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House cats at center of controversy

This column has addressed human-wildlife conflicts in the past. Let's go a little further this time and touch on a very emotional and contentious subject, house and feral cats. Just mentioning this topic invites breathless arguments on all sides of the issue, some rational, some not.

Cats have become a synonym for house pet almost since it was first domesticated in Egypt some 4,000 years ago. Today they are held by their owners as beloved members of the family and treated almost as well.

The controversy arises once the animal leaves the confines of the home and wanders outside. Whether from willful intention or accidental release, there are literally millions of domesticated cats in the outdoors. Some of these don't return and turn feral, or wild. There are an estimated 100 million house cats in America of which 40 percent are feral. With 100 million cats potentially ranging the country, it should surprise no one that a huge number of birds, mammals and amphibians are killed every year by these capable predators.

A study conducted a few years ago by John Coleman and Stanley Temple attempted to quantify some elements of this issue. They estimated domesticated cats kill at least 7.8 million birds per year in the state of Wisconsin alone. Curiously, they found that predation rates did not change between rural and urban areas--they were the same. Two other discoveries stood out: The presence of bird feeders made no difference in kill rates nor did the use or not of bell collars.

Some years ago a friend's cat came out of the bushes while I was visiting. In its mouth was a Tennessee Warbler. Here was a bird that had spent the winter as far south as Venezuela, made it as far north as West Fargo on its way to Canadian nesting grounds, then got killed by a house cat.

Interestingly, folks seem to think that cats let outdoors are not a threat because they are fed in the home. That isn't true either. Biologist Chris Grondahl of the N.D. Game and Fish Department said, "Cats don't necessarily kill because they are hungry, they do it by instinct."

California seems to be the epicenter for much of the debate. Domestic cats kill one or two colonies of Least Terns a year according to that state's department of fish and game. That's a bird the government spends big money trying to protect.

The Australian government notes, "(House cats) have probably contributed to the extinction of many small to medium sized mammals and ground-nesting birds." And the Wildlife Society's policy statement says, "Exotic species (such as house cats) are recognized as one of the most widespread and serious threats to the integrity of native wildlife populations and natural ecosystems."

West Fargo and Fargo have similar leash laws. Some may be surprised to learn the law covers not just dogs, but cats as well. That's right; it is illegal to let your cat out the door without having it tethered or enclosed. Yet police officers routinely round up stray cats. Last year the pound in West Fargo received 152 cats. And Capt. Mike Argall of the Cass Co. Sheriff's Department said, "Probably 10 percent of our calls are for animal problems in the county."

On the other side of the argument are cat lovers that go to great lengths to defend their furry friends and their reputation. Thousands of well-intentioned groups and volunteers exist today to counter the weight of scientific evidence against unleashed cats. Many feed and protect feral populations in large city parks. Still more groups spend money and effort attempting to neuter wandering cats.

Obviously, domestic cats are here to stay. And it's very likely the problem of unleashed cats outside will not disappear either. But before opening the back door to let the family pet out for its daily stroll, consider that cats kept in the home live much longer, safer, and healthier lives. "We recommend cats stay indoors, not only for the wildlife but for the sake of the cats themselves," said Grondahl.