Bird Flu Fear - Paranoid
Cats Owners Dumping
Their Cats

From Patricia Doyle, PhD
Hello Jeff -
This is an important article even though it is two years old. People are going to panic here, like they are in Europe, when the bird flu arrives. Rather than euthanize their cats, they'll think release to the wild is a good thing. It is not. More cats mean more bird flu cases in cats. And more mammalian cases mean the virus learns how to more easily transmit from mammal-to-mammal.
People do NOT have to euthanize or release cats to the wild. All they have to do to make bird flu risk a zero is keep pets INDOORS. Simple.
Patricia Doyle
First, let's take a look at world cat populations at of 2005 -
World Top 10 Countries With Most Pet Cat Population
USA 76,430,000
China 53,100,000
Russia 12,700,000
Brazil 12,466,000
France 9,600,000
Italy 9,400,000
UK 7,700,000
Ukraine 7,350,000
Japan 7,300,000
Germany 7,700,000
A Tale Of Too Many Kitties
By Jennifer Smith
Staff Writer
The feral peril: Ecologists worry about cats in the wild
Fickle pet owners have dumped ferrets, newborn chickens, and even a boa constrictor in the woods at the Science Museum of Long Island in Plandome. But the exotic interloper that troubles museum director John Loret the most is a small carnivore of North African extraction: Felis catus, the domestic cat.
Loret bears no inherent ill toward his handful of feline squatters. But the scientist in him bemoans the effect the cats have on other creatures dwelling in the museum's 10-acre woodlot, which functions as a nature preserve and, less happily, as a live game market for strays like the burly gray tabby that prowls around the archaeology lab. "They're killing the wildlife, they're killing birds," he said. "If I could move them someplace else, I'd be happy."
The problem plagues wildlife managers and cat lovers all over Long Island, where shelter workers estimate there are thousands of unwanted cats and few places to put them.
In Hempstead, strays sun themselves on the roof of the town hall.
In Brookville, they skulk in the woods at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University.
And from Jones Beach to Westhampton Dunes, colonies of hungry felines wander barrier beaches where endangered piping plovers and terns come to nest.
Animal shelters in Nassau and Suffolk counties already overflow with adult cats and kittens; many face euthanasia if no homes are found for them. So cats cluster around Dumpsters and garbage cans and, increasingly, around feeding stations set up by cat lovers. Many of them have lived outside of human contact for so long that they've become feral - and virtually unadoptable.
Few people want to kill Fluffy. But cats living outside of domesticity have wedged themselves into the local animal pantheon, half-wild creatures that rely to some degree on human handouts but still compete with other small carnivores such as weasels, skunks, and foxes for their share of small mammal and bird prey.
Ecologists fear the impact free-ranging cats may have on native wildlife. "All along the shorelines, the piping plovers, the least terns, they have no choice," says Linda Winter, director of the Cats Indoors campaign for the American Bird Conservancy in Washington D.C. "They've got no where else to go. And when you have cats in and around the habitat it doesn't become a wildlife preserve, it becomes a death trap."
The volunteers who run the outdoor feline soup kitchens say they are doing their best to humanely handle the problem without punishing the cats. Ruth Weiss, the late vice president of Little Shelter in Huntington, was a passionate defender of cats. In an interview before her death this year, she said that humans are responsible for their being here in the first place. "We've created a dependency and then abdicated our responsibilities."
The feral cats living behind a Copiague shopping center snake out from the scrub in twos and threes as Joan Cording's red minivan bounces up the rutted, dead-end dirt road toward them.
"Hello, you gorgeous, gorgeous angels," she says. Cording, of Amity Harbor, is one of the many, predominantly female, cat lovers who feed, neuter and worry over large groups of strays in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Her vehicle is a cat rescue center on wheels, piled high with cages and carriers, sacks of dry food, tuna cans, bags of cat litter, and an assortment of rolled-up rugs and blankets.
As she pulls out her supplies, more feline faces - gray, ginger, tabby, calico - peek out shyly from a tumbledown shed of gray, weathered boards and an old boat fixed up with pet beds inside the hold.
Cording parks about 20 feet from the end of the lane and pulls two boxy wire traps from the back of the van. Setting the traps down by a fence, she baits each one with a can of tuna and carefully dribbles an alluring trail of fishy water near the front entrance of the trap. About 20 of the 40-odd cats in this colony already have been trapped and neutered. She intends to get two more today.
Groups of fuzzy kittens romp in the clear fall sunshine. A few dozen adults drawn by the scent of food pad warily through the yellow leaves to investigate. They look like typical housecats, but they act as skittish as wild animals. In truth they are a bit of both.
