Recently, there has been a lot of controversy over homeless cats. They are a community problem and opinions are divided about what to do. No one disagrees that the problem’s root cause is people neglecting to spay and neuter their cats. The controversy is should the county approve of trap/neuter/return (TNR) as one viable method of reducing the homeless cat population?
First I’d like to point out that no credible evidence exists that cats are the cause of the extinction or near extinction of Kauai native bird populations. Statements by DLNR and Department of Fish and Wildlife to the County Council have failed to introduce any studies relative to cat/bird predation that are applicable to Kauai. In order to be persuasive such a study would need to be based in an environment such as Kauai’s with it’s abundant non-native prey, be based on cats which are located a significant distance from native bird species, and use as its test subjects cats which were neutered/spayed and fed every day.
And yet, the State and Federal agencies continue to assert that cats are a major threat to native birds. They have taken the position that only eradication of cats will work to solve the problem of declining native bird species. They oppose using trap/neuter/return methods and yet their current methods have failed to keep the native bird populations from plummeting.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports identify feral pigs, introduced mosquitoes, rats and human alteration of habitats, introduced predators, and the rise in emergent diseases (such as avian pox and avian malaria) to the decline of Hawaii’s native birds. Cats are given only a glancing reference in the reports.
Staff at the Kilauea Wildlife Refuge have also identified cattle egrets as a major predator of nestlings, and predation by domestic dogs is apparently an ongoing problem. It is even possible that myna birds prey on eggs and nestlings, since they are known to rob nestlings from arboreal nests, and have been observed attacking chicks that stray too far from the hen. Unfortunately the barn owl will also resort to preying on ground nesting birds if its first choice of rodents is not present, and the Pueo’s prey is chiefly ground nesting birds and insects.
It is simply inappropriate to cast cats as the chief villain in this drama. It has not, and probably cannot ever be scientifically verifiable.
Our local cats do a good job of preventing the spread of rats and mice. We have no other predator on Kauai which preys on rats, so without cats, we would be forced to rely almost exclusively on poison bait, which no one wishes to do. In addition, rats are very difficult to poison, since they will normally refrain from consuming any new substance in their environment until they have observed its effect on one of their members.
I cannot deny that cats are predators. They hunt. They will hunt any small prey, including centipedes, geckos, cane spiders and roaches. It’s what they are designed to do. To the extent that birds fall prey to cats, it is principally the slow moving doves, and to a lesser extent the Japanese White-eyes who are caught. What we do NOT see in or near our colonies, is native species. Thus, we have never observed these cats preying on native species.
Kauai Ferals was founded to find a humane way of reducing the population of homeless and feral cats on Kauai. We have repeatedly stated that we do not advocate maintaining colonies of cats in the vicinity of endangered species. We have spent years, and countless hours, observing these cats. Unlike Mr. Heacock of DLNR and Mr. Mitchell of US Fish and Wildlife, we track and monitor only this one species. We know what they do. They do not wander for “miles” as Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Heacock have asserted. They have a steady source of food, and a stable population, and thus do not feel compelled to travel great distances in search of food. Since they are neutered they do not travel in search of mates. The cats are always present at meal time, waiting to be fed; and they stay in the vicinity of their feeding stations at other times.
DLNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s experience is limited exclusively to completely feral cats that have not been spayed or neutered and are not part of a managed colony. As stated earlier, there are no cat colonies in the vicinity of the wildlife preserves. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Heacock admitted in their testimony to the County Council that they have never caught or seen a neutered/spayed feral cat in the vicinity of the endangered birds.
If we don’t manage these colonies, the numbers will grow. Catching and killing cats results in a residual population of trap-wary cats which will quickly reproduce to their earlier numbers and beyond. A single intact female can (with the assistance of her offspring) produce 71 kittens in a year. In two years the resulting females will produce 1,420 cats. Quickly, the environment will become saturated with these additional cats, and young cats will be forced to seek new territory. The cat population, if left unchecked, gradually expands outwards, until it could reach those areas with endangered birds.
Our community will not be able to reign in the increasing numbers of homeless and feral cats unless we adopt a multifaceted approach. The cost to the County of TNR as a population control program is a fraction of the catch and kill program. It is not feasible to support colonies in state wildlife refuges, and regrettably catch and kill may be the only method of dealing with these cats. We need to educate our community members on the need to spay and neuter their pets, and prosecute people who abandon cats and kittens.
In spite of the opinion of the County Attorney’s office, I believe the County is more at risk of violating the Endangered Species Act and causing endangered bird deaths if it does not embrace TNR as a responsible way to reduce the cat population, along with public education, and enforcement of laws penalizing pet abandonment.
TNR does work. Our records document this fact. Studies of well managed colonies around the world also bear this out. Cats that have been abandoned in parts of the island where they pose no risk to endangered birds, and where an individual is willing to spay/neuter and feed them, are entitled to some quality of life. Their species has long been linked with ours, to our benefit, and we should honor our shared history.
For additional information, Bryan Kortis, of Neighborhood Cats has an excellent website at www.neighborhoodcats.org which contains citations to many studies demonstrating the effectiveness of TNR. See also www.safeacat.com, www.alleycat.org, and www.voxfelina.com. We urge you to explore these websites.
• Margaret Sueoka is a resident of Wailua and a member of Kaua‘i Ferals, a nonprofit dedicated to humanely reducing the population of Kaua‘i’s homeless cats through trap-neuter-return.