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Feral cats: Are they ruthless killers or down-on-their-luck homeless?

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Updated: March 21, 2013 6:20AM

EAST DUNDEE — Feral housecats. The familiar Felis domesticus kittycats who have left civilization behind and started living back in the wild, often in informal colonies.

Are they adorable pets just down on their luck — the Homeless Harrys of the pet world — deserving our every sympathy and help, as the people at Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin believe?

Or should we see them as vicious killers and despoilers of the environment, so threatening to endangered bird species that one legislator in New Zealand wants to ban all cats from that country?

To help settle this debate, the East Dundee-based Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation has commissioned a scientific study about the impact of feral cats on the ecology. The project is being supervised by Dr. Stanley Gehrt of The Ohio State University, the same wildlife biologist who two years ago studied the number, lifestyle and impact of coyotes in the Chicago area.

Gehrt could not be reached this week. But Charlie Potter, president of the McGraw Foundation, hints that the study is concluding that the impact of these wild cats is far more malevolent than that of the Chicago area’s bigger and more malevolent-looking, but far less numerous, coyotes.

When our beloved kitties go homeless, the same abilities to stalk shrewdly, climb trees and see through the night that we applauded in the living room make them a bird’s worst enemy.

Billions killed

“We have hundreds of thousands of feral cats now in Illinois. Sure, they might eat a barn mouse occasionally. But mostly they’re living on ground-nesting birds, especially pheasants and quails,” Potter said Sunday on his Chicago-based radio show “The Great Outdoors.”

Another study, written by biologists from the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was published this month in the journal Nature Communications. By reviewing and collating 21 smaller studies done recently, the authors concluded that cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds in the continental U.S. each year. That works out to about five to 12 birds for every American man, woman and child.

The study also concluded that from 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals — mainly mice, shrews, baby rabbits and voles — are killed by cats annually. This suggests that the wild cat’s main menu remains rodents. But not as many people are wringing their hands over the death of a few billion more mice. Historians believe that killing vermin was the main reason humans started keeping cats in the first place.

The Nature Communications study is part of a three-year Fish and Wildlife Service-funded effort to estimate the number of birds — especially members of endangered species — that are killed by predators, by chemicals and by collisions with wind generators and windows.

“Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic (manmade) mortality for U.S. birds and mammals,” the authors conclude. “Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.”

They estimated the U.S. now has 30 to 80 million “unowned” cats — about one for every four to 10 humans.

Bye, bye bobwhite

Locally, Potter blames an increasing number of feral cats for all but eliminating that one-time favorite of Illinois hunters, the bobwhite quail.

Potter said bobwhites used to be found in large numbers all over Illinois. He said Prairie State hunters shot twice as many of them as they shot pheasants, and one hunter could get 25 in a day. But now, he said, the bobwhite is almost impossible to find because of two changes: Rather than leaving brushy areas and undeveloped areas around their fields, farmers tend to plant crops from fence to fence. And more and more feral cats are roaming the countryside.

“There is nothing worse for a bobwhite quail than a cat somebody dumped out of their car,” Potter said. “Changing agricultural practices played a role. But mostly it has been predators. Bobwhite quail cannot thrive in an area without nesting cover, where they’re exposed to predators, especially raccoons and feral cats.”

Hawks and doves

How to solve the problem? Proposed solutions range from the New Zealanders’ drastic proposal to ban even housecats to capturing and either “putting to sleep” or adopting all feral cats.

At the other extreme lie the folks at Anderson Animal Shelter, whose approach could have been dictated by a four-footed, orange-furred lobbyist.

When feral cats gather around the shelter’s building along Route 31 in South Elgin, they find doghouse-like shelters where they can shield themselves from the winter wind. The shelter’s employees and volunteers even set out bowls of cat food for them to eat.

Anderson’s approach to the feral cat is that they are a tragic and endangered problem whose pain needs easing, not a threat to genuine wildlife.

It is an approach probably echoed by many cat lovers, including accused “cat hoarder” William Tinkler of Elgin, who was arrested last fall for keeping piles of dead cats in his van and keeping at least four live cats in his reportedly filth-strewn house along Villa Street.

