Eastern Chipmunk photo by Alan Kneidel
This is an update to a post from May about two cats in my neighborhood killing wildlife, and my efforts to stop them. Things are looking up!
I'm writing on a table by the window in my living room - I'm compelled to sit here because I'm obsessed with my neighbor's two Siamese cats. I feel like I have to keep an eye on the front yard every minute if I want to have any surviving wildlife on our property. This morning I came into the living room to open the blinds, and happily spotted a baby chipmunk bounding through the grass. I turned my attention to the blinds for a moment, and back to the chipmunk just in time to see one of the cats pounce on it. I was out the door in three seconds, and the little chipmunk got away, but whether it'll survive, I don't know. Less than 20% of cat prey that "get away" recover from the attack.
We've really been enjoying our chipmunks this spring. We have 22 chipmunk holes in the front yard! All 22 holes apparently lead to the same burrow, occupied by a mother with a notch in her ear, and her three youngsters. We're not usually the type to give names to yard wildlife, but the chipmunk family has been such a daily presence - I've gotten attached to them in spite of myself. They've moved me to make a spectacle of myself on more than one occasion. Three days ago, in my PJs, hair unbrushed, I chased one of the cats out of the yard with a chipmunk in his mouth, the critter still breathing and struggling. I banged on the neighbors' door; Craig came out pleasantly enough to ask what the trouble was. I explained and implored him in a kindly if highly distressed fashion to please keep the cats out of our yard, especially now in springtime, because we have so many baby birds and small mammals in our yard right now. He helped me try to retrieve the captured chipmunk, but as usual, the cat slunk away with it to who knows where.
We've been living across the street from these people for - what - 12 years now? Can that be right? I think it is. We've been cordial neighbors for all that time, if not bosom buddies. The cat issue has only recently come to a head because we had a Jack Russell terrier up until last year that kept the cats out most of the time. Our dog died of cancer last fall. And now the cats are in our yard constantly.
This morning I called the cat-owners and left a message, asking if I could come over and talk about the cats, in a calm state of mind. So, an hour ago, they called me back and said bring it on. I did. I was prepared. I had spent all morning trolling for research to print out about cats and birds. I've known for years that free-roaming cats kill hundreds of millions of songbirds and more than a billion small mammals every year in the United States. But...once again thanks to google....I found tons of new documents about cats destroying wildlife.
Meeting the neighbors, I decided to start my persuasive arguments on the dangers, to a cat, of a life on the prowl. HSUS, the Humane Society, has a great paper about that. Their most compelling point is that free-roaming cats have an average life span of less than three years, compared to 15-18 years for the average indoor-only cat. Outdoor cats fall victim to cars, predators, and disease, among other things. Two-thirds of vets recommend keeping cats indoors at all times. Many shelters now require adopters to agree to keep cats indoors; more and more communities are passing leash laws for cats as well as dogs.
I also printed out for the neighbors a document from the American Bird Conservancy called "Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats." It's a really interesting paper full of cat stats, such as:
35% of cat owners keep their cats indoors all the time
53% of cat owners are concerned about cat predation
64% of survey respondents believe putting bells on cats keeps them from killing (untrue)
70% of respondents believe cats should be regulated to prevent roaming
I gave my neighbor these printouts, then I turned in earnest to the wildlife issue. Songbirds in this country are threatened by the growing human population in lots of different ways. The most serious threat is habitat loss. Second is collision with windows. And third is predation by house cats. A recent Wisconsin study cited by the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats kill more than 39 million birds annually, in Wisconsin alone. Obviously, if it's that high in one state, then it's probably a billion nationwide.
Mention cat predation as a threat to songbirds, and lots of people will say "Oh that's just nature." The major of Charlotte, Pat McCrory, said that when questioned by the media a couple of years ago. Just blew it off as the natural order of things. That really bugs me. Cats are not natural, and they're not native to the US. Domestic cats originated from the European and African Wild Cat, Felis sylvestris. They're an introduced species, like kudzu or starlings. The European colonists brought them to the US, and their numbers are increasing here - from 30 million in 1970 to 60 million in 1990 (according to a University of Maine paper).
Here's what mixes people up. Sure predation is natural. I have no objection to predation by native predators such as Cooper’s Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Bobcats, and Gray Foxes. Populations of native predators are in balance with their prey. If prey numbers decrease, then predator populations decrease too, giving the prey population a chance to rebound. Plus, wild predator populations struggle with other challenges, such as parasites, disease, harsh winters. They’re not always in prime condition, not always efficient at catching prey. They may be able to catch only the sick, the weak, the old, the very young.
House cats operate totally outside of that balance of nature, because they're sustained artificially by their owners. They’re usually well fed, in good health. They’re very efficient predators, able to easily catch small mammals and birds in prime breeding condition. Being well-fed does not diminish cats’ hunting instinct – hunger and hunting are controlled by different parts of the brain. Not only that, but domestic cats prowl in much higher densities than natural predators. There might be a single Great Horned Owl in 10 square miles, but there’s a healthy house cat in every third house.
Turning a house cat loose on a neighborhood of wildlife is like sending a posse armed with assault rifles after a wounded deer. The advantage is that great. I see it every day. I see one of the cats carrying yet another animal out of my yard. I’m sick of it.
So anyway, back to the neighbors. I laid out my arguments in as brief and pleasant a manner as I could, sitting with them on their front steps. "So what is it you want us to do?" asked the wife of the family. “I’m asking you to keep the cats out of our yard,” I said quite plainly, as pleasantly as I could. "We can't do that," she said. She explained that the cats have been outside for ten years, and they like it outside. I knew that, I've been watching them hunt in my yard for ten years. But I had said my thing, it was time to give it a rest. So I thanked them for listening to me and, leaving my articles behind, I walked back across the street, back home.
Two hours later….TWO HOURS LATER....there goes one of their cats down our driveway with a cotton rat. (Cotton rats are native woodland rodents, bearing little resemblance to the introduced Norway rats that invade houses and carry diseases.)July 22 update: The encounter with the neighbors happened several weeks ago. About a week after the conversation, still seeing kitties day and night, I called Animal Control plus the county Conservation Science office. Both county offices said they would bring me a live cat trap. Animal Control said if I actually caught one of cats, they would come pick it up and take it away, and the neighbors could retrieve it unharmed So I had a trap delivered, for free. It was big enough for a bassett hound - or 4 cats. The cat-owning neighbors saw the trap being delivered. They were not happy about it, and came over to tell us so. But it had its effect. I never actually set the trap. Rather I left it in the yard for a few days. Since I work at a desk that faces out the front window, I also took every opportunity to chase the cats noisily out of the yard, slamming the door on my way out. A couple of weeks after our first conversation, I noticed that the neighbors had put bells on the kitties' collars. I know bells aren't effective, but it was a sign that the neighbors were making an effort. I began to see the kitties less and less. I think they were gradually keeping the kitties inside more. I rarely see the cats now. Maybe twice a week I see them walking down the opposite side of the street. I haven't seen them in my own yard for at least three weeks. In fact, I haven't even seen them on my side of the street for weeks. I also haven't seen any dead birds or wounded mammals in the yard for weeks. Yay!!
I know cats are at the mercy of their instincts, but cat owners are able to make choices. There is no good reason to let house cats roam freely. A 2006 paper by ecologists in Wisconsin lists a number a resources and other papers that will be useful to anyone researching this topic.
I would love to hear from readers any other stories of neighborhood cats on the prowl, with good endings or bad.