The great cat debate

The great cat debate

Feral cats' environmental impact, welfare actually animal abuse? Where do DVMs fit in this highly emotional issue?
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Oct 01, 2003

Jessica Long and her friend Ginny plod through the grass and palmetto behind Bonnie Wilson's trailer in central Florida. Bonnie is well known in the area for collecting numerous strays and orphaned animals of all types.

Bonnie owns the property in the back all the way to the state park next to her property and has generously allowed the local trap neuter and release group to release cats at the back of her property.

And so the two proceed with blue cat carriers suspended from their arms. Inside the carriers are three recently neutered tomcats and a newly spayed female calico. On the outside suspended from the carrier carrying the calico are some blue plastic bags containing cat food purchased from Wal-Mart. Their excitement intensifies as they approach the colony. Jessica has been here many times before, but this is Ginny's first time. As the grass opens to an area of brush along a small waterway, Ginny can see various plastic colored food dishes strewn about 15 feet from the water. Cats of all sizes scurry away to the shelter of brush and palmetto. Mysteriously, there are a few seemingly friendly cats waiting close by that do not seem alarmed at the approach of humans.

The releaseJessica plops the carriers down and opens the doors. The gray male quickly exits and departs to the undercover in a low paddling crouch so typical of cats with little human contact. The orange male and the striped male are second out and both nose around wanting to be fed. These two are obviously used to people. The female calico cowers in the back of her carrier and tries to inflate her size and potential for human harm with loud spitting sounds interrupted by guttural growls. Jessica knows better than to reach her hand inside to coax her out knowing the back of her hand would be in ribbons. The calico emerges carefully and darts away-an orange and black blur.

Ginny watches excitedly as some of the cats scurry and slink their way into the shadows of the early morning. Suddenly she notices something peculiar. Other than the muted sounds of the undercover felines, the place is unusually quiet. She also notices that among the scattered dishes are the partial carcasses of various small creatures. She leans down and sees bones and feathers. As a member of the local Sierra Club she suddenly realized that she is on the horns of a dilemma.

"What about the impact these cats have on the nearby park bird communities?" she asks.

Ginny looks up and seems confused by the question. It is apparent that this issue had seldom surfaced in the group of friends she usually talked to. She was forced to think and respond.

"There are so many birds out there-what difference could these precious cats make? The most important thing is that none of these cats have to suffer at the hands of man or be euthanized. Besides now that they are neutered, they won't have to suffer needlessly fighting and having litters. It is obvious that this is the greater good," Ginny intoned.

Ginny was surprised and proud that she could wax philosophical on such short notice. She felt warmed by her own words.

Something smellsThe two crusaders now needed to get back to Barb's clinic. Barb is the cooperating veterinarian and is also an active and vocal member of the TNR group in the area. She also gives most of her friends in the group a huge discount on professional services. This has helped attract a lot of new and often marginal members to the group.

On the way back, they intend to stop at Bonnie's to talk and have coffee. As they approach her trailer various cages and animal enclosures appear in the back of the property with a menagerie of various pets from rabbits to goats. Some are thin. Inside Bonnie greets them from the current campaign with a hearty slap on the back and an offer of coffee and breakfast. Ginny notices a foul odor and only then realizes the number of cats inside the dimly lit trailer. Bonnie is eager to talk.

"You folks have been a blessing," Bonnie gushed. "I couldn't really keep up with all my cats till y'all came along to help me move most of 'em way off to the end of the property. I get a few new ones coming in still, but it has cut way back. Some of my friends and even people I don't even know are now dropping them off where you folks were this morning. Some say they take the short cut from the park or just drop 'em off at the park knowing they will find their way on over to the colony."

"I know it seems very successful," Jessica remarked.

Ginny now notices the conditions that Bonnie's cats are in-many have swollen eyes and almost all of them have an occasional cough. Many have a sort of mild wheezy sneeze.

"Are your cats ok?" Ginny asks.

"They seem fine to me but I take 'em to Barb's clinic and she says a lot have sinus infections and a few have leukemia and AIDS. I treat them and they get better but a few die every month or so. I am trying my best."

Bonnie then points to a rather large torn cardboard box.

"Look in that box!" Ginny obeys. Inside the dirty box is an immense pile of various ointment tins, old medicine bottles and a plethora of other medications. As she picks up a few of them, she notices that some of the dating on the medications have expirations of more than four years ago. Many of the bottles are partly used.

"That's what I use on 'em most of the time. When I run out I just get more at Barb's."

By now Ginny had lost her appetite for breakfast and luckily Jessica had just said that they needed to run and drop the cages back at Barb's place.

On the way back Ginny had time to reflect. She was conflicted inside but was resolute in her backing of the TNR group's efforts. Yet something still bothered her. She was an avid member of the Sierra Club and needed to at least talk with some of her friends about their feelings concerning the cats being that close to the state park. They would surely understand the need for the colony and could offer suggestions about the bird populations and keeping them healthy as well.

Ginny finally smiled and thought to herself that she must be overreacting. Surely they would have an answer.

The feral cat problemOverpopulation of feral cats is a given. As veterinarians we are called to a healing art, yet society seems to call us to a role beyond just fixing sick animals. Society also now sees us as custodians of the species itself. Unfortunately, we often are long on medicine and surgery and short on biology.

Domestic cats are native to northern Africa and were first tamed by the ancient Egyptians. All domestic cats have descended from the African wild cat. Therefore, in this country, the species is technically a foreign exotic and thus is not native to the Americas. The domestic cat is now distributed worldwide and in all ecosystems other than northern Africa would be considered an introduced exotic. In the wild, cats apparently do not live long due to the natural ebb and flow of food availability and intra-species fighting.

There would be little problem with wild and feral cats except for the hand of man. Yet we find ourselves overrun with cats in this country despite the forces of nature that prevail against the cat. Enter the human touch.

The human touchCats are wonderfully lovable creatures and most Americans have an ongoing love affair with them. Some humans however, have taken in these lovely creatures with little regard to biology or veterinary medicine. They have harbored and collected them in groupings that are beyond the group biological norm for the species itself.

Humans can be divided up into various classes of cat owners-some are responsible and some are not. The intense hobbyist, at one end of the spectrum are devoted guardians of a given breed(s) and is of the highest order of caretaker and for the most part is not subject to this discussion. They keep their cats in, go to the veterinarian religiously and spend what is necessary in order to make life comfortable for their charges. It is left up to the rest of us to foul the nest.

Other end of spectrumAt the other end of the spectrum are animal collectors like Bonnie. They are long on compassion for animals but are either naïve or blind to the problems they are creating when bringing so many felines into one small and mostly closed ecosystem.

Some of these people are mentally ill. At the fringes these people are true abusers of animals.