Many of the invasive species that cause mass destruction to our wildlife started out in the pet trade. Burmese pythons, tegus and monitor lizards, lionfish, monk parakeets — all of them came here not as food or hitchhikers on agricultural products but simply to fill a desire for the exotic that some people have.
Trade in most of these animals is now tightly regulated. You can no longer buy a live lionfish in Florida, despite the fact that horse left the barn long ago. Ownership of many large reptiles is now restricted. And of course, the release of any non-native animal into the wild is a criminal act, punishable with eye-popping fines and even prison time.
Well, almost any non-native. There’s one exotic animal that is exempt from these rules. Curiously, it’s also a species that is responsible for more widespread destruction than almost any other (we could argue it, but certainly it’s in the top five). It kills indiscriminately, with no regard for hunger. And this prolific hunter can take out several small animals in a short period of time.
It’s Mr. Fluffywhiskers.
We Americans love our cats. About 30 percent of U.S. households have at least one kitty. Currently, we own more than 80 million of them. And of those, about 30 percent are outdoors unsupervised at least some of the time. Let’s take a moment to note what these figures don’t include: An estimated 60 million feral or homeless stray cats that live by their own luck and wits.
This is a problem — truthfully, a much bigger problem than most people realize. Those 84 million outdoor cats aren’t just lounging in sunny patches and making the neighbor’s flowerbed their own personal litter box. They’re killing stuff. Lots of stuff.
In 2013, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a landmark study describing just how much our pretty kitties kill. The study found that cats are responsible for the deaths of between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion mammals every year — in just the United States.
That’s about 10 percent of the total bird population. And if you think that it’s a good thing they’re killing mammals (it’s just mice and rats, right?), another study, which looked at the admission rates of wildlife at the Wildlife Center of Virginia that resulted from cat attacks, refutes that. The overwhelming majority (73 percent) of small mammal admissions were due to cat attacks. The most common were cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels and flying squirrels.
So what — something was going to kill them anyway, so why not a cat? When our domestic animals kill wild animals, they’re taking food away from native predators. This is one of the major problems with having exotic predators loose in your ecosystem: They can out-compete natives by simply outnumbering them. Every bird or squirrel killed by a housecat is one fewer to feed the bobcats, foxes and owls. You know, the animals that belong here? And yes, even your sweet little well-fed tabby turns into a savage murderbeast when he goes out on his own.
But Mr. Fluffywhiskers loves to go outside. I can’t possibly deprive him of that joy!
When I was little, I didn’t want to stay inside either. I would pitch fits and scream and cry when I couldn’t go outdoors (still do, sometimes). But you know what? My parents had the good sense not to let a toddler go wandering around on his own, because it’s a dangerous world.
The same is true for cats. They get hit by cars, killed by dogs and eaten by coyotes. They tear each other up in nasty fights, get hurt falling out of trees and shot by jackasses with pellet guns. They get into spats with raccoons and end up with rabies, eat infected rodents and get toxoplasmosis (a truly fascinating parasite — you should look it up), or pick up tapeworms from snacking on anole lizards.
Does your cat want to go out? Of course. So did I, and I wasn’t happy when I couldn’t. If you want your cat to have some outdoor time, super — but you need to go out there with him.
As for what to do about the cats whose owners will ignore this advice (which is almost all of them), I don’t have a good answer. In Australia, the government of Queensland pays a $10 bounty on feral cat scalps. Would it work here? Meh. As a lifelong cat owner (exclusively indoors since 2001), I don’t want to see the cats suffer for the stupidity or ignorance of the people who keep them. Maybe a bounty on the owners’ scalps would be more effective.
Since neither of those is likely, we’ll have to settle for an education campaign. So, share this with your cat-owning family and friends. Some of them won’t like it. Some of them won’t like me for writing it. That’s OK. I’m not trying to make nice with them. I’m trying to keep their cats safer and keep a few native animals from being pointlessly killed. If I can do that, it’s worth ruffling some feathers.