless Killers. Should They Be Killed?

Politicians, wildlife conservationists and birders read headlines like the examples above and come up with ruthless policies, like bounties offering $10 for cat scalps and $5 for kitten scalps, government employees stalking public parks with shotguns and literally gunning down strays, and an Australian program designed to kill millions of cats by air-dropping sausages laced with poison.

“They’ve got to taste good,” an Australian scientist who helped develop the sausage formula said. “They are the cat’s last meal.”

Now who’s the serial killer?

Sadly, few people have thought to question the studies that claim jaw-dropping numbers of birds and small mammals are slaughtered by cats every year.

How did the studies arrive at those numbers? Their formula hasn’t varied much from “study” to “study,” and more or less looks like this:

  • Assemble your data from old studies that have nothing to do with cats preying on wildlife, or hand out questionnaires to a handful of cat owners and ask them how many animals they think their free-roaming cats might kill.
  • Since you don’t know how many stray, feral and free-roaming cats exist in the US, invent an arbitrary number. Most of these “studies” put the number of cats anywhere between 25 and 125 million, but higher numbers are better because they make for more apocalyptic predictions and generate more credulous headlines.
  • Completely ignore the primary factors driving avian extinction in the world, which are human-caused: Habitat destruction, habitat defragmentation, wind turbines, pesticides, cars, high tension wires and windows, which are by far the biggest bird-killers.
  • Attribute all of the above to feral, stray and free-roaming cats.
  • Take your original “data” and, without making any adjustments for climate, regional variation, migration patterns, other predatory impacts — or anything else, really — simply extrapolate the total number of bird deaths by multiplying your small dataset by the total number of free-roaming cats in the US, which you invented back in Step 2.
  • Package the entire thing as a rigorous study by Serious Conservationists, write some apocalyptic press releases and hype up your claims in your abstracts, because you know the vast majority of web aggregators and overworked reporters will not have the time to take a deep dive into the text of your study.
  • Encourage activist groups and lawmakers to push for the mass culling of cats, based on your studies.

Please, don’t take my word for it. Read the text of any of the widely-cited studies that have been reported as gospel in the last 20 years. You’ll be astonished at what passes for rigorous scientific work, and how policies that determine the fates of millions of cats are largely shaped by these studies.

The D.C. Cat Count and the importance of a baseline

But there’s hope: A coalition of groups in Washington, D.C., spent more than three years methodically taking a “census” of that city’s cat population using a variety of methods.

They surveyed thousands of households within the city limits to find out how many cat owners allow their pets to roam free. They set up 1,530 trail cameras in wooded areas, ditches, alleys, alongside streams. The cameras are motion-activated and they produced more than five million images — including more than 1.2 million images of cats and more than four million images of local wildlife. The cameras captured photos of squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, possums, deer and even wild turkeys.

They assembled teams of dozens of volunteers to personally survey areas where cats are known to congregate. Then, when all the data was collected, they spent months sorting the results, carefully keeping tally, sorting duplicate sightings of individual cats and confirming data when necessary.

low angle view of cat on tree
Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

When all was said and done, after three years, $1.5 million and countless man-hours, the study determined there are some 200,000 cats living in Washington, D.C., and only about 3,000 of them are truly feral, meaning they’re not pets and not part of managed cat colonies.

The team — which brought together conservationists, bird lovers, cat lovers, shelter volunteers and others who would normally oppose each other on cat-related policies — also documented every step to provide a toolkit for other cities and local governments to conduct their own methodical head counts. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel to take D.C.’s admirable lead.

The leaders of the D.C. Cat Count went to all that trouble because they understood that without knowing exactly how many cats they’re dealing with, where they congregate and how they behave, any policies attempting to deal with their potential impact would be flawed and could end up doing more harm than good.

Making informed decisions about managing outdoor cats

Anyone who continues to cite the old, sloppy studies should be reminded, loudly and often, that they have led to years of failed policies, heartbreaking outcomes, enmity between cat lovers and birders, and widespread misunderstanding of how cats behave and the impact they have on wildlife.

Now the next phase begins: Dispensing with the hysteria and finding real, useful ways to minimize the predatory impact of cats on local wildlife populations.

One of the first follow-up studies to bear fruit comes, not coincidentally, from a research team in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, and yields some surprising revelations about free-roaming cat behavior and impact.