Some of Long Island's outcast felines are simply lost or abandoned pets forced to fend for themselves outdoors. Others might be second-generation ferals, the offspring of free-roaming cats who know no other way of life. Regardless of their origins, cats living in the wild are able to scratch out a living at the edges of suburbia where other pets - say, a Bichon Frise or dwarf hamster - might perish.
Despite thousands of years of living with humans, domestic cats have a singular ability to shift from the hearth to the wild and back again in just a few generations. Even the most pampered lap cat can act like a feline double agent, trotting outside after a sedate dinner of wet food to stalk birds and rodents, or conducting yowling, unsupervised courtships in backyards and alleys under the cover of night.
Feral cats are the other side of the coin, hiding in culverts and sheltering in bushes and trees on public parklands. In rural pockets of Long Island they take over abandoned farm buildings and prowl fields for mice and voles.
Consummate hunters, cats inherited their survival skills from their wild ancestor: Felis silvestris. This spotted and solitary African wildcat still roams Kenya, occasionally mating with its domestic descendants, which are considered a separate species. Felis silvestris' first brush with Homo sapiens came relatively early - archaeological evidence indicates humans may have raised wildcat foundlings as pets as far back as 6000 BC. Early agricultural societies also used them as working animals to patrol granaries and fields for rodents.
Revered by the ancient Egyptians as gods, cats eventually spread through the Mediterranean along trade routes. The Romans preferred ferrets and polecats for rodent control but enjoyed feline companionship; by the time the Roman Empire collapsed, cats could be found across Europe and the British Isles.
The domestic cat first set paw in the New World centuries ago, brought to North America by European settlers. Since then, cats have settled into a curious place in Long Island's ecology.
As far as transplants go, "they're a very successful animal," John Loret said ruefully. Housecats and feral cats both exist outside the normal parameters of natural supply and demand. Free-living cat populations fed by humans far exceed the carrying capacity of local ecosystems, even in lean years.
"They're incredibly stealthy, and very efficient killers," said Steven Mars, a former supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Islip field office who is now stationed in New Jersey. "Think about the moles and the voles they eat. These are prey for owls and hawks and eagles, all of whom are now competing with the cats for food sources."
That's not to say feral cats have it easy. The lot of a cat exposed to the elements and lacking veterinary care tends to be nasty, brutish and short. With a life span of four to five years, a free-ranging feline lives only one-third as long as its housecat brethren.
Ferals make up in fertility what they lack in longevity. The bobcats that once prowled Long Island each produced one litter of three kittens once a year. An unspayed domestic cat can have three or four litters of six to eight kittens in the same period. According to the Suffolk County SPCA, in six years a pair of cats with offspring can produce 420,000 kittens.
Strays have been fixtures in North America ever since their introduction to the continent. But the concern over the ecological impact of free-ranging cats is fairly recent.
In the late 1980s and in the '90s, American and British scientists began to examine how the hunting practices of domestic cats might affect native fauna, particularly birds. Because most studies focused on specific regional ecosystems - one English village, or a small island off the coast of New Zealand - it is difficult to apply the results more generally. What did become clear was that in certain situations, feral and free-roaming cats could pose a threat to species already in danger of extinction.
A few years ago, at Gateway National Recreation Area in Breezy Point, Queens, workers came across a feral cat den containing 17 dead terns slain by a mother and her five kittens.The den was near a tern breeding site that had been used by as many as 800 birds. None breed there now.
"Cats preying on birds probably don't amount to much more than 4 percent of the bird fatalities over a year," said John Bianchi, director of communications for the Audubon Society. "But it's a controllable number."
Free-ranging cats are what biologists call mesopredators: bantamweight carnivores such as raccoons, foxes and skunks that prey on small mammals and birds. In a normally functioning habitat, these small meat-eaters are kept in check by the availability of prey and the pressure exerted by larger carnivores.
But Long Island today is not a normally functioning habitat. Local heavyweights such as wolves and bobcats have long since been killed off. Free-ranging cats may skirmish with raccoons or large dogs, but the most they have to fear are malicious humans or oncoming cars. Although raccoon or skunk populations tend to decline when prey is scarce, cats supported by human food sources remain numerous and continue to hunt.
Cunning carnivores that can kill as many as eight small animals in a day, cats continue to hunt, regardless of how recently they have eaten. At the Science Museum of Long Island, the ferals fed by volunteers have left a trail of broken rodents and birds in their wake. "They don't eat them," Loret said, "they just kill them."
Around the same time that feral cats began to concern the scientific community, animal lovers began to experiment with a new technique aimed at keeping feral populations down while letting healthy cats live out their lives.
The system is called "trap, neuter, release" - TNR to its practitioners. They trap feral cats, euthanize the very sick, neuter the healthy ones, and then return them to the outdoors. Volunteers provide the neutered cats with food and makeshift shelters and remove kittens so they can be socialized and adopted.
