Harrop: Cats are hunters; keep them indoors, away from birds

Even when well-fed, cats can’t fight their drive to hunt. That’s threatening species of birds.

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

Many cat lovers argue that it is cruel to make felines stay indoors. I’m in the opposite camp. We say that letting the kitties outside is cruel; and not just because coyotes and speeding cars threaten them. It’s because cats kill birds, chipmunks and other small mammals in shocking numbers.

This is not a new tension. In 1949 then-Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson vetoed a bill titled “An Act to Provide Protection to Insectivorous Birds by Restraining Cats.” Stevenson quipped that “to escort a cat abroad on a leash is against the nature of the cat.”

Look, I understand the affection for cats. I grew up with them. A favorite was Gata, a stray who seamlessly moved in with us and had outdoor roaming rights. At night, Gata would jump onto one of our beds, cuddle and purr.

Another memory of Gata, though, is of her prowling around the garden, looking for prey. We used to call her “the fearless hunter,” thinking, at the time, that this was cute.

It is definitely the nature of cats to stalk and kill birds. But when cats are inside and birds are outside, each species has its own lane. Everyone lives.

In this country, about 81 percent of pet cats are kept indoors, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. They’re not a problem. It’s the 19 percent that are out massacring birds, