For the Birds Radio Program: Proposal for Hunters to Shoot Cats
This week, a LaCrosse, Wisconsin, resident proposed that the Wisconsin DNR permit hunters with a small game license to shoot free-roaming domestic cats as an “unprotected invasive species.” There is obviously some support for this from bird-lovers, because cats in Wisconsin alone kill as many as 219 million birds every year. One of the top priorities of most bird conservation organizations is to encourage people to keep their cats indoors, and it’s certainly true that if people think someone might shoot their cat, they’re more likely to keep it indoors. It’s also true that cats left outdoors have harsh lives. The scraggliest, most unhealthy cats I’ve ever seen eked out a living on Miami Beach, where the weather is pleasant and many residents take pity and feed them, but without regular veterinary attention and with the many territorial fights they get into, their fur is matted and dull, their teeth bad, and their bellies bloated with worms and other parasites. For many of them, shooting would put an end to a miserable existence. A season on cats would seem to make at least as much sense as a season on, say, Mourning Doves. It’s certainly an issue that deserves some consideration.
Nevertheless, something about it troubles me. I think this is because cats seem to arouse the worst in some people, eliciting some of the cruelest behaviors people are capable of. I adopted one of my cats after finding her starving at Stoney Point several years ago when I was birding there. The poor thing had quite clearly been abused by people—it took her literally years before she could bear to be in the same room with men or teenaged boys, and she’d crouch and flee at the slightest sound even after she grew to trust us. I’m afraid that giving people a license to kill cats may somehow lead a few bad apples to treat cats even worse than they already do.
And such a proposal would do nothing to alleviate cat problems in municipalities with ordinances against discharging firearms. Of course, cats in rural areas are the ones that are most devastating to bird populations, and allowing hunters to shoot them might help curb the problem. I just hope this wouldn’t create more problems than it solved.
That said, what DO we do about the cat situation? Duluth passed a cat leash ordinance several years ago, but many people don’t even know about it, and others ignore it. That’s certainly an important first step, but without education and strict enforcement, the ordinance makes little difference in some neighborhoods. But demanding that cats with owners stay inside solves only part of the problem, because a great many cats are feral, with no one taking responsibility for their care or their actions. Organized groups that oppose cruelty to cats really bear some responsibility to prevent the damage that cats do.
The cat problem facing birds is vexing. I hope we can come up with a solution that is humane to the cats and protective of birds. Sadly, in a period when people are so polarized about just about every issue, I have no confidence whatsoever that we’ll ever arrive at a kind and fair-minded answer to this serious environmental issue.