A cat with its prey. Photo by Rob Schoorel.
A cat with its prey. Photo by Rob Schoorel.

Aldo Leopold wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds.” As ecologists and natural historians, this prophesy is realized in our perpetual awareness of the degraded and constructed world in which humans live. Leopold also suggested that an ecologist “must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Public dialogues can be tricky for scientists; most issues are complex, time is brief, and the use of jargon must be managed. But our research is supported by your tax dollars so it is our job to communicate what we know. More importantly, we feel that San Antonians, particularly those who read this digital newspaper, demonstrate an unusual ability to consider evidence and make decisions that improve their lives and the lives of their children. We are hopeful that, with greater awareness, biodiversity of urban areas can be maintained. We therefore offer here arguments for better policies and public control of free-roaming domesticated cats.

Houdini, an outdoor cat, lounges in the shade. Some researchers would rather cats stay indoors.  Photo by Monika Maeckle.
Houdini, an outdoor cat, lounges in the shade. Some researchers would rather cats stay indoors. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

We understand the love for these playful, soft, purring creatures. But it is for good reason that we do not love free-roaming, domesticated cats the same way that other humans do. We are consistently told that we will be skewered if we speak out on this subject; we approach it carefully in public lectures and more aggressively in our own courses, where solid evidence can be presented and discussed. But we are driven to speak up because of our keen awareness of the impact on animals that find themselves in cat-dominated, human-created environments and have no voice – or an infinite number of videos on YouTube. Our goal is to unpack the complexities of the “cat issue” and develop an appreciation for the intrinsic worth of the diversity of other beautiful creatures.

Domesticated, free-roaming cats are allowed the same, if not more, freedoms that humans experience, and their freedom impinges on the lives of other animals. Even when fully nourished, cats are highly motivated and capable predators and are responsible for widespread losses in urban and rural wildlife biodiversity. As a culture, we have long appreciated cats’ abilities as ratters; however, they are also indiscriminant hunters of small birds, lizards, mammals, and insects. Indeed, in a recently published meta-analysis (a study of many studies) researchers of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that free-roaming cats in the United States kill 1.3-4 billion birds and 6.3-22.3 billion mammals annually. Thus, while cat-lovers get to spend quality time with their favorite species, the rest of us are relegated to watch our beloved biodiversity dwindle and enjoy the remaining urban wildlife that is either just unusually common or unusually good at avoiding being eaten (e.g., non-native sparrows and starlings).

The estimated number of cat-caused deaths is staggering. Even the low-end estimates are alarming. For field ecologists, the meta-analysis confirms our observations of lack of biodiversity in urban areas. Their study also confirms more than 100 years of previous studies on the impact of free-roaming cats on islands. Islands are more susceptible to human-caused threats to wildlife, acting as “canaries in a coal mine” for conservation, and there are currently 83 campaigns globally to eradicate cats from islands. This is particularly important for islands that have been designated for conservation or where ecotourism drives the economy; the Galapagos Island system is, of course, a critically important location for cat control. And the success stories abound. For example, following cat eradication in 2013, the Ascension frigate bird returned to nest on Ascension Island for the first time in 150 years.

Ascension Island frigate bird. Photo by Ben Tullis via Flickr.
Ascension Island frigate bird. Photo by Ben Tullis via Flickr.

Domesticated cats are also themselves exposed to dangers when free-roaming. The two primary sources of danger are other free-roaming cats and disease. Felids, the family of cats, evolved to live mostly solitary lives; they are lie and wait predators, and defend territory for mates and food resources. Therefore, their attacks on other cats are to be expected. Also, when cats roam freely and live in high density managed colonies they are more likely to be exposed to feline AIDS, rabies, cat scratch fever, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus among others. Furthermore, parasites proliferate in feral cat colonies, including worms that extract essential nutrients and calories from cats, as well as ectoparasites, such as fleas, that cause unrelenting irritation. In addition, free-roaming cats are often injured by dogs or hit by cars. In sum, the vast majority of free roaming cats experience high levels of trauma, exist in subpar health conditions, and experience painful death from injury, infection, and malnutrition.

We face a significant problem in this country in managing free roaming cats. The problem starts when people dump pet cats that they no longer want. The standard reaction to homeless cat “dumping” is implementation of spay-neuter-return (SNR) programs and feeding stations. When SNR was first instituted across the country it seemed like a good solution. The logic is that cats in these populations, assuming that all individuals are spayed or neutered, would not reproduce, maintain their territories and, when they died, eventually, the population would disappear. Managed colonies, where cats are regularly fed and provided with basic medical care, are now widespread, even in parks (e.g., Brackenridge Park). An unintended consequence is that cats that have been “fixed” now lack the circulating hormones that cause territorial behavior and are unnaturally tolerant of other cats in their territory. This means that “fixed” cats are comfortable living in higher densities, requiring higher levels of food provisioning, and causing even greater impact to the local wild animal populations.

