In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Feral-cat bill is bad news for wildlife

Florida Senate Bill 1320 has to do with feral cats. And little to do with science.

The bill, and a companion bill in the House, would codify a ferocious insistence among certain cat lovers that catching, neutering, releasing and feeding feral cat colonies has no untoward effects.

The Senate and House staff analyses of the bill’s effect embrace that notion: “Community cat programs have not only proven to be effective in curtailing outdoor cat populations, but also provide countless other community benefits.”

Science says otherwise. The latest in a series of studies measuring the damage caused by free-roaming cats was published in January in Nature Communications by a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They estimated cats kill somewhere between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds a year. And as many as 20 billion mammals.

“Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals,” the report said. As for trap-neuter-release programs, the report stated, “Claims that TNR colonies are effective in reducing cat populations, and, therefore, wildlife mortality, are not supported by peer-reviewed scientific studies.” The article warned that human-supported feral colonies are “potentially harmful to wildlife populations.”

Yet, a few weeks later, the Florida Legislature was giving serious consideration to the Community Cats Act, which would legalize the re-release of feral cats back into the wild and override any local ordinances to the contrary.

The American Bird Conservancy, Audubon Florida, the Florida Defenders of Wildlife, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Florida Veterinary Medical Association protested the bill. “We were shocked,” said Robert Johns of the American Bird Conservancy. “Cat advocates are dumping predators back into the wild. They’re doing a ridiculous amount of damage.”

“Cat overpopulation is certainly tragic, but we shouldn’t answer one tragedy by perpetuating another,” said Julie Wraithmell, Director of Wildlife Conservation Director for Audubon Florida.

Nor is the Florida Department of Health keen on TNR. In its 2012 report on rabies prevention, the department warned, “The concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease.”

Health and wildlife advocates hope they’ve caused enough of a fuss to keep the feral cat bill bottled up in committee. But they’re up against a formidable political force — cat lovers who insist, despite arguments from wildlife scientists, that TNR operations reduce cat colonies and mitigate the loss of wildlife. What they lack in scientific evidence, they make up with emotional intensity.

After our conversation, Robert Johns e-mailed some advice: “In terms of intensity (not moral values), this will be right up there with guns and abortion. I don’t know where you will fall on this issue but I would just say be careful after you publish. The passion on this is extreme.”

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