This past winter we took on a new staff member at the Stokes Nature Center. In exchange for room and board, he lives in our building and is on call 24 hours a day. He’s arguably our most popular employee, but I’m not jealous. Rooster is, after all, cuter than me. He’s also a cat.
As one of the only buildings for miles around, we attract a lot of mice. Taking on a cat seemed like a fun and ecological answer to a frustrating long-term problem. Obviously, this isn’t a new idea. Cats and humans have been coexisting for thousands of years – probably since the time our ancestors were developing agriculturally-based societies in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. With agriculture came grain storage, and with grain storage came mice. Cats quickly became an important part of our food security system.
As humans spread around the globe, our newly domesticated feline friends came along too. But while most of us keep cats for reasons other than their hunting prowess these days, they have retained the skills that attracted us to them in the first place. Cats are predators. Even when they’re fed at home, and have no need for additional calories, their hunting instincts don’t dissipate. A recent study estimated that cats in the US alone kill around 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals every year. These statistics make cats the number one anthropogenic threat to wildlife.
Utah’s wildlife evolved in an environment void of small feline predators, and their behaviors reflect this. Ground-nesting birds such as quail, nightjars, and killdeer are especially prone to predation. Domestic cats are a non-native species against which many of our birds and mammals have few defenses.
So what can you do to help? The most straightforward answer is to keep your cat indoors. If however, you insist he goes out, there are still a few things you can do to keep neighborhood animals a little safer. Attaching a bell to your cat’s collar can warn wildlife that she’s around. If your yard is a haven for birds and mammals, provide dense vegetation for them to take refuge in. And of course, spay and neuter cats to avoid bringing any more unwanted felines into the world. There are already more stray and feral cats in the US than there are loving homes for them. Controlling cat populations can save the lives of millions of birds and small mammals.
If the welfare of birds and mammals isn’t enough to motivate you, consider that research shows your cat is safer, and will live longer, if kept indoors. An innovative study by the University of Georgia – dubbed ‘Kitty Cams’ – can give you a sense of what your cat might be up to during the day. Small cameras attached to the collars of housecats record not only wildlife kills, but also fights with neighborhood dogs and opossums, and trips into storm sewers, across busy roads, and into the undercarriages of parked cars.
So far, Rooster is earning his keep. We have noticed a wonderful decrease in nibbled-on file folders and tiny footprints in desktop dust. But we don’t want our outdoor critters to decrease in numbers, and so despite his (sometimes very vocal) desires, he will remain an indoor feline. For the sake of all our Utah wildlife, I hope you consider doing the same.
For a photo of Rooster, a link to the Kitty Cams site, and more suggestions on keeping wildlife safe from cats, visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org .
For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.
Photos: Courtesy & © Andrea Liberatore
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org
Loss, S. R., Will, T., Marra, P. P. (2013) The Impact of Free-ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications 4, Article number: 1396 Accessible online at: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n1/abs/ncomms2380.html
Angier, Natalie (2013) That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think. New York Times. Published January 29, 2013. Accessible online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/science/that-cuddly-kitty-of-yours-is-a-killer.html
The National Geographic & University of Georgia Kitty Cams (Crittercam) Project: A window into the world of free-roaming cats. Accessible online at: http://www.kittycams.uga.edu/
National Audubon Society. (2013) Reducing Threats from Cats. Available online at: http://web4.audubon.org/bird/at_home/safecats.html
Zax, David (2007) A Brief History of House Cats. Smithsonian Institution. Accessible online at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/brief_cats.html