I always get enthusiastic talking about cats. Maybe because I’m a cat mum myself and I’m a cat person. I think I’ve said this frequently, but as much as I love cats, the urban wildlife may suffer because of them because they’re excellent hunters (though in my case, scrunchies hunters and feet attackers).
You can see the proof through Jak Wonderly’s photo. Titled “Caught by Cats”, the portrait is of 232 victims of cat attacks. A lot of the subjects were birds, but there were also small mammals and reptiles.
All cat victims were brought to WildCare, a wildlife hospital in California. In 2019 the hospital got 321 animals and only 89 survived. WildCare tried to treat their patients the best they can, but most didn’t make it.
The award-winning photo gives us a picture of how cats can wreak havoc on their natural surroundings.
Wonderly’s photo that contains 232 dead animals is just a tiny fraction of cats’ annual death count. According to a 2015 study, cats kill an average of over 2 billion birds and 12 billion mammals each year. These cuties are actually the leading cause of non-natural bird deaths (under 75%).
“It was a challenge to envision something somber, dignified, truthful, and not causing revulsion. I also wanted to honor the difficult work of wildlife rescue and WildCare’s hospital staff,” Wonderly wrote.
WildCare’s director Melanie Piazza said that the goal was not to shock or disgust. “We wanted to present the animals as respectfully as possible and grab people’s attention with their beauty,” said Piazza, who had the original idea for the project.
Cats are the second most popular after fish in the US (I’m actually surprised dogs aren’t the first one). About ¾ of them stay indoors, but the other quarter are free-roaming aka outdoor or hybrid.
Fully indoor cats like mine are fine. So far, they’ve only managed to chase and flip cockroaches to their backs, killing them (my 5-year-old cat is hesitant to go near a mouse. I mean, a rebuke—defensive squeak—from it was enough to shoo her).
On the other hand, indoor-outdoor cats kill about two animals per week. My friend’s hybrid cat kills more than that, bringing “gifts” quite often. But even so, they’re still considered not much of an issue.
Urban wildlife’s biggest killer is unowned cats: feral or strays. Former head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Peter Marra stated that these cats kill three times as many animals as owned cats.
I can vouch for that; I saw my friend’s stray/outdoor cat gnawing on his recently killed bird. And it turned out he’d killed two before, my friend found the birds’ bones around the front yard.
Some say cats should hunt freely like any predator would in their local ecosystem. But, Marra said humans “subsidize” them, giving stray cats food and other forms of support. That allows them to reproduce rapidly, which makes it more threatening to their natural environment.
Either adopt or euthanize
Piazza said, “They’re in the same area for 15 to 20 years, they’re fed by their humans, they don’t have to hunt to survive,”
“They just constantly kill and nothing changes their population, so it doesn’t give local wild populations time to rebound as they would if it was a natural predator-prey cycle.”
Marra explained that there’s no easy solution to the issue of unowned cat population. A lot of animal welfare organization have pushed for TNR (trap neuter release) programs.
But according to the Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer’s author, TNR is more of a placebo and not an effective solution. Marra proposes to trap unowned cats and find them a home or euthanize them.
What about outdoor or hybrid cats? It’s simple: keep them inside.
Wonderly wrote, “Conservation starts in our own backyard with the choices we make about our pets, fences, plants, and feeders. I hope this photograph will encourage dialog about how our choices impact the animals around us.”
2013 cat study
According to this study, there had been non-scientific approach to management of free-ranging cats. The main reason was many consider urban wildlife mortality from cat predation were not as big as other manmade threats like buildings and habitat destruction.
The researchers argued that assessing mortality source required identification of which species killed and estimation of total numbers of fatalities. 7 years ago, estimates of annual US bird mortality from cat predation (owned and unowned) reached hundreds of millions.
After conducting review of studies that estimate predation rates of owned and unowned cats, the researchers estimated that free-ranging cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals in the US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) annually.
This number of mortality rate was a lot more than previous estimates of cat predation on wildlife. Researchers stated that the estimation might exceed all other sources of anthropogenic mortality of US birds and mammals.
Additionally, they said that available evidence suggests mortality from cat predation was likely to be substantial in all parts of the world where cats free-range.
Owned vs unowned
Researchers became more concerned of the mortality rate, both in the US and globally. They thought people would own more cats and there would be an increase in unowned cats’ populations.
They stated that although results suggested that owned cats have relatively less impact than unowned ones, that could still cause substantial mortality. A simple solution to reduce that is limiting or preventing outdoor access.
In this 2013 study, researchers faced challenges too. They didn’t have enough detail to find out which species and populations which are most vulnerable to cat predation.
Mortality estimates suggested that cats were likely causing population declines for some species in some regions. Endangered and threatened wildlife species on islands or localized mainland areas are the ones most susceptible to cat predation.
Threatened species that live near cat colonies, including managed TNR ones, are also at a high level of risk.
Similar to what Marra thought, the researchers suggested claims that TNR programs are effective to reduce wildlife mortality are false. Thus far, there were no peer-reviewed scientific studies to support those claims.
Keep ‘em inside
“Our estimates should alert policy makers and the general public about the large magnitude of wildlife mortality caused by free-ranging cats,” the researchers wrote.
So, simply put, keep your adorable fur babies/friends inside instead of letting them roam free. I personally keep mine indoors because I’m quite paranoid about diseases from ticks/fleas and harmful bacteria or fungus that can harm my baby cats.
If you want to give them outdoorsy experience, make catios or cat enclosures for them, or just take them for walks from time to time. Keeping them indoors will let the urban wildlife thrive, which is an advantage to us humans too.