While cat advocates promote controlling feral cat populations through Trap-Neuter-Release, or TNR, one local expert is calling for regulation of this practice — and voicing his concerns about the harm to wildlife caused by outdoor pets and feral cats. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.
It’s a crisp fall morning, and Lindy Suster is heading out to look for trapped cats.
LINDY SUSTER: I try to keep the van very clean, but the cat smell lingers, sometimes. It gets worse, trust me. I get 20 dirty cages in here, and Oh, goodness.
She works for Cat’s Cradle, a Harrisonburg nonprofit that seeks to decrease cat intake numbers at shelters, to “end the euthanasia of healthy adoptable pets.” They also promote the humane treatment of feral cats.
Suster is the Trap-Neuter-Return coordinator for Cat’s Cradle. After trapping free-range cats in live traps, she takes them to a vet, frequently to Anicira, she said, for a first vaccination rabies shot, and spaying or neutering. Then she returns them back to where she found them. So far this year she’s TNR’d nearly 400 cats, she said.
More from Suster in a bit, but first, the impact of outdoor cats on wildlife: It’s a problem, says Ed Clark, the president and founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a training hospital for wildlife near Waynesboro.
ED CLARK: Domestic cats are not natural predators even though their instinct is to kill and to hunt. They are not fulfilling a natural role in the environment because they kill anything.
Clark said he used to let his own pet cats go outside whenever they wanted to. But a study by a student at the Wildlife Center changed that.
CLARK: The report that he generated smacked me between the eyes, because it showed that such a high percentage of our patients were cat victims, and such a low percentage of those cat victims actually survived, even when we did our best. The day I got that report is the last day my cats went outside, and within just a couple of weeks, I started seeing species that I didn’t know I had in my woods.
A later, 2016 report from the Wildlife Center says that of nearly 21,000 patient admissions from 2000-2010, nearly one in seven “were admitted due to confirmed interaction with cats.” And, the Center said, those numbers are conservative, as they include only instances when a cat’s involvement was actually seen, and so “the true situation is likely much worse.”
Nationally, according to estimates from an analysis done in part by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, feral cats and house cats that spend time outside kill anywhere from 1.3 to 4 billion birds, and between 6.3 and 22.3 billion wild mammals, annually in the U.S.
The cat advocate group Alley Cat Allies has called studies about the impacts of cats on wildlife “sensational, distorted science” and “bogus,” and decried them as attempts to divert attention from the biggest threat to wildlife: humans. Cat’s Cradle’s Lindy Suster, out on her TNR run, agrees.
SUSTER: I don’t see many cats actually catch birds. I see them try, but I’ve never seen, like, widespread birds being slaughtered. Rodents, on the other hand, they can take care of those.
Suster and other cat advocates say Trap-Neuter-Release is the humane and effective way to curb the cat population. But others have concerns, among them the Wildlife Center’s Ed Clark. He said that all free-ranging or colony kittens and all socialized cats need to be adopted or otherwise taken into confinement, and the TNR of truly feral cats needs to be regulated.
CLARK: They need to adhere to rules and regulations that govern every other aspect of animal welfare to protect the animals themselves and to protect the interest of the public.
He’d like to see fur-trapping rules apply to cat traps, such as requiring all traps to have a metal nameplate and to be checked at least every 24 hours. He wants sterilization and vaccination records to be reported to authorities, and he says there should be rules about where the cats can be released, and for feeding feral cats.
Suster arrives at a shed in a residential area off South Liberty Street in Harrisonburg where she had set some traps.
SUSTER: Let’s see what we’ve got. Hi! Oh, I've got the mom, and a baby. OK, that’s a good thing.
Suster agrees that trapping needs to be done correctly.
SUSTER: I get a little nervous letting people trap themselves, and I’ve caught cases where they just set the traps out and forget about them, and just like, there’s a living animal in there.
Clark thinks that concern for living animals needs to include both the wildlife killed by cats, and cats — which he said live longer, healthier lives indoors.
CLARK: Part of what we are advocating in these rules and regulations, it’s not just to protect wildlife, it’s to protect these cats from people whose militant compassion leads them to do things that are not in the best interest of the cats.
Suster drops off the cats in the cage in a basement storage area, and feeds them.
SUSTER: I’ll check on her again tonight. That’s it.
Tomorrow the mother will be spayed, but for now, at least, that free-ranging cat and her kitten are indoors, away from wildlife.