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Cats running wild

Domestic and feral cats kill an estimated billion birds every year in North America. - John Van Putten
Domestic and feral cats kill an estimated billion birds every year in North America.
— image credit: John Van Putten

Cats are running wild. They take a toll on birds, squirrels, bunnies and whatever else they can catch, contribute to booming feral cat populations, leave their calling cards in the neighbours' flower gardens, and return home to a cozy life of fancy cat food and doting owners.

So says Sherril Guthrie, who maintains Abbotsford should join other municipalities across North America which are taking measures to keep cats indoors, and passing tougher feline licensing bylaws.

Guthrie has done extensive research on the issue, as an associate producer of the CBC documentary Cat Crazed. The 40-minute program explores the topic from the early days of cat domesticity, to the City of Calgary's wrangling with cat control.

"It's a complex problem that hasn't been solved," said Guthrie, a resident of Abbotsford.

Her documentary notes there are 50 million feral cats running loose in North America. Along with domestic cats, they are responsible for killing an estimated billion wild birds every year, she said.

"There are a growing number of groups stepping forward and saying 'this is not sustainable.' "

Elizabeth Melnyk of Elizabeth's Wildlife Centre in Abbotsford can corroborate the local carnage wrought by felines. Each spring, she feels she is running a MASH unit that treats the casualties created by cats.

"If you were here, you would cry," she said from the wild animal hospital she has operated for the past 15 years. "Ninety per cent of what's here is here because a cat caught it and mutilated it."

"You have a fat cat, with its fancy foods, that goes out and catches something just to torment it. It's a very one-sided entertainment."

Melnyk said she might sound like a cat hater, after tending to a small animal that comes in with its intestines dragging, but that's not the case. She loves cats, but wishes their owners would be more responsible.

There's a typical scenario that really frustrates her: Someone brings her a baby rabbit their cat brought home. Then two days later, another one. Then the next day, two more, and so on, until the supply runs out.

"So, in other words, their cat got the whole nest of bunnies."

At what point, she asks, would that owner decide to keep their cat in for awhile, to give the bunnies a chance to grow beyond the stage of being more than easy prey?

At this time of year, baby birds are leaving the nest. They don't just spread their wings and soar. Rather, "they learn from the ground up," Melynk explained.

They are easy prey for even the most docile domestic cat.

"If possible, keep those cats in," she said. "Spring and summer are the critical times."

Melnyk noted some animals grow up quickly. Wild rabbits are on their own after only three weeks of mothering, and robins only need two or three weeks, she said. Squirrels, however, need four months, and so do mallard ducklings.

That's why she advocates keeping cats indoors most of the year.

"If kitty came home torn to shreds, people would be very upset – but that's what the cat is doing to other things."

She is doing her good work again this summer, but she won't forever.

"It's going to be the cat-caughts that do me in."

Guthrie said many cat owners keep their pets indoors, but bylaws are needed to enforce responsible pet ownership.

"A lot of people will distance themselves from their cat activity: 'How am I supposed to know where my cat is?' But what if a dog owner said that?" Guthrie asks.

"It's the most natural thing in the world for a dog to rip a cat to shreds, but we don't let that happen."

She said many "traditionalist" cat owners treat their pet like it's on its own, and almost disposable.

"If it's gone and disappears, it's 'just a cat,' it's easily replaced. They have lowered the status of cats to where they're totally replaceable."

Ken Macquisten, Abbotsford's first full-time small animals vet, advocates leaving cats indoors, mostly for safety reasons.

"The best way to have a cat live into its teens is to have it live inside," he said. "There are so many hazards out there for cats – other cats, dogs, cars, and people who don't like cats. It's a hazardous world out there for felines."

He treats wild animals that have been caught by cats, and agrees cats "are very, very hard on wildlife.

"They are urban and rural environmental terrorists."

He saw Guthrie's documentary, Cat Crazed.

"It's very enlightening. I wish more people would see it," he said. "It's important people not demonize cats, and the documentary walked a fine line there."

Guthrie points out that many municipalities in Eastern Canada have cat licensing bylaws, and Calgary got a bylaw passed "by a whisker."

They justify it as a control to wild cat populations, and because the cats themselves are safer. Guthrie said only about seven per cent of lost cats are ever returned home, but that is much improved in municipalities with cat licensing.

"Municipalities have to sign on, and many still feel it's a political hot potato," she said.

Creston is the first town in B.C. to have cat licensing, adopted in spring 2009.

Mayor Ron Toyota said the wild cat population was an embarrassment, and had to be brought down.

"In order to have any kind of control, you have to have bylaws in place," he said.

The bylaw allowed Creston to trap feral and stray cats, to issue cat tags, to limit the pet population to four animals (dog or cat) per household, and take other measures.

"It gave us a control mechanism," said Toyota.

"There was a small contingent that didn't like it, but there was a larger group that thought it was about time."

Looking at a typical progress report, it shows 50 cats trapped. Fifteen were diseased, and had to be euthanized. Nine were claimed by owners, who were fined for their cats being at large. The rest were fixed, and placed for adoption.

"It seems to be working," said Toyota. "We do it with dogs – what's the big deal with cats? They should be controlled."

Gordon Ferguson, Abbotsford's bylaw enforcement manager, said there is no cat licensing bylaw on the radar in Abbotsford. He gets occasional complaints about cats digging in gardens, but that has been it.

"There's got to be a reason for it. What are we trying to accomplish?" he said.

 

When to save a bird

Elizabeth Melnyk has numerous people bring her baby birds at this time of year, which appear to be injured. Many are simply young and learning to fly, and are brought in needlessly.

She said people can quickly assess whether they need to intervene – and there are times when they should.

If the bird has feathers, and if it can hop, it is likely not in distress, but simply learning to fly. Parents feed them on the ground, and show them how to find food on the ground.

"The main thing is – if it can hop, the nest is old news," she said.

If it is an immature bird, without feathers, it needs the nest. Locating the nest, which is probably nearby, would be the best solution. Feel free to pick up the bird and put it back in.

"Mom will take it back. They don't care if you've touched it – that's an old myth."

If it has no feathers, and no visible nest nearby, or if it has cuts or an obvious injury, it can be rescued at Elizabeth's Wildlife Centre.

See the website www.elizabethswildlifecenter.org for more information.

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