The biggest takeaway: Because free-roaming cats almost always stick to small areas (spanning only 550 feet, or 170 meters), “cats were unlikely to prey on native wildlife, such as songbirds or small mammals, when they were farther than roughly 1,500 feet (500 meters) from a forested area, such as a park or wooded backyard. We also found that when cats were approximately 800 feet (250 meters) or farther from forest edges, they were more likely to prey on rats than on native wildlife.”

That’s it. In other words, small buffer zones are “the difference between a diet that consists exclusively of native species and one without any native prey,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Our findings suggest that focusing efforts on managing cat populations near forested areas may be a more effective conservation strategy than attempting to manage an entire city’s outdoor cat population,” wrote Daniel Herrera and Travis Gallo of George Mason University.

a cute cat looking up
Credit: Phan Vu00f5 Minh Ku1ef3/Pexels

In other words, minimizing the predatory impact of cats is likely a hyper-local affair, and not something that can be effectively managed on a one-size-fits-all city-wide or county-wide basis.

This is just a first step in the right direction, and follow-up studies will yield further insights that will hopefully lead to fine-tuning strategies in managing free-roaming cats.

We still feel keeping cats indoors — for their own safety, as well as the safety of other animals — is the right thing to do, and all the evidence supports that view.

But what these efforts have shown us is that there is a way forward, and it’s not the contentious, divisive and irresponsible work that has guided cat management policy for two decades. It’s not just possible, but necessary, for all sides to work together to find solutions.

Let’s hope more people realize that, and the old “studies” are relegated to the dustbin where they belong.

Day One: Leaping Away From Love

Buddy licked his lips, belched and rolled over, sighing as he felt the afternoon sun’s warmth on his belly.

It was his favorite time of day and he was enjoying fresh air on the balcony, sitting in his favorite chair and surveying the world below like a little king. If he’d had a belt, he’d loosen it after scarfing down every last morsel of turkey and licking his bowl clean.

He waved his tail, thinking of how he’d pass the time later. Perhaps he would have a nap, then demand that Big Buddy take out the laser pointer. With a little luck, he might be given catnip as well, otherwise he’d have to meow relentlessly for it. Failing that, there was a new plastic bottle ring he’d stashed away for later play, and if Big Buddy were to fall asleep while watching baseball, Buddy could entertain himself by repeatedly waking his human via ambush. That was always delightful.

A squeak interrupted his thoughts, too high for humans to pick up but still well within his own hearing range. He sat up and cocked his head forward as his ears swiveled, trying to pinpoint where the noise had come from.

Sudden movement on his peripheral vision snapped his eyes to the target: Down below, among the cars and trees, a tiny animal scurried from beneath the cover of one car to another.

Buddy wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but he knew he wanted to catch it.

He hopped off his throne and crouched low, poking his head through the balcony railing as he tracked the rodent.

The light box inside pumped out its usual weekday sounds: The crack of a ball against wood, the cheers of tens of thousands of humans, and Big Buddy alternately celebrating or sighing in frustration.

For all their supposed seriousness, humans were strangely invested in watching other humans play with toys.

Buddy caught movement beneath the rear bumper of a squat SUV. Two rodential faces peaked out from cover, chittering in human-inaudible frequencies.

His tail thrashed against the floor as he watched the diminutive trespassers brazenly moving about on the edge of his territory. They were mocking him, he was sure of it! He would have his revenge by ruthlessly hunting each of them down and jumping around joyfully on his hind legs, which he always did after he won at hunting games with Buddy the Larger.

The rodential duo took off, abandoning the cover of the SUV for the lower-hanging body and bumper of an old Nissan Skyline.

Bud’s tail thumped furiously. The twitchy little interlopers were getting ready to run again.

Buddy leapt from the balcony before he was consciously aware of what he was doing, meowing an “Oh poop!” as he dropped the 14 feet to the ground. He hit the ground hard but shared the impact on all four limbs. He’d be sore later, but the thought was gone as fast as it came, replaced by the primal instinct that had caused him to jump in the first place: The hunt.

His targets were now well aware of his presence, chittering furiously at each other between cars. Bud stalked the more plump of the two, crouching low so he could track its movement.

A distant subwoofer thumped the air, sending vibrations through the ground to his paw pads. The pudgy rodent took off, gunning for the fence at the far end of the lot and the safety of the trees beyond.

Driven entirely by instinct, Bud gave chase without realizing a car had turned the corner and was pulling into the lot, fast.

“Mrrrrrrooowww!” Buddy exclaimed, dashing away from the vehicle.

It was still moving, still coming toward him with that awful, furious thump from its speakers. Buddy ran and ran until he could run no more: out of the lot, away from his building, up the street, past strange houses emanating strange smells and into a park, where he hoped the car couldn’t chase him.

He collapsed on the grass and sprawled out, chest heaving. That was too close, he thought.

Now he had another problem, one he’d failed to consider when he jumped from the balcony: How would he get back inside? He couldn’t just walk into the apartment building. You needed a human to open the front door, then get past a second door that only opened via some sort of human sorcery that involved waving a little piece of plastic in front of the handle. He knew that much from his night walks with Big Buddy, when the stimulation was almost too much to bear — the smell-taste of flowers at nose level, the spiral cascade of water from the sprinklers, the far-off hum of the deathway, where thousands of cars rumbled down endless lanes of hard human-made ground.

If by luck he was able to slip inside as a human was entering his building, he’d have to cross the lobby, walk down the hallway and finally reach the door to his realm and domicile. Could he reach the door bell? If he meowed loud enough, would Big Bud hear him?

Buddy the Cat

“What do we have here?” Buddy had been so lost in his thoughts and worries that he hadn’t noticed the human walk right up to him. He suddenly felt very vulnerable and rolled onto his stomach.

It was a human boy. He wore a dark baseball cap and a wide grin that didn’t reach his eyes.

“Easy,” he said, reaching out.

Buddy hissed, arching his back. The boy took another step forward, hand still extended. Buddy retreated a few steps, cautiously keeping his eyes on the boy as the fur on his tail spiked outward.

“Here, kitty kitty,” the boy said mockingly.

Buddy took another step away, then felt a pair of human hands clamp around his belly.

“Gotcha!” said another human boy, who had approached from behind as his friend served as a distraction.

Buddy squirmed, lashing out with his claws.

“Hey!” the second boy said. “The little fucker scratched me!”

“Bad kitty!” the first boy said, slapping Buddy on the top of his head. “Ohohoho! He’s pissed!”

The boys laughed as Buddy struggled.

“Come on,” the first boy said. “There’s a pair of gloves and some beach towels in my mom’s car. We can wrap the little shit up in the towel.”

“Where we going, Spencer?” the second boy said, holding the still-struggling Buddy tight as they walked toward the car.

“We could take him beneath the railroad bridge,” Spencer said as he opened the trunk. “I’ve got half a bottle of lighter fluid. We could have ourselves a little barbecue.”

The boys wrapped Buddy in a towel, muffling their laughter. He heard car doors closing and a crystalline human voice singing through speakers. Vibrations felt through his captor’s hands told him they were moving.

“Careful,” Spencer said after they had parked. “Just hold him, don’t be such a little bitch, dude. He’s not gonna hurt you.”

Buddy didn’t understand what they were planning to do with him, but he instinctively knew his life was in danger. He went slack.

“S’okay,” Spencer’s friend said. “He’s not struggling anymore. I don’t think he has any fight left.”

“Oh, he will,” Spencer said. He pushed back the towel, uncovering Buddy’s face.

“We’re gonna have some fun with you, you little shit,” Spencer said, leaning in close. “We’re gonna…”

Spencer howled as Buddy chomped on his lip with all his might.

Spencer’s shocked friend loosened his grip, and for a second or two Buddy swung from the shrieking teenager’s face, the latter’s panicked breath radiating in hyperventilating blasts. His smirk had evaporated, replaced by flush cheeks and a mask of pain.

Buddy released Spencer’s lip, tasting blood, and ran for his life. As he disappeared into the trees he could hear Spencer sobbing hysterically.

When he was sure the boys weren’t following him, he crossed a human yard in a blur and scurried beneath a short wooden staircase leading to a porch. A lawnmower droned in a yard nearby. In a neighboring basement, someone pounded out the opening kicks and snares of a song about a prince buying flowers.

“And if you want to call me baby…” a male human crooned over the drums and guitar, “just go ahead now!”

As Bud’s breathing slowed and the fear chemicals subsided, a new kind of dread filled the vacuum. Neither his eyes nor his ears nor his nose could tell him where he was.

How One Cat Changed The Fortunes Of Two Baseball Teams

The Yankees were getting drubbed.

It was the eighth inning of a humid night in the Bronx, and the Bombers were facing yet another loss, this time in humiliating fashion — they were down 7 to 1 against the last-place Baltimore Orioles, who smacked four home runs off of recently-acquired starting pitcher Andrew Heaney.

Fans cried out to the Baseball Gods for intervention, and their prayers were heard: With Yankee slugger Aaron Judge at the plate, a tiny shape streaked across the left side of the infield, just behind the foul line.

“The one and two,” Yankees TV play-by-play man Michael Kay said as the Orioles’ pitcher delivered. “Uh oh…”

The shape moved, and the gait gave it away: It was definitely a cat.

“How in the world did he get out here?” color commentator Paul O’Neill asked.

For a moment it looked like play would continue. Then the stadium’s cameras zoomed in on the little interloper, a brownish tabby. The kitty took off toward left field and the crowd went wild.

Orioles left fielder Ryan McKenna stood and watched as the little guy streaked past him, heading for the outfield wall where a door — which remains closed during play — leads to the bullpen.

Seeing no way out, the cat paused, then jumped on the padding that lines the walls, drawing more cheers from the crowd, who encouraged him as he tried to leap the rest of the way over the fence.

By the time a quartet of Yankees security guards tried to corner kitty and he dodged them — not once, not twice but three times! — the crowd was pumped, shouting “MVP! MVP! MVP!”

Almost four minutes elapsed from the time the cat appeared on the field to the moment when a Yankees employee with some brains opened a side door, allowing kitty to escape from what was undoubtedly a stressful situation. Quite an adventure for the little guy.

The Orioles won that game and the troubled Yankees looked like they were headed for a bitterly disappointing season.

The cat changed both narratives, at least for the kind of people who put stock in sports superstition — a group that includes the players themselves.

Rally Cat
Rally Cat, as he’s become affectionately known, on the field at Yankee Stadium. Credit: Bronx Times

Since that Aug. 2 game, the Orioles have suffered through a historically brutal stretch, losing 19 games in a row before finally earning a win last night. That epic losing streak represents the worst run of futility in Major League Baseball in 16 years and stopped just two losses shy of a 21-game losing streak set in 1900. (For British and international readers, you read that right: No other sport is as meticulous as baseball when it comes to continuity and keeping stats. Those statistics go all the way back to the first professional games in 1869. While seasons have been interrupted — most recently last year when the schedule was reduced from 162 to 60 games due to the pandemic — only World Wars I and II have scratched entire seasons from the history books.)

Fearing a curse, the Orioles’ players tried all sorts of things to change their luck, most noticeably growing mustaches. (Note to the Orioles: Playing like a major league team tends to work better than growing facial hair.)

The Yankees, meanwhile, have experienced a renaissance that has them looking like the perennial championship contenders they’re supposed to be, vaulting over five other teams in the standings and breathing down the necks of the first-place Tampa Bay Rays.

With their win over the Braves on Tuesday night, the Yankees are 18-3 since Rally Cat (as he’s now known) appeared in Yankee Stadium, and they’re riding an 11-game winning streak, their longest stretch of wins since 1985. It’s a stunning turnaround for a team that had been disappointing all year, looking lifeless for long stretches.

As for the cat, it’s not clear what happened to him. Local shelter operators and animal rescue organizations haven’t heard anything.

One thing was clear to anyone who is familiar with felines: The kitty’s body language clearly conveyed fear and confusion, and he was desperate to find a way out. Any cat would be, with 35,000 humans making a ton of noise, lights and huge advertising screens everywhere, and additional humans standing on the grass in what must look to cats like some bizarre ritual.

Yankees security didn’t do themselves any favors by the way they were trying to remove the cat, Elyise Hallenbeck, director of Strategy for Bideawee Animal Rescue’s Leadership Giving & Feral Cat Initiative, told the Bronx Times.

“They should be grateful that they weren’t able to lay hands on it, because the cat would have won that,” Hallenbeck said. “The cat was severely and terribly, terribly, frightened.”

Rally Cat, wherever you are, we hope you’re in the care of a loving human and you’re enjoying some delicious yums. You deserve it.