We’ve been spending about half our time out on our land this summer fighting invasives, finishing the barn and preparing to build a house next year.

On a rainy day last week, I opened the door to the greenhouse, which had some overgrown herbs  I intended to clear out.  I paused  in the doorway, looking into the lush foliage and found myself puzzling over what I was looking at.  It seemed to be some kind of exotic white, fuzzy mold, which made sense in the heat and humidity.

Then it moved.

What I saw looked a lot like this (photo credit

I stepped cautiously into the greenhouse and found myself staring into the wide, green eyes of a kitten.  It was past the fuzz ball stage, but not quite grown to the leggy, big eared moment just before adulthood.

It had spots of calico speckling its white coat.  It’s long delicate whiskers were absolutely still.

Within seconds, I was contemplating befriending this lost little kitty, but as I leaned toward it — before the thought was fully formed – the creature pulled back its lips, hissed, then sprang past me, raced the length of the greenhouse and dove out the open window into the rain.

I had just come face to face with a feral cat.

Cats —  people seem polarized about this animal.  Ever met someone who is indifferent to cats? We either love them or loathe them.  There are good reasons to do both.

Having “owned” 4 cats in my adult life (both sets of a brother and sister with a goofy, clowning male and a meticulous,  self possessed female) I am well aware of what good companions cats can be.  I am also aware of their destructive potential.  Our fluffy friends evolved to be breathtakingly efficient predators.  The story is that the number they pulled on rodents around Egyptian grain stores is what got them domesticated in the first place.

I kept my first pair of cats indoors and intended to do the same with the second set, but they had other ideas.  As adults they wanted out so badly that I finally let them into the yard.  Immediately a population of tiny voles who had been living by the front porch began to appear as evicerated corpses until very soon there were none left.   My cats were declawed, and they seemed to have minimal success with birds – which was a great relief to me.

Feral cats near Iao Valley (photo credit

The Audubon Society encourages cat owners to keep their pets indoors because of their predation. But it’s not likely every cat owner will comply.  Even if they did – there is the problem of feral cats.

“Cats are in fact having population-level effects,” said Steve Homer, a senior policy adviser with the American Bird Conservancy who said he is longtime cat owner himself. “The big picture is that about a third of the birds in the United States are in decline, and cats have been identified as one of the more significant factors in this decline.”

Female cats can start producing offspring at 4 or 5 months of age, and produce two litters a year. By some estimates, a male and female cat can create a population of over 400,000 cats in seven years! Feral cats have a life span of 2-8 years.

In 2004 National Geographic News estimated there were 70 million feral cats in the U.S., and that together with domestic cats, they were killing hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals.

And it’s not just the little mammals who need to fear.  According to the American Bird Conservancy, in April 2010, the Volusia County Health Department in Florida issued a rabies alert for 60 days following two unprovoked attacks on humans by feral cats within a month.

There were no domestic cats in the Americas till Europeans brought them.  Now The domesticated cat is the most numerous pet, numbering about 60 million, according to U.S. Census data. In fact, nearly 30% of households have them. The lowest estimates place free-ranging, feral cats at about 40 million. That’s a combined total of 100 million cats nationwide.  Each of those animals must eat. (Though pet cats are fed catfood (that’s another worrying issue) they retain their instinct to hunt – wild or tame.

Here is a statement by the Audubon Society:

  • Feral and free-ranging cats kill millions of native birds and other small animals annually;
  • Birds constitute approximately 20%-30% of the prey of feral and free-ranging domestic cats;
  • The American Ornithologists’ Union, American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Inc., and the Cooper Ornithological Society have concluded that feral, homeless, lost, abandoned, or free-ranging domestic cats are proven to have serious negative impacts on bird populations, and have contributed to the decline of many bird species. Worldwide, cats may have been involved in the extinction of more bird species than any other cause, except habitat destruction;

    Feral kittens after surgery in a trap, neuter, release program (photo credit )

  • Feral cat colony management programs known by the acronym TTVNR (Trapped, Tested, Vaccinated, Neutered, Released) are not effective solutions to the problem. In fact, these cat colonies are usually fed by very well-meaning cat welfare groups. The unnatural colonies form around food sources and grow to the limits of the food supply. Feeding these strays does not prevent them from hunting; it only maintains high densities of cats that dramatically increase predation on and competition with native wildlife populations;
  • Free-roaming cats are likely to come in contact with rabid wild animals and thus spread the disease to people. They pose a risk to the general public through transmission of other diseases like toxoplasmosis, feline leukemia, distemper, and roundworm.

I wonder where that little white/calico kitty went.  I wonder why there were no bluebirds in our bluebird house this spring.

Do you have any ideas about this conflict?

6 replies

  1. We love cats too and would love to have another one but would never keep one indoors all the time, it does not seem fair for the cat. However, I do believe that something needs to be done about feral cats. Have you any figures for domestic cats vs feral cats? We would consider having one if we had a farmhouse or a flat on the ground floor to keep the mouse population down, pity you can’t train a cat to be selective about what they hunt though. It is a dilemma for sure.

  2. Hi Joanna,
    The data is, of course, an estimate, but it seems to be about 3 domestic cats to every 2 feral cats.
    I know every farm has cats to keep the rodents down, and some people have cats that keep the rodents down in their houses.
    But, as you say, these little killing machines are not selective.
    It’s a thorny problem.
    I don’t expect to keep a cat again, but I was looking at that young cat in the greenhouse, and instantly ready to give it shelter.
    The connections between humans and dogs and humans and cats are complex indeed.
    On another note, I thought we had a big mouse population in our barn because every time we come back, certain areas were sprinkled with droppings.
    Then last week, I started to mull on why they always appear in certain spots and realized they are bat droppings. There are several spots in the rafters where bats bed down, and they are directly above the recurring droppings.
    Bats help keep the flying insect population in check, and bats are endangered now, so guess I feel better cleaning up all those droppings.

  3. Another animal conundrum there too. Bats are usually associated with disease in people’s minds but I like the fact they keep the insect population down too.

    • Good point, Joanna,
      Bats get a bad rap, but they are incredibly useful for the insects they eat. This is something we are all learning as white-nose syndrome is wiping out bat populations on both sides of the Atlantic.
      I must admit, I don’t feel calm when one gets in the house, but I love to see them flitting in the evening sky. They are amazing creatures.

    • Yes, bats need all the help they can get. They certainly help humans. It’s good to see an effort being made to refurbish their reputation.

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