I recently spoke with animal advocate Cathy Unruh about her book, “Taming Me: Memoirs of a Clever Island Cat,” and about the free-roaming cat study released in December by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and funded by the National Fish & Wildlife Service.
Some of you might remember Unruh from when she lived in the Harrisburg, PA, area and worked at WHTM TV, or from when she went to school in Elizabethtown. Unruh now lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, working part-time for PBS hosting her talk show, “Up Close with Cathy Unruh” on WEDU.
“I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but my primary passion is animal advocacy,” Unruh said.
Unruh said the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Insttitute study — published in an online journal, Nature Communications, in February — concluded that domestic cats (cats that live with humans but are also allowed outdoors) as well as free-roaming cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and more than 15 billion mammals each year.
“But there is a tremendous backlash against the study, its conclusions and its methodolgy,” said Unruh. “The reason: the kill rates that the study has are two to four times anything that had been discussed previously and one of the basic problems with it is, it’s not an actual study. What the researchers did was, they took local surveys and pilot studies — 21 in total — from the U.S. and Europe, and from that they extrapolated to make this guesstimate — and I emphasize ‘guesstimate’ — of how many outdoor creatures are killed by cats each year.”
QUESTION: So what are they recommending? Are they recommending that the cats be caught and killed?
“That is the implication of the study. It explicity asks for more discussion of trap-neuter-return. It is clearly not in favor of trap-neuter-return,” said Unruh. “Animal and cat advocates are very much in favor of trap-neuter-return, which has been proven time and time again to work. We believe that it’s the effective method for controlling the outdoor cat population. When they don’t have to look for mates anymore, that helps to calm them down. If they’re being fed that’s even better, and when they can no longer reproduce the numbers start to dwindle over time with the natural aging and dying process.”
QUESTION: If there are those who feel it’s not a balanced study, what is being done to make the public aware of that fact?
“Well, the study’s already out there, but by organzations and the media pointing out that — as we’ve looked at the study we understand the the flaws in it, and that it’s really just a guesstimate. So now the goal is to educate and let people know that we can’t trust these conclusions,” Unruh said. “At the same time, we are concerned about cats and we are concerned about wildlife. I mean, if you’re an animal lover and you love cats, you love other animals as well, so it’s not an ‘us or them’ sort of thing. But when you do TNR and there’s a caretaker to feed the cats, the motivation and the need to hunt is dramatically reduced, so it’s safer for wildlife as well.”
“It is instinctual behavior in cats to hunt, as it is with many, many other animals. Some birds eat other birds, for example. Most animals hunt. But once the cats are fed and spayed and neutered, that behavior is tremendously reduced.”
QUESTION: What are the chances that the study will make people want to trap free-roaming cats and kill them?
“Of course that’s going to be a natural repercussion with some people in some areas — unfortunately, yes, that is going to be one result,” Unruh said. “On the more positive side, another result is going to be stimulating conversation, how we best manage the outdoor cat population, and stimulating conversation about trap-neuter-return. It’s encouraging people who have done TNR and know that it works to speak up.”
“It’s a shame that the study is out there in one way, and yet, if it promotes conversation for all of us to work together for the betterment of all animals — and that includes the cats, and the wildlife and the humans — if we can all work together, then it will have a positive benefit,” she added.
ABSTRACT FROM THE STUDY
Anthropogenic threats, such as collisions with man-made structures, vehicles, poisoning and predation by domestic pets, combine to kill billions of wildlife annually. Free-ranging domestic cats have been introduced globally and have contributed to multiple wildlife extinctions on islands. The magnitude of mortality they cause in mainland areas remains speculative, with large-scale estimates based on non-systematic analyses and little consideration of scientific data. Here we conduct a systematic review and quantitatively estimate mortality caused by cats in the United States. We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4–3.7 billion birds and
6.9–20.7 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.
“Taming Me: Memoirs of a Clever Island Cat” is a novel, told in a cat’s voice, based the true-life story of Unruh’s cat, who was feral, caught in TNR and came to live with her.
“It’s sort of a suspense tale, a rags-to-riches adventure,” Unruh said. “There’s a lot going on that’s very fictional. But within the context of that entertaining fiction, you learn about TNR and you learn how it works to help control the population. People like to learn while being entertained.”
Find out more about free-roaming cats, trap-neuter-return and the study through the following links:
Alley Cat Allies, www.alleycat.org
Humane Society of the United States, www.humanesociety.org/issues/feral_cats
Nature Communications, www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/full/ncomms2380.html