Feral America

catgrass

The cat is a wild animal that inhabits the homes of humans.
-Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog

Fresh snow lies on every surface and the nighttime temperature dips to around 20°F.  As I do nearly every night, I strap a leash on my dog and we head out the door for a short walk around the neighborhood.  Depending on what time we leave, we see a surprising amount of wildlife just within the suburbs.

The usual group of eight white-tailed deer or the smaller family of three can be found browsing at night in the football field of the local middle school.  Raccoons and opossums are denizens of the bushes and strips of forest around railroad tracks.  I’ve seen screech owls waiting near lampposts for moths or rodents to scuttle by.  I’ve even heard of coyote sightings in the neighborhood–which is not unlikely for the elusive canid to hunt suburbs for food.  Every now and then, I have seen a red fox take to hunting in the nooks where shrews, voles, mice, or nesting young rabbits may be found.  Though, nowadays, I see the fox less and less.

In fact, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen the fox or any signs of her (I assume her).  With fresh snow it’s quite obvious what animals have lurked this winter night.  Deer, rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, and cats.  Feral cats are also a common sight in the fields and at the edges of forest.  I have seen at least five different cats within the span of a month, and all within the same area where I walk every night.  The feral cats may not necessarily be feral, however, they certainly aren’t fully domestic either.  As is common practice, many people allow their cats free access to the outdoors.  If you’ve ever wondered or wanted to try, putting a cat on a leash doesn’t work very well so most pet owners simply let the cat roam for a few hours.

Sometimes the cat stays away or is abandoned.  A roaming cat can survive quite well on its own.  With long sharp claws and fangs any house cat is a murderous mouse predator once outside, and as many cat owners can agree, cats are willing to share their kill.  A cat will bring home any number of small (or sometimes large depending on the size of the cat) prey items.  From mice and chipmunks to songbirds and lizards, a cat isn’t very picky about what it kills.  Sometimes it seems that the idea of catching prey isn’t simply for a quick snack either, sometimes it may be for a game.  In fact, according to a study conducted by the University of Georgia using remote cameras attached to outdoor house cats, only 23 percent of their kills are brought back to the owner’s home and of the remaining kills, only 28 percent are eaten, while the other 49 percent–nearly half–are left at the site of the kill.

Needless to say, the killing that feral and outdoor house cats do is very harmful to populations of wild animals.  Cat predation accounts for some of the decline in American bird populations.  But wild animals that are on the cat’s menu aren’t the only animals to suffer.  Many struggling native populations of predators–such as foxes and weasels which hunt the same prey–can’t compete with cats, which are more tolerant of being near people and vice versa.  The relationship between cats and humans give feral cats an additional supply of food and more places to hunt and keep a litter of kittens.

Of course, the cat isn’t solely to blame for its destructive habits.  Feral cats are only trying to survive.  Cats can also be useful in rural settings to control rodent populations in fields and farmhouses.  The main reason that cats are out of control is because we allow them to become that way.  Several cat advocacy groups and programs promote feeding feral cats–which I do not recommend–and trapping them to be spayed and neutered.  The goal of any trap-neuter-return program is to reduce feral cat populations by eliminating their ability to reproduce.  Volunteers can trap feral cats and then have them vaccinated and neutered at an animal clinic (of course, this service comes at a price).  These programs aren’t favored by wildlife advocacy groups because the animal is then released back into the wild where it will inevitably kill more, but it does help to control the population.

Ideally, a responsible cat owner would keep a domestic cat indoors or allow it be outside, but monitor it to keep it out of trouble.  I live in a household with two cats and neither is allowed outside, but they are both healthy and live a happy life.

The cats I see around the neighborhood are well fed, by both human hands and their own paws.  Meanwhile, native animals are finding their home ranges taken over by cats, which are more adaptive to the continuing theme of suburban sprawl.  With fewer and fewer scraps of land available for habitat–with new land development fragmenting habitat and the indirect spoiling of land by invasive species, including feral cats–native species within heavily populated areas are left to local parks and other green spaces like cemeteries and golf courses.  But even these areas tend to be just as inadequate as backyards–I have seen may cats in one local park, likely abandoned pets.

If house cats are kept indoors and feral cat populations are kept to a minimum, then the suitability of small woodlots and other green spaces within suburbs and city limits increases.  It is a small–though very important–thing that any cat owner can do to help animals that don’t have the luxury of help from human hands or a heated home to stay in.

The next night, I walk the dog on the same walk.  As I stride from one railroad tie to the next along the railroad, I spot faint tracks in the snow.  An oval-shaped print with a small pad and a large “hole” in the middle, definitely a fox track.  Seeing this brings me hope that wildlife can thrive here again.  The fox is a symbol of wild things and the fact it can live alongside humans even in heavily populated areas is proof that human civilization does not need to be separate from the wild.  Developing into a culture that accommodates the wild heals the relationship between man and nature.

Sources:

“New Research Suggests Outdoor Cats Kill More Wildlife Than Previously Thought.”  Outdoor News Bulletin.  Wildlife Management Institute, 2011.  Web.  10 Feb. 2014 <http://www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&id=610:new-research-suggests-outdoor-cats-kill-more-wildlife-than-thought&catid=34:ONB%20Articles&Itemid=54>

Harnandez, Sonia.  The National Geographic & University of Georgia Kitty Cams (Crittercam) Project.  UGA, 2011.  Web.  10 Feb. 2014. <http://www.kittycams.uga.edu/index.html>

Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project.  <http://www.feralcatproject.org/>

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