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Cute But Deadly: Cats Kill By The Billions Each Year

February 5, 2013 2:11 p.m.

GUESTS

Dr. Gary Weitzman is president of the San Diego Humane Society. Dr. Weiztman is co- host of the National Public Radio program The Animal House

Chris Redfern is the executive director of the San Diego Audubon society.

Related Story: Cute But Deadly: Cats Kill By The Billions Each Year

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Cats, even scruffy stray cats, are adorable creatures. And it's the instinct of many animal lovers to want to make care of them. But a report by government researchers finds that cats have apparently been taking good care of themselves when it comes to finding prey. The report from the Smithsonian conservation biology institute and the fish and wildlife service estimates that cats in the U.S. are killing more than 14 billion birds and small mammals every year. And because so many people are involved in taking care of these outdoor cats, the numbers show cats as the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. Joining me to discuss the issue are my guests, Gary Weitzman is president of the San Diego humane society and cohost of the NPR program, the animal house.

WEITZMAN: Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Chris Redfern is the director of the San Diego Audubon society.

REDFERN: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: There are several caveats to this study. First of all, it's an estimation. Do the numbers, more than two billion birds, more than 12 billion mammals killed by cats seem right to you?

WEITZMAN: Those are incredible numbers. And actually they could be right. The problem we're having right now is trying to on a scientific level determine whether or not they are. We want to see something like a good metaanalysis of all of this data. And what I've heard from my colleagues around the country is that this is data review, and a literature review. And at this point that still needs to be tested.

CAVANAUGH: To look and see if those numbers are actually as high as they are.

WEITZMAN: Absolutely. And my colleague would probably agree that the issue is just simply the fact that animals are dying, whether or not it's from domestic cats, feral cats, human encroachment, whether or not it's a billion or a million or 10,000, it's an issue.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know the Audubon society has been sounding the alarm of cats being a threat to the bird population for a while, haven't you?

REDFERN: Yes, that's right.

CAVANAUGH: And have there been studies done about the number of cat kills here?

REDFERN: Not to my knowledge. And that's why this study is a wake-up call for us. I think these are significant numbers, and it is a significant problem and has been a significant problem for sometime. And it really means that we need to take a look at what's happening here locally. We know that San Diego County is one of the most biodiverse regions in the continental United States. So we have specific wildlife assets here in the county that other counties don't have. The presence of feral cats in our county may have an inordinate impact on things like threatened and endangered species.

CAVANAUGH: Give us an example. The kind of bird populations you think are threatened or could be threaten leader in San Diego.

REDFERN: Right. We have a bird here in San Diego County called the lite footed crap rail. It depends on coastal salt marsh habitat. And because all of the human development along our coastline, over 90% of that habitat has been filled in, developed, taken over by human use. That's the big reason why they're endangered. Then we have the issue. What's remaining of their populations being surrounded by virtually an island of habitat surrounded by urban pressures. They include a lot of different things, but one of them definitely is cats. And there have been some issues with cats encroaching on some of the wildlife areas where these birds are right here in metro San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the study that we referred to finds that domesticated pets allowed to roam free by their owners account for a significant portion of these cat kills. What is the humane society's view of letting cats outside?

WEITZMAN: That's interesting. Every animal welfare organization that I've seen or talked to or been a part of, whether it was back in my shelter in Washington DC or the humane society here in San Diego, we have a goal to educate people who are adopting to keep their cats indoors. It's the safest, most responsible way to have your pet. We would never think of having dogs running free outside. So obviously cats who are natural hunters are going to do what they do best if they're outside, but not only that, they're not safe. And here in San Diego, we have a natural predator for cats, the coyote. So I was just telling Chris earlier that we used to have a fake coyote in the shelter and a little note on him saying do not let me meet your cats when you adopt! So that's a huge issue. What we want to do is promote responsible and humane care for all animals. Whether they're cats or dogs, reptiles, circus animals, wildlife, birds, doesn't matter.

CAVANAUGH: The majority of the cats in this study that are preying on the birds and mammals, and we're not talking about rats and mice, things like voles and small mammals. Auge number of them are stray and feral cats, what is the difference?

WEITZMAN: There is definitely a difference. It used to be thought of, a feral was an outdoor cat that you could not approach. It was a wild animal. And what we found over the last five years, and we're doing a lot of research, a lot of animals that are identified on first exposure to us in the shelter as feral simply are not. It takes time for them to Aclimate, for them to calm down, and we have about a 60% rate of miscalculation. Those cats that are considered feral are coming in in traps often are able to be acclimated and be domesticated. And what we want to do is get them in from a colony, and they're just outdoor cats, and we can then get them into a living room and have them stay there.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you about the colonies. I know that the Audubon societies and people who deal with bird populations are concerned about this and have been for several years. We've seen efforts to talk care of feral cats. They supplement their feeding and take them in and get them spayed and neutered. Does the humane society support that effort?

WEITZMAN: Absolutely. And here's the reason why. These animals are out there, and I think whether or not this study is verified, and it will be, that test will happen, the problem is still there. And I think the real issue is what does it matter what those numbers are? We know they're huge numbers, a billion or a million or whatever, the problem is that we need to be stressing responsible pet ownership and care. And it doesn't really matter what those numbers end up being. So we know those cats are out there in colonies. They're still cats. They're animals that we love, that make wonderful companions in a home, but they're outside, we want them to be cared for. So the humane society does support colony maintenance. But what we really want to do is support those colonies into humane spay and neuter, rabies vaccinations, and returning them back to the colonies and not reproducing.

CAVANAUGH: What's the problem that the Audubon society sees with the trap neuter release program?

REDFERN: Well, first I wanted to mention I am a cat lover myself. I grew up with cats in my house. I have had cats as an adult. Our family's evolution of how to take care of a cat humanely has changed. What I was young, our cats went outside. I remember as a little kid, one of our cats bringing in a bird that was still alive into our house that we tried to rescue. So I'm not anticat. But I think one of the things we're looking at this from an animal control or animal care perspective, this problem of the feral cat colonies, and I think that this study is a wake-up call for us to be looking at this issue from an ecological perspective. If you look at these cats, they are from an ecological perspective a nonnative and you could say an invasive species. When you look at other native predators, a typical home range of a bobcat is a square kilometer. If you looked at that, and if you thought that all of San Diego County could be good hab cat for bobcats, San Diego County could hold maybe 12,000 bobcat territories. We have hundreds of thousands of feral cats. So the concentration of those predators in these areas, especially if they're close to sensitive wildlife areas, that's just a threat that we have to take seriously.

CAVANAUGH: What's an alternative to the trap, neuter, and release?

REDFERN: I don't have any good solutions as to an alternative. But I will say that I think we need to look critically at how the routine is being implemented and really study that. The threat of hyper predation in areas where the cats are is going to continue for years beyond the initial trap, neuter, return.

CAVANAUGH: How about an enclosed facility?

REDFERN: We talked about that. It's really very difficult. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of feral cats in San Diego County alone.

WEITZMAN: It's simply not possible. There's no way to house that number of cats. And whether they're feral or stray or indoor cats that go outside occasionally, there's still an issue for wildlife out there. And they're also at risk themselves. And we know from the last ten years of work on this, are the trap neuter return is the only viable solution right now. I would love to see other ones. As a veterinarian, I hate to see terrified cats come in in traps by wonderful volunteers who are just trying to help. And they are at their wit's end with the amount of work that faces them to bring these cats in. But it's very sad for me to see animals that we love to see cats outdoors.

CAVANAUGH: One of those volunteers is on the line. We don't have a lot of time. Let me get your reaction so far.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I just wanted to comment on Chris's statement, a couple minutes ago, about hyper predation from the feral cat populations being put back after they're spayed and neutered. I don't see this happening. Once a colony is maintained, which means it's spayed and neutered and it's for the most part fed, it doesn't overpopulate. It's not causing more problems, it's not overheightening predation or something like that. But once we have a maintained colony, they're not going out killing all these animals because they're fed, they're spayed and neutered, they're not overpopulating their area. And that's our main problem in San Diego County is that the cats are overpopulated. There's hundreds of thousands of them. And the only way to deal with it, they're already here, let's do the best we can of what we know how to do, and that's spay and neuter.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Thank you very much. One thing is the acknowledgement is that even cats that are fed will still things they see moving.

WEITZMAN: Oh, yeah, for sure. They're hunters. They'll hunt also and they won't necessarily kill. A lot of it is just the hunt. That's the natural behavior of cats. And I like what Chris said, the invasive species being cats in these natural habitats is certainly true. But they're a marker of the real invasive species which is humans. The problem is that we need to have people be responsible and have access to proper spay and neuter services.

CAVANAUGH: One last very quick question for you, Chris, do we have time in your opinion to wait for the trap, neuter return program to decrease the population?

REDFERN: I think that it's very difficult to say. In places where there is sensitive wildlife, I'm not sure there is time. The studies that I have read, and I've done a lot of reading on TNR, it shows that even with a very high amount of management, you're going to reduce the colonies over a period of ten years. It's a long-term problem.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both.

WEITZMAN: Thank you, Maureen.

REDFERN: Thank, Maureen.