Neighbors say Tinkler also fed and played with dozens of roaming or homeless cats in his backyard. He is scheduled to go to court Thursday to face charges of violating the Dead Animal Disposal Act and animal-cruelty laws.

Neighbors said some contagious respiratory disease seemed to be spreading through the many cats who hung around Tinkler’s yard. Potter argues that the spread of disease, possibly extending to pet cats and to wild animals, is another reason to cut down the feral-cat population as much as possible.

“I’m not really enough of an expert to say how much impact feral cats have on the environment. But I can’t imagine it can be too drastic,” said the shelter’s executive director, Jack Graff.

Graff said that if Anderson staffers find kittens born to feral cats, they will take in the kittens and try to find a human to adopt them. But once a feral cat has grown to adulthood and learned the tough ways of the world from its mother, it is better off left in the wild, he said.

Graff sees pet cats and feral cats as practically two different species.

“A feral cat is different from a cat that grew up in a home. It has become a wild animal. It’s very hard to get them to adapt to living in a house with humans again.”

Unfortunately, Graff added, the reverse also is true. When someone tires of their pet cat and dumps her off in farm country or a forest preserve, “they don’t do well,” he said. “They don’t have the skills to feed themselves. If they have been declawed, that’s a big handicap in either hunting or defending themselves against other animals.”

In between the pro-wildlife McGraw attitude and the pro-kitty animal-shelter approach lies the Humane Society of the United States. The society has long urged people to capture feral cats, neuter them, immunize them against diseases and return them to the wild.

That way, the society argues, the feral cat doesn’t end up unhappily imprisoned in a human home he doesn’t understand. Yet there is no need for a shelter like Anderson to either “put the cat to sleep” or find a human ready to adopt it in a world that already has more unwanted cats than people willing to take them.

Beyond that, the humane society argues, this approach actually could reduce the number of ferals and their impact on the bird world because the now-unable-to-reproduce released cats would continue to compete against their never-captured brethren for prey. Any female ferals who haven’t been spayed would likely become undernourished and less likely to have kittens.

Graff said Anderson Animal Shelter used to capture, spay/neuter and release ferals when it had its own veterinarian on staff, but the shelter no longer can afford that. “However, a lot of organizations do trap and release cats, and we would encourage people to do that,” Graff said.

Urged by the humane society and private groups such as Alley Cat Allies, some governmental bodies in places like Florida even license individuals or groups to work with colonies of feral cats on a trap/neuter/return basis.

Potter said that when the McGraw study is released, one conclusion will be that “the population of these cat colonies is transient,” with individual cats constantly leaving and joining each wild band. “The idea of licensing cat colonies assumes that we can vaccinate and neuter them. But the science is proving that this assumption is not true,” he argues.

The night stalker

Should a pet kitty be allowed to roam around outside, or perhaps even put outside all night like a comics-page cliche?

A 2003 study by the American Bird Conservancy concluded that only 35 percent of pet cats are kept exclusively indoors.

Graff believes there’s nothing wrong with that. He would leave it up to the preference of the owner — and the cat.

Going in and out of the house “is not a problem” so long as the cat has been spayed or neutered, so he’s not hooking up with other roaming cats to produce unwanted kittens, Graff said.

“But not all housecats want to go outside,” he said. “At home, I have one who’s always trying to sneak out. But the other has no interest in being anywhere but this safe, warm house.”

But, Potter notes, an outdoor cat is different from a raccoon, skunk or fox, especially if she is a pet allowed to roam just part of the day or night. She was not originally part of the northern Illinois ecological system. And that bowl of Friskies you leave for her in the kitchen or outside the back door gives her a human subsidy, an unfair advantage over her rival predators and her prey in the war for survival called nature.

“For those of you who have cats, keep them indoors,” Potter told his radio audience.

With no natural history as a part of Illinois wildlife and its fairly large size, felis domesticus also has few predators trying to eat it. But one other newcomer to Wild Illinois may offer some hope of evening things up. It’s the topic of Gehrt’s last research project for McGraw, the coyotes who have moved into our area by the hundreds from points west in recent decades.

Gehrt’s researchers found that coyotes are glad to eat cats — both house pets and feral cats — when they can find one.

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