We have seen no reasonable discussion by those who maintain colonies regarding consideration for other species or a long-term plan to reduce cat numbers. Why would they? These are essentially low maintenance pets. San Antonio has unusually large cat populations. This we attribute to our mild, and growing milder, South Texas climate and consistent failings of public policy. To make matters worse, the existence of managed colonies, where people can dump cats knowing that they will be cared for, facilitates an “easy way out” for pet owners who face hard decisions about unwanted pets. We suspect that managed colonies only perpetuate the problem of cat “dumping” by making it so easy, and allow the general public and policy makers to continue avoiding the problem.

We are reluctant to take the City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) to task. It is not the fault of the of this organization that they are underfunded and under severe scrutiny from the public, who requires them to, in essence, do its dirty work. Noteworthy is that the ACS website highlights a need for animal “care” rather than “control” and this is clearly, and wisely, by design. The City may begin by discouraging feeding stations (on the website they are currently “encouraged”). In addition, while we were unable to confirm this through ASC, we understand that free-roaming cats are often collected by the City, “fixed,” and returned to the collection site. Again, we are sensitive to the fact that the City facilities are teaming with unadopted pets but returning them to neighborhoods is not the answer.

San Antonio has set terrific examples of sustainable practices in bicycle policies, public transportation, water use, and tree protection.  We could also provide regional and national leadership on free-roaming cat management in semi-arid/sub-tropical climates. But, because this is a perilous topic for politicians, ultimately, we as a public must commit to making animal control a priority on both private and public properties. To begin, we need to engage in and facilitate rational, evidence-based dialogues to identify reasonable alternatives. Policies aimed at reducing populations of cats may seem inhumane, but doing nothing means that other animals are mutilated and killed. And since we generally do not see these predatory and torturous acts, we allow ourselves a comfortable cognitive dissonance in our complicity.

Creative alternatives to addressing the cat problem have emerged. At the very least, cats should be outfitted with anti-predation bibs, or the like. Here in San Antonio, the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas Board (for which K. Lyons serves as president), has worked to negotiate restricted covenants with developers of apartment complexes around our Natural Areas that require that all cats be walked on leash and disallow any feeding stations or managed colonies. Restrictions such as these have been adopted by cities such as Madison, WI, where all cats must be on a leash or picked up by city authorities. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends not only that “owned cats be kept indoors, in an outdoor enclosure, or on an attended l­­­eash” but also recommends “prohibiting public feeding of intact free-roaming abandoned and feral cats” and “preventing establishment of ­­managed cat colonies in wildlife-sensitive ecosystems.” We think that this policy is wise; however, urban areas could be rich wildlife ecosystems for everyone if we adopted policies that were more responsible for managing feral cat populations, “intact” or not.

People tell us, of course, that cats don’t like to be walked on leashes. Neither do dogs, but they get used to it. Think of it this way: if cats were a danger to us and our children in the way that dogs can be, would we allow them to roam freely? When dogs bite humans we generally do something about it, beyond just chucking rocks at them and hoping for the best. So, why do we give cats more off-leash rights than dogs? This is because we are anthropocentric and cats do not pose a threat to humans in the way that dogs do. In the same way we fear dogs, small lizards, birds, mammals, and insects fear cats.

Humans have created this problem and, as a result, we have lost millions of wild animals. As we face ethical decisions about maintaining cat colonies, we must include in the discussion the ethics of our decision to allow so many animals to suffer at the paws of these human-introduced, artificially-selected predators. It is easy for us to assign names, and thus worth, to the cats, but we feel very strongly that the ethics of animal care extends beyond the cats to include the newly hatched baby birds begging loudly for an extra worm in the tree, the lizards doing pushups on the branch, and the wild rodents scurrying to find enough food to supply its larder. We must afford the same rights and protection to other animals in our urban landscape or continue to live in ever-homogenizing ecosystems that diminish us mentally and physically. We need a city that celebrates all biodiversity.


This story was written by four Trinity University professors and a version originally appeared in the Trintonian. Minor edits have been made to conform to the Rivard Report stylebook.

 Top image: A cat with its prey. Photo by Rob Schoorel. 

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Ecology and Evolution Professors of Biology, Trinity University

Kelly Lyons – PhD, associate professor – is a specialist in maintenance of biodiversity, invasive species, and grassland restoration. She teaches introductory biology, ecology, plant biology and study...