A widely circulated report says that from 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion wild birds are killed annually by cats in the U.S., although an esteemed ornithologist, David Sibley, estimated a few years ago that the figure is around 500 million. At any rate statistics say the nation has about 150 million cats, which are eating the birds and other food.
Actually, birding is my favorite pastime, but I also have had treasured cats in my own home and shed buckets of tears when they crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Instead of bickering about whether we folks in the Valley love birds or cats more, though, let’s consider some facts about cats.
First, it is pertinent at present in Alamosa that a group called “Claws” has requested an ordinance concerning feral cats. The ordinance has been tabled and has been scheduled to come up later in April.
I also want to mention that cats do not know when they cross a town or a county line, so they naturally stray wherever they choose and become part of a problem in the entire Valley. So I question why feral cats should be an issue for Alamosa alone to deal with, rather than for a district or an agency that deals with invasive pests of various kinds.
Now let’s think about cats as a species. Domestic cat, formally called Felis catus, is a species separate from other species of wild cats like lions and lynx. But Felis catus is still a carnivorous, predatory mammal like the others, which hardly sounds like a nice house pet.
Other facts: Cats have acute hearing and eyesight even in the dark, which helps them locate prey, and they have sharp teeth and claws, which enable catching food like birds and mice and tearing it apart to eat. The teeth and claws also act as a defense or for scratching, as on your sofa, leading to declawing which renders them less able to defend themselves in the wild.
Their normal food is fish and meat, and it is especially enjoyed when provided for free in cans that might cost anywhere from 50 cents to $3 each. Feeders that attract wild birds while feral or house cats are roaming in the yard are like altars set up to serve feathered sacrifices.
Cats will try to catch any small prey that moves, from mice to rabbits to bugs to birds, or whatever. Realistic ancient Egyptians brought cats along on their vessels to catch the rats. Our house cats just are keeping in practice with toys and balls of yarn.
And talk about fecund! A female cat is capable of producing as many as five litters a year, and a litter usually consists of three to five kittens, although the count might go as high as nine. Ancestry is too mixed to be identifiable except in controlled, elite situations.
How do all these feline machines get loose? Some just escape through a home’s open door, some stray from a barnyard, some miraculously miss being hit by traffic on the highway, some are cruelly dumped from a car along a country road, and some are born in the wild and live there for the rest of their adventuresome lives, including becoming parents themselves.
One hope for controlling cat populations, whether we’re talking about cherished house pets or feral cats, is sterilization by spaying or neutering. Claws has tried to make a dent in the daunting numbers by trapping ferals and taking them to a veterinarian for the procedure. In fact, a veterinarian may winnow out some of the candidates by objectively assessing them as being too starved or diseased and ready for their nine lives to end mercifully.
Humans sometimes have trouble being objective, though, as emotions get in the way. At the risk of letting down some generous and caring people, I believe that it is unwise to return feral cats to the wild after trapping, sterilizing, feeding, and even creating “condos” for some.
Most are wild animals rather than pets and will continue to act like wild animals if left in the wild, where they will mingle with diseased animals and continue to catch prey, such as wild birds for instance. Moreover, it seems to me that there are more feral cats than should be cared for by a shelter or volunteer program.
Paying an animal control officer with local tax money for any purpose except to destroy the feral cats seems hard to justify when there are so many cats and so many other pressing needs all around us in need of attention. Exceptions would occur when an owner of a cat can be identified and will accept its return. There, I said it, and I sincerely sympathize.
Still, a wealthy angel might come along and build a facility endowed with enough money to operate it in perpetuity. I suppose the need would exist in perpetuity because there most likely will be a ready supply of feral cats in perpetuity.