I want to be clear about two things. First, I’m a smitten cat person and have been since about 1980 when the first one of these conniving, deliberative creatures plotted to find her way into my heart.
My wife and I just lost a very old friend, a quiet, dignified member of the Nebelung breed who we had to put down because of a severe age-related illness. We also welcomed a new member of the household — a feisty 3-month-old from the Kauai Humane Society. A tabby who was found as a kitten at a bus stop in Hollywood, Calif., rounds out our family.
Second, though, is that I am a volunteer in the Hawaiian monk seal response program. We go to the scene when seals that may be ill or injured — or, more often, just sleepy — have hauled out on beaches. I’ve assisted in tagging quite a few of them and been involved in capturing a small number of dangerously ill and injured animals. On one occasion, I was the first arriving responder at the scene of death where the seal had been struck by a boat propeller.
To be clear, though, I am writing this as a columnist for this newspaper, not as a cat lover or on behalf of the seal program.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet. They exist only in our islands, including the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and down the chain here in the main Hawaiian Islands. Kauai and Niihau are key places seals live and — more important — reproduce.
So where it gets hard is when there is conflict between the way cats live and the way seals die. Alarmingly, three seals died on Oahu during the week of May 14. Two were reproductive age females — with known histories birthing pups. The third was a newborn.
Necropsies — the animal version of autopsies — were performed. All of them were killed by toxoplasmosis, an insidious disease that gets into ocean water starting with feces from domestic cats, which gets absorbed in soil and then washed out. How the toxoplasmosis organism actually infects the seals is not yet known. It may be simply transmission in the water. It may be through toxoplasmosis-infected animals the seals eat. It might be something else.
For the last three years or so, seal volunteers have been cautiously optimistic about whether this species will survive. The population had been in steady decline, but, of late, some evidence has begun to suggest a real recovery may have started.
But the seal’s grasp on survival remains profoundly tenuous. One major disease outbreak could doom the species entirely. Even though 11 seal deaths have been attributed to toxoplasmosis in the last few years, the occurrence of three in one week, on one island, is cause for alarm.
Research literature in respected, peer-reviewed journals is pretty consistent in identifying cat-originated toxoplasmosis organisms as what is eventually killing seals — even if the route of transmission is not yet fully understood.
The controversy over uncontrolled populations of feral cats on Kauai is nothing new. It’s been a politically contentious issue for years. Recently, legislation and state rules have emerged to prohibit feeding of feral cats near harbors and stream outlets, although it’s not entirely certain that’s the only route of ocean entry for the organism that is killing seals.
If you’re a human who happens to live with (and probably be controlled by) cats, there are some common sense things you can do: Don’t feed your cats outdoors. In fact, keep your cats indoors as much as possible. Don’t flush your cat box contents down the toilet. Make sure to dispose of it in proper refuse containers for collection and removal to our landfill. Don’t feed stray cats.
This still leaves the issue of large colonies of feral cats. Groups like the Kauai Community Cat Project advocate for “capture-neuter- release,” in which wild cats are caught and sterilized, then freed. This is a controversial issue, and one that has roused political passions. For myself, I question whether capture-neuter-release is the entire solution, since cats that go through the program are released with several years of life in which they will continue to act as the natural predators they are.
Cat advocates say they believe the animals are being made into scapegoats. Martha Girdany of the cat project — and a person I know, like and respect— is angered by what she sees as presumptions about cats’ responsibility for seals dying. That’s because, she contends, not all the evidence is in to precisely conclude how toxoplasmosis organisms enter seals’ bodies.
But in all due respect, I think the incidents on Oahu tell us that the link between cats and dying seals is proven about as well as any connection ever is in science. It’s also true that the organisms that originate in cat feces can survive for weeks, months or years in the soil before being washed into the ocean.
All of this suggests that the best outcome will be to redouble the effort to develop an effective vaccine. There has been more progress on the veterinary medicine front than in medicine for humans, but there isn’t a vaccine yet that can protect seals. Not even close. But too much is at stake — the basic survival of a species with a clear role in the natural processes of the ocean — to delay.
Developing a vaccine is far easier said than done and there are many different vaccine types, some of which — including one that prevents disease by inducing a mild case of it — would be unacceptably risky for use in an endangered animal. The most promising animal toxoplasmosis vaccine work has involved sheep — but it has been driven largely by economic concerns. There is money to be made by drug companies in preventing sheep from getting sick. Monk seals don’t offer profit potential.
Volunteers and professional seal response staff on Kauai have vaccinated seals for a disease unrelated to toxoplasmosis — the first program like it to immunize wild marine mammals. There are moments of comic relief, when one of the professional staff people has to chase down a fleeing seal on the beach. When they decide to move, they can be much faster than you think. Reaching every seal is an extremely ambitious undertaking.
Mass extermination of feral cats is an approach many feel is unavoidable. The logical part of me agrees with it. The cat lover part of me is repulsed by it. It’s also clear that, on Kauai, at least, we will not reach political consensus on this in time to do the Hawaiian monk seal population much good.
There are really only two things we can do that have a realistic chance of making a difference. We can take better, and better informed, care of the cats we know and live with. We must do a better job of controlling feral populations. We can encourage the research community to pull out all stops in developing a toxoplasmosis vaccine that can work on seals. If that means the federal government needs to get involved because seal vaccines aren’t moneymakers, then so be it.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident.