Commentary: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Leashes

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A cat with its prey. Photo by Rob Schoorel.

A cat with its prey. Photo by Rob Schoorel.

Aldo Leopold wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds.” As ecologists and natural historians, this prophesy is realized in our perpetual awareness of the degraded and constructed world in which humans live. Leopold also suggested that an ecologist “must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Public dialogues can be tricky for scientists; most issues are complex, time is brief, and the use of jargon must be managed. But our research is supported by your tax dollars so it is our job to communicate what we know. More importantly, we feel that San Antonians, particularly those who read this digital newspaper, demonstrate an unusual ability to consider evidence and make decisions that improve their lives and the lives of their children. We are hopeful that, with greater awareness, biodiversity of urban areas can be maintained. We therefore offer here arguments for better policies and public control of free-roaming domesticated cats.

Houdini, an outdoor cat, lounges in the shade. Some researchers would rather cats stay indoors.  Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Houdini, an outdoor cat, lounges in the shade. Some researchers would rather cats stay indoors. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

We understand the love for these playful, soft, purring creatures. But it is for good reason that we do not love free-roaming, domesticated cats the same way that other humans do. We are consistently told that we will be skewered if we speak out on this subject; we approach it carefully in public lectures and more aggressively in our own courses, where solid evidence can be presented and discussed. But we are driven to speak up because of our keen awareness of the impact on animals that find themselves in cat-dominated, human-created environments and have no voice – or an infinite number of videos on YouTube. Our goal is to unpack the complexities of the “cat issue” and develop an appreciation for the intrinsic worth of the diversity of other beautiful creatures.

Domesticated, free-roaming cats are allowed the same, if not more, freedoms that humans experience, and their freedom impinges on the lives of other animals. Even when fully nourished, cats are highly motivated and capable predators and are responsible for widespread losses in urban and rural wildlife biodiversity. As a culture, we have long appreciated cats’ abilities as ratters; however, they are also indiscriminant hunters of small birds, lizards, mammals, and insects. Indeed, in a recently published meta-analysis (a study of many studies) researchers of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that free-roaming cats in the United States kill 1.3-4 billion birds and 6.3-22.3 billion mammals annually. Thus, while cat-lovers get to spend quality time with their favorite species, the rest of us are relegated to watch our beloved biodiversity dwindle and enjoy the remaining urban wildlife that is either just unusually common or unusually good at avoiding being eaten (e.g., non-native sparrows and starlings).

The estimated number of cat-caused deaths is staggering. Even the low-end estimates are alarming. For field ecologists, the meta-analysis confirms our observations of lack of biodiversity in urban areas. Their study also confirms more than 100 years of previous studies on the impact of free-roaming cats on islands. Islands are more susceptible to human-caused threats to wildlife, acting as “canaries in a coal mine” for conservation, and there are currently 83 campaigns globally to eradicate cats from islands. This is particularly important for islands that have been designated for conservation or where ecotourism drives the economy; the Galapagos Island system is, of course, a critically important location for cat control. And the success stories abound. For example, following cat eradication in 2013, the Ascension frigate bird returned to nest on Ascension Island for the first time in 150 years.

Ascension Island frigate bird. Photo by Ben Tullis via Flickr.

Ascension Island frigate bird. Photo by Ben Tullis via Flickr.

Domesticated cats are also themselves exposed to dangers when free-roaming. The two primary sources of danger are other free-roaming cats and disease. Felids, the family of cats, evolved to live mostly solitary lives; they are lie and wait predators, and defend territory for mates and food resources. Therefore, their attacks on other cats are to be expected. Also, when cats roam freely and live in high density managed colonies they are more likely to be exposed to feline AIDS, rabies, cat scratch fever, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus among others. Furthermore, parasites proliferate in feral cat colonies, including worms that extract essential nutrients and calories from cats, as well as ectoparasites, such as fleas, that cause unrelenting irritation. In addition, free-roaming cats are often injured by dogs or hit by cars. In sum, the vast majority of free roaming cats experience high levels of trauma, exist in subpar health conditions, and experience painful death from injury, infection, and malnutrition.

We face a significant problem in this country in managing free roaming cats. The problem starts when people dump pet cats that they no longer want. The standard reaction to homeless cat “dumping” is implementation of spay-neuter-return (SNR) programs and feeding stations. When SNR was first instituted across the country it seemed like a good solution. The logic is that cats in these populations, assuming that all individuals are spayed or neutered, would not reproduce, maintain their territories and, when they died, eventually, the population would disappear. Managed colonies, where cats are regularly fed and provided with basic medical care, are now widespread, even in parks (e.g., Brackenridge Park). An unintended consequence is that cats that have been “fixed” now lack the circulating hormones that cause territorial behavior and are unnaturally tolerant of other cats in their territory. This means that “fixed” cats are comfortable living in higher densities, requiring higher levels of food provisioning, and causing even greater impact to the local wild animal populations.

We have seen no reasonable discussion by those who maintain colonies regarding consideration for other species or a long-term plan to reduce cat numbers. Why would they? These are essentially low maintenance pets. San Antonio has unusually large cat populations. This we attribute to our mild, and growing milder, South Texas climate and consistent failings of public policy. To make matters worse, the existence of managed colonies, where people can dump cats knowing that they will be cared for, facilitates an “easy way out” for pet owners who face hard decisions about unwanted pets. We suspect that managed colonies only perpetuate the problem of cat “dumping” by making it so easy, and allow the general public and policy makers to continue avoiding the problem.

We are reluctant to take the City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) to task. It is not the fault of the of this organization that they are underfunded and under severe scrutiny from the public, who requires them to, in essence, do its dirty work. Noteworthy is that the ACS website highlights a need for animal “care” rather than “control” and this is clearly, and wisely, by design. The City may begin by discouraging feeding stations (on the website they are currently “encouraged”). In addition, while we were unable to confirm this through ASC, we understand that free-roaming cats are often collected by the City, “fixed,” and returned to the collection site. Again, we are sensitive to the fact that the City facilities are teaming with unadopted pets but returning them to neighborhoods is not the answer.

San Antonio has set terrific examples of sustainable practices in bicycle policies, public transportation, water use, and tree protection.  We could also provide regional and national leadership on free-roaming cat management in semi-arid/sub-tropical climates. But, because this is a perilous topic for politicians, ultimately, we as a public must commit to making animal control a priority on both private and public properties. To begin, we need to engage in and facilitate rational, evidence-based dialogues to identify reasonable alternatives. Policies aimed at reducing populations of cats may seem inhumane, but doing nothing means that other animals are mutilated and killed. And since we generally do not see these predatory and torturous acts, we allow ourselves a comfortable cognitive dissonance in our complicity.

Creative alternatives to addressing the cat problem have emerged. At the very least, cats should be outfitted with anti-predation bibs, or the like. Here in San Antonio, the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas Board (for which K. Lyons serves as president), has worked to negotiate restricted covenants with developers of apartment complexes around our Natural Areas that require that all cats be walked on leash and disallow any feeding stations or managed colonies. Restrictions such as these have been adopted by cities such as Madison, WI, where all cats must be on a leash or picked up by city authorities. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends not only that “owned cats be kept indoors, in an outdoor enclosure, or on an attended l­­­eash” but also recommends “prohibiting public feeding of intact free-roaming abandoned and feral cats” and “preventing establishment of ­­managed cat colonies in wildlife-sensitive ecosystems.” We think that this policy is wise; however, urban areas could be rich wildlife ecosystems for everyone if we adopted policies that were more responsible for managing feral cat populations, “intact” or not.

People tell us, of course, that cats don’t like to be walked on leashes. Neither do dogs, but they get used to it. Think of it this way: if cats were a danger to us and our children in the way that dogs can be, would we allow them to roam freely? When dogs bite humans we generally do something about it, beyond just chucking rocks at them and hoping for the best. So, why do we give cats more off-leash rights than dogs? This is because we are anthropocentric and cats do not pose a threat to humans in the way that dogs do. In the same way we fear dogs, small lizards, birds, mammals, and insects fear cats.

Humans have created this problem and, as a result, we have lost millions of wild animals. As we face ethical decisions about maintaining cat colonies, we must include in the discussion the ethics of our decision to allow so many animals to suffer at the paws of these human-introduced, artificially-selected predators. It is easy for us to assign names, and thus worth, to the cats, but we feel very strongly that the ethics of animal care extends beyond the cats to include the newly hatched baby birds begging loudly for an extra worm in the tree, the lizards doing pushups on the branch, and the wild rodents scurrying to find enough food to supply its larder. We must afford the same rights and protection to other animals in our urban landscape or continue to live in ever-homogenizing ecosystems that diminish us mentally and physically. We need a city that celebrates all biodiversity.


This story was written by four Trinity University professors and a version originally appeared in the Trintonian. Minor edits have been made to conform to the Rivard Report stylebook.

 Top image: A cat with its prey. Photo by Rob Schoorel. 

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Animal Care Services Reaches “No Kill” Milestone

The Road to Making San Antonio No-Kill

San Antonio Pets Alive’s Difficult Path Forward

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9 thoughts on “Commentary: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Leashes

  1. Bravo for tackling this delicate issue. Nothing gets people riled up faster on my neighborhood’s FB page than someone suggesting that we have too many feral cats in the area.

  2. “We have seen no reasonable discussion by those who maintain colonies regarding consideration for other species or a long-term plan to reduce cat numbers. ”

    The writers of this article have not talked to enough people in the community. I maintain a cat colony of three, and I know many others that do as well. I spent my own time and money to trap these feral cats, spay all three of them, and released them back into my yard. They will not produce more cats, and that is the goal. Their population will die out naturally in a humane way that allows them to have a life. If our city would spay and neuter their cats and dogs we would not have an overpopulation problem. Suggesting we (the people that maintain humane, fixed, dewormed and flea-free colonies) have “no reasonable…long-term plan to reduce cat numbers” is kind of insulting and incredibly out of touch. Reducing the number of stray and feral cats is EXACTLY what we want. We understand the implications over overpopulation, and we know this situation was created by people and not the cats or the dogs. To assume we are unreasonable people without a plan is a very incorrect assumption.

    • Please read the authors’ quote in context. They are maintaining that this “plan” (the spay and release plan) has backfired; in effect, it has caused these cats to be accommodating toward OTHER feral cats who are still intact, thereby increasing the feral cat population.

      You didn’t address the consideration for other species. May I ask what steps you have taken to reduce predation by your cat colony, keeping in mind that feeding them does not inhibit their natural predatory drive?

  3. I see that it took four PhD’s to state a well know conundrum, yet not offer any real solutions to the current feral cat situation at all. Humph – I’m betting you’re all “dog owners”? LOL
    I was an intact Tom kicked to the curb when my owner moved away. My caretaker had me TNR’d with help from the Cannoli fund and was also helping out 2 other feral cats when I came along. I slept behind her trash bins for a week…I wasn’t feral – just afraid…and hungry. But I couldn’t catch a bird if I wanted to – how do you even eat those things? Lizards? I think the bluejay couple that comes to steal food from the ferals catch more than all of us combined. They also steal eggs from some of the other birds around here. I think cats are getting a bum wrap personally. The redbirds happen to agree with me BTW. And the crows laugh at us all – we’re all a little afraid of the crows actually.
    My caretaker wasn’t in the market for a cat – much less three…I heard her say that she was a “dog person” and “what the hell do I know about cats?”. But she just couldn’t stand by and watch us deteriorate. I’ve since been adopted by my caretaker – she couldn’t resist my charms or my wit. ;-). She still feeds the ferals but I’m the only one that can come into the house.
    I guess the point to my story is that I had a human before but they didn’t neuter me and then they left me. I have no idea how many kids I have – when my caretaker took me in, I was 6 years old. Can you even do that math? So how do you stop stupid humans from having unaltered pets?
    TNR is the best solution that is on the table at this point. Solutions cost money and if people don’t have easy access to free spay and neuter programs , the problem is perpetual. ACS isn’t the answer – they can barely keep their head above water as it is. Education would help – I believe that’s your field of expertise nest-ce pas?
    I’ve got loads of opinions on this matter – feel free to call anytime. 😉

  4. I also feel the authors are out of touch.

    Do they really think that the residents who currently allow their unaltered pets to roam free are miraculously going to pay attention to a new code and take their cats for walks on leashes? As for the punishment suggested, even if there was a cat leash law, ACS could not possibly catch all the free roaming cats in San Antonio. Sometimes it takes a couple of hours or repeated attempts over days to catch a single cat. We need the current code enforced. We do not need to enact unenforceable laws.

    And “Eradicating” animals might work on an island but public areas in San Antonio are not isolated islands. Euthanizing is not going to yield the same long term results . San Antonio has “been there, done that. ”

    With regard to stopping the feeding. This seems like a “do nothing” suggestion. Is the idea to let them go unaltered and force them to forage through garbage or hunt wildlife until they eventually die of starvation?

    Taking responsible colony caretakers who are currently sterilizing and providing vet care out of the equation seems like a big step in the wrong direction – why hamper people who are voluntarily spending their time and resources neutering free roaming animals?

    Recent studies state that for TNR to be effective, not only do a large percentage of cats in the area need to be trapped but also that trapping efforts must continue as new cats appear. If you tell a caretaker they cannot feed you are taking away the very tool they use to trap. If you think people are going to spend hours hoping a cat will randomly appear and then expect them to take it in to be killed, well, I just don’t think you will find enough of those type of people volunteering to make that an effective solution.

    We need more volunteers focusing on specific areas in a systematic manner. We need to support the caretakers so that trapping continues concurrently with aggressive enforcement of existing codes.

    It is counterproductive to insult volunteers and treat them like villains dissuading them from continuing their efforts. We need more volunteers not fewer. We should all focus our frustration on the negligent pet owners who allow their unaltered pets to roam free and who illegally breed and sell and support the people working towards a solution.

    If ACS doesn’t have the resources to enforce, the city needs to pushed to increase funding so that ACS is able to do their job.

    Stop the inflow of animals by punishing illegal breeders and continue efforts to sterilize and monitor the existing population.

  5. So, we’re new to this city, and new to the front lines of this issue. I think I can safely say neither my wife or myself have lived in a place so overflowing with stray domesticated animals. We moved into an alley. Then go figure, an alley cat recently birthed her litter of 5, that I discovered a day old, in a pile of construction debris that I was loading my into the truck to take to the dump. I left them alone and she came back and moved all but one of them. We couldn’t just watch it stumble around our back yard ’til it starved. So, we brought it in to clean off the fleas and care for it while we wait ’til it’s of age to get it fixed. Then, we discovered the mama and the other kittens didn’t move far, they just moved under our shed. So, the only plan that makes any sense for us is to trap the lot of them and take them all to get fixed. Then, release them back to the alley where we’ll put a little food out regularly, and they can hunt varmint and hopefully waste many mating attempts. What’s our alternative? Do nothing and let them hunt even more animals and successfully reproduce? Put bibs on all the cats that come through the alley and continually increase our budget for feeding all these feline refugees? Build a giant cat cage and just keep chucking them in? This article brings up good points, but is a little aggrandizing to imply that solving the ‘cat issue’ is some major step in undoing the effects of human interference on nature. Meanwhile, it doesn’t offer any meaningful alternatives, short of bibs, or perhaps forced feline adoption? This piece really comes off as academia self-righteously lecturing the inner-city people who are trying to do something to improve the livability of your downtown. Instead of wasting so much time and study analyzing and dissecting the obvious weaknesses of the current strategies, please offer urban societies some real help by determining a real solution. The utopia this article hints at where nature is virtually undisturbed by human development is not at all possible and never will be. Human progress is a “natural” selection force, not an “artificial” one. You can’t have the cake of a modern, technologically advanced, “anthropocentric” society, and eat it too with unrealistic requirements of zero impact to everything else in nature.

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