There is disagreement over whether TNR helps cut down on feral population or actually encourages cat colonies to grow, but there is little hard data to back either claim.
What some see as a community service, others regard as subsidizing a non-native species at the expense of native birds and mammals.
The problem becomes even knottier when irresponsible pet owners - perhaps laboring under the misconception that setting an animal loose outside is the same thing as returning it to its natural habitat - drop cats off at public parks and nature preserves.
"Nobody wants cats killing endangered species," said Donna Wilcox, executive director for Alley Cat Allies, a national feral cat advocacy group that supports TNR. Still, she and others insist that habitat erosion threatens native species far more than predation by feral cats.
The juxtaposition of cat colonies and endangered species makes wildlife managers anxious, to say the least.
Jonathan Cohen, a researcher who has worked with piping plovers at Westhampton Dunes for the past few years, said although the exact impact can be hard to quantify, the presence of cats often coincides with declines in nesting bird populations. He once saw a cat batting a plover egg around like a soccer ball. "We did have one adult female piping plover that we're 95 percent sure was killed by a cat," he add. "Just the head and wings were sitting on the nest, the eggs were all crushed and there were cat tracks all over it."
Controversy flared in 2002 over a feral colony at Cedar Beach near Mount Sinai that workers for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation say frightened off a formerly thriving population of nesting plovers.
A 2002 survey by the New York State parks department found that Long Island has more parks reporting feral cats than other regions in the state, with Bethpage, Jones Beach and Captree state parks hosting between 10 to 20 felines. This summer, workers at Captree State Park dismantled shelters that volunteers had built for the feral colony.
Tom Lyons, the director of the state parks' environmental management bureau, says that the opposing sides are trying to work out a compromise to humanely remove the cats from sensitive areas. He did not specify where that new home might be.
A muscular gray tabby with a head like a football steps into one of the traps at the Copiague colony and picks at the tuna, careful not to step on the strip of metal that will trip the door closed. Startled by a noise, he triggers it anyway a few minutes later.
The door slams shut. Hissing with fear, he rockets frantically from one end of the two-foot long box to the other. Cording clucks sympathetically and lowers a blanket over the cage to calm him down; sometimes, she says, the cats bash their noses bloody against the wire in their frenzy to escape. He will be neutered by a veterinarian the following day. But he is too wild to be put up for adoption. After a week of recovery in one of the many blanket-lined cages that fill Cording's garage, he will return to the outdoor colony.
Those who work with ferals say the majority of adult cats in colonies are too fearful to make suitable pets - they howl and fret, shrinking from human touch and dashing back outside at the first opportunity. "There's something desperate about them, they're tense," said Michelle Coffaro, a sign-language interpreter who feeds colonies and rehabilitates feral kittens as a volunteer for the Nassau County SPCA. "It's almost like they have a primitive place in them that they can reach into if they have to."
But feralness is by no means a permanent state. Some adult cats come to know, if not fully trust their caretakers, and can be coaxed, with patience that may take years, into passable approximations of pets. Wild-living kittens are less trouble to socialize, provided they are exposed to people before they're 8 or 9 weeks old.
The passage from feral cat to housecat is a labor of love on the part of volunteers, who take the kittens to the vet for checkups and shots, then foster them until they are ready for a new home. About 15 kittens from the Copiague colony are adopted each year. Last Christmas, two of them found new homes after being displayed at a Bay Shore Petco.
At the Science Museum overlooking Manhasset Bay, John Loret has forged a compromise of sorts with the five or six cats on the grounds.
Three have been corralled by volunteers into relatively luxurious captivity in a concrete-floored enclosure that once housed the museum's red-tailed hawk.
The cat house has a roof, wire fencing on three sides and a long, narrow back room to shelter its feline inhabitants from the elements. At about 70 feet by 12 feet, it is larger than some Manhattan apartments and, from a feline perspective, perhaps better appointed. There are a number of large, fairly clean litter boxes, a scattering of dog beds with cozy blankets, and no end of carpeted shelves and the multi-tiered structures known in the pet trade as "cat condos."
>From these vantage points the three inmates perch and gaze at their free-ranging counterparts, including a shy black and white cat and the aforementioned gray tabby who continue to outwit their human guardians.
Loret would rather see them roam free than face euthanasia in a county shelter. "They won't go into the traps, they're too smart," he said with a sigh and a shrug, both laced with the universal frustration of someone who has tried to make a cat do something it does not want to do.
Copyright © 2006, Newsday, Inc.
Patricia A. Doyle, DVM, PhD- Bus Admin, Tropical Agricultural Economics Univ of West Indies
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