Feral Cats, Behavior, And Population Control Strategies
We love companion cats, but our feelings toward feral cats can be quite different. Feral cats can pose many problems for local wildlife, wherever they are. Indeed, to get an idea of the scope of the problem, consider that The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—one of the world’s foremost conservation organizations—lists domesticated cats as among the 100 “worst invasive species.” What’s more, feral cats have contributed to at least 14% of the 238 global vertebrate extinctions that the IUCN has recorded and currently threaten 8% of the 464 species that the IUCN lists as critically endangered.
Researchers note that “the global distribution and abundance of cats currently sit in stark contrast to the precarious conservation status of the many species of endemic mammals, birds, herpetofauna and invertebrates on which cats prey.” Part of what makes cats so dangerous to wildlife is that they are able to survive with or without humans and to shift their reliance to local ecosystems if we have not socialized them into our human homes. The purpose of this study was to look at feral cat populations that are “geographically isolated” from humans and that may have never encountered humans before to try to understand how to best manage them.
This exploratory research examined a range of population control techniques—such as shooting, trapping, and poison baiting—in the contexts of Australia, New Zealand, and the offshore islands of these countries. The study’s goal was not so much to definitively explain how to control feral cats, but rather to outline the behavior of feral cats and suggest ways that we could manage them. Indeed, the authors note that even just monitoring “truly” feral cats who live away from human contact is difficult because of their behavior and stealth.
Rather than coming away with solid recommendations, the authors note that a large gap in knowledge persists. “What we do know,” they say, “is that effective feral cat control is very much linked to their prey resources.” And because the characteristics of such predator-prey relationships are unique to different areas, they describe how it is of vital importance to use the knowledge of local people directly involved in wildlife management.
In terms of takeaways for animal advocates, the paper is a mixed bag. It’s worth noting that the authors of this study hold a strong bias against trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, and hence ignore it as a viable possibility. They state emphatically that TNR programs are impractical in contexts where cat colonies exist away from human contact. But, in the absence of examples where TNR programs for such colonies have failed, it seems that non-lethal methods are still worth trying. After all, for all of the concerns around TNR in more urban contexts, study after study seem to support its efficacy.