Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?


When I was 25, I lived in a tiny stone cabin surrounded by hayfield, corn, and gardens. One morning, a visiting niece found an adolescent cat in the outhouse. The cat appeared to be a stray, and since I could think of no reason to send her away, Juniper became a member of the family.

The honeymoon phase of our relationship was in full blush when kitty began delivering gifts in the form of tiny corpses. While some readers may consider small mammals vermin, I have always loved animals of all sizes. Most of the animals Juniper killed, meadow voles and shrews, were not the sorts of creatures that make nests in sweater drawers. Even the white-footed and deer mice, who might venture into houses, did not deserve the sort of death dispensed by a recreational killer -- the slow dispatch meted out by the typical Felis catus.

Like most cat owners, I tried to justify death wrought by Juniper. Death, I reasoned, is vital to the wonderful, terrible, organic process of life on this planet. Any creature killed by my cat would likely have been killed by something else soon, anyway. There is a difference, however, between cat predation and that of a native predator, aside from the relatively quick dispatch the latter provides. In healthy ecosystems, predator and prey populations remain in a dynamic balance. When there are many voles, there can be many foxes. When there are few voles, fox numbers decline. Voles can then rebound. Because our cats live independently of their prey species, cat numbers don’t decline when prey numbers do do. Thus, cats can continue to impact the population of even very uncommon prey species. If prey populations can’t rebound, the populations of other predators will also be depressed. Each vole or bird killed by cats is a meal that’s not available to a fox, weasel, hawk, or owl.

In a study conducted over five years by a research team from the University of Wisconsin, 60 house cats were radio collared. Their scat was analyzed, and all observed kills were documented. The study results indicated that the average cat kills up to 200 birds and mammals each year. A particularly talented cat may kill more than 1,000. A survey of households in Wisconsin found that an estimated 1.4 to 2 million cats reside in the state, resulting in rural densities of 30 to 60 per square mile. These cats would kill 6,000 to 12,00 native animals per year on each square mile. There are up to 104 cats per square mile in urban and suburban areas.

There is something in the nature of cats that defies us to restrict them in any way. We seem to have no problem confining other pets. Even humans must behave in ways that are socially acceptable or face a loss of liberty. If every time I went out I were gripped by a compulsion to torture small animals, I certainly hope someone would have the good sense to confine me.

Could there be a way, I wondered, to allow my cat to be outdoors but harmless? I tried bells on her collar, but it turns out that cats can learn to stalk their prey without ringing the bell, and even if it does ring, few animals associate the jingling of a bell with danger. Perhaps she could wear some pungent perfume that mice and birds would recognize as predator? Most birds have a poorly developed sense of smell. How about a visual warning, like one of those headbands with antenna and sparkly ribbons? But how would you keep such a thing on a cat that crawls through bushes? My most far-fetched idea was a micro-recorder that would continuously play threatening sounds, like cat yowlings or dog barkings. The fact that I would seriously think about such solutions reveals the depth of the conflict I felt. Even if I could implement any of these strategies, there would still be the problem of keeping Juniper from eating nestlings and other animals that were incapable of fleeing.

I had reached an impasse. I knew that every time I let my cat out I might doom some hapless creature to torture and death, and I knew what had to be done -- Juniper would be kept indoors. One cat’s liberty could not be valued more highly than the many lives of the slain. One cat’s freedom was of less importance than the integrity of the meadow and forest communities around my home.

Keeping cats indoors is no longer just for city people. A growing percentage of rural residents are choosing to keep their cats inside. These cats typically live much longer than free-range cats. Juniper lived for 16 years as a happy housecat. Meanwhile, chipmunks popped in and out of the stonewalls around my house. I didn’t need to worry about the cat. Phoebes and robins raised their broods near my doorways. I didn’t need to warn their fledglings to watch out for the cat. Meadow voles maintained their tunnels in the pasture, where they fed foxes, coyotes, and hawks, but never gave their lives to become doorstep decorations.

If you also have a much-loved cat whose liberty is the bane of neighborhood birds and mammals, I hope you will be inspired by my own struggle and muster the conviction to do the right thing. If you simply cannot bear to keep your cat indoors, consider constructing an outdoor enclosure, designed to exclude birds and small mammals, where your cat can enjoy fresh air and sunshine. There is plenty of information on the web to support cat owners ready to make the transition to keeping cats indoors. I’ll be pulling for you!

Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec,org.


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