Across the nation, cat colonies are becoming commonplace in wildlife refuges, national and state parks, and other public lands. Their presence creates an environmental and legal challenge for land managers. It can be a contentious and emotional dilemma as cat advocate groups mobilize to do what’s best for the cats, while wildlife and public land defenders struggle to do what’s best for wildlife, visitors and the public land. To understand this growing problem and find a solution, park managers need to understand not only the environmental and legal parameters, but also the human factor, the individuals and groups that are enmeshed in this dilemma.
The Human Factor
Joyce Girling, a retired assistant principal at Manchester Middle School, exercises by strolling along the trails in Rockwood Park located in Chesterfield, Virginia. She also plans a visit at least two weekends a month to feed the 20 cats that live in the park.
Girling, along with two others, manages to care for and feed the cats and practices a method known as TNR (trap, neuter and release). They trap the cats, bring them to a veterinarian for neutering or spaying and appropriate shots, and then release them back in the park.
Her compassion is obvious as she expresses the emotional side of caring for the cats. “We try to be as detached as we can,” says Girling. With the wild and feral cats that remain aloof, that detachment comes easy. “It’s the ones that are sweet and want you to love them. That’s where you get emotionally involved.”
Girling and her cohorts work diligently with the local SPCAs and the Richmond Animal League to find homes for the cats. She said they also work with the wild and feral cats, so they will be more readily adoptable.
With her teaching background, it’s no wonder that Girling addresses the problem with a dose of education. “Really what it comes down to is…we’ve got to educate people,” she says. “We’ve got to have commercials on TV. We’ve got to educate through schools and talk about what responsible ownership is all about. That education piece is significant.”
Girling seems willing to work with interested parties to find solutions for abandoned cats. But there are some things that are sacrosanct to her and most others who tend to these cats. “I don’t have a problem with compromise, but give me a better solution than euthanasia,” she states.
The Environmental Factor
Outdoor cats impose a heavy toll on the environment. Most obvious are the number and variety of wildlife they kill, such as birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.
Within the past 10 years, the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV), a nationally recognized wildlife veterinarian hospital near Waynesboro, Virginia, treated close to 3,000 wildlife species that were injured by outdoor cats, says Ed Clark Jr., the center’s president and founder.
Sadly, more than 70 percent of the small mammals delivered to the WCV because of cat attacks succumbed to their injuries. For birds, explains Clark, the mortality rate was more than 81 percent.
Outdoor cats exert other potential problems as well. “Feral cats have the potential to compete with native wildlife species like skunks, opossums, foxes and raccoons for smaller prey species,” says Lee Walker, outreach director for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Walker added that humans and wildlife can be infected with a variety of diseases and parasites from cats, such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, hookworms, feline immunodeficiency virus and feline infectious peritonitis.
The unfortunate fate of wallabies at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, Virginia, was caused by the spread of toxoplasmosis, says Sharon Quillen Adams, executive committee member of the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters. The disease was caused by a parasite that was transmitted through the feces of cats living in the zoo. The Virginia Pilot reported that since February 2014, most of the wallabies have died at the zoo, and the wallaby exhibit is now closed.
“I think it is a testament to the political problems we have,” says Adams in reference to the death of the wallabies. “There are pressures that are pushing against good management.”
Adams also emphasized the human toll through an incident that occurred in August 2014 in Osceola County, Florida. A young girl was bitten and scratched by what the local animal control believed to be feral cat. The cat was captured and tested positive for rabies, and the young girl had to endure rabies treatment.
The Legal Factor
In the legal arena, there may be more questions than there are answers. But park managers must grapple with local, state and federal laws and understand how they pertain to wildlife and domesticated animals.
When cat advocates release cats onto public lands, are they breaking the law? In referring to the Code of Virginia, Adams says, “Yes.”
The Code of Virginia states, “No person shall abandon or dump any animal.” It further defines abandonment as “to desert, forsake or absolutely give up an animal without having secured another owner or custodian for the animal or by failing to provide the elements of basic care as set forth in §3.2-6505 for a period of five consecutive days.”
Also, does releasing cats on public lands conflict with laws that protect wildlife species? More specifically, is it a federal offense if a cat released in a state park kills a mockingbird, which is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
Park managers must also consider the ramifications resulting from a park visitor bitten or scratched by a cat. Would the park be liable if a visitor contracted rabies from a cat living in the park?
Clark asks, “Why do we allow an animal that is known to carry an organism that is very, very dangerous to children and pregnant woman…why do we allow people to put those animals in places where children play and families congregate?”
Though cat advocates and land managers rarely agree on control methods, some do agree on the role of education in making the public aware of the problem, explaining the consequences and encouraging responsible cat ownership.
To that end, the American Bird Conservancy is producing a public service announcement encouraging cat owners to keep their pets indoors for the benefit of their cats and native wildlife. Parks and other land managers can conduct programs and create other media to educate the public and build support.
Legislation can also be an avenue to address the problem. Some suggest that the same laws governing dog owners should be applied to cat owners as well. Basically, they contend that cats should be under the control of their owners.
The right people can make a difference. For example, Adams has worked diligently with the local animal control bureau to save kittens born in the wild. Her foster program saved and provided homes for 85 percent of them. All the kittens that were adopted left sterilized and vaccinated. In some areas, cat refuges have been established to relieve the burden of stray cats on public land.
In the end, the ideal solution would eliminate cats from our public lands, find homes for existing cats living on public land and instill responsible cat ownership. Can this be achieved? Can cat advocate groups work with land managers?
Mark Battista is a Naturalist for Virginia’s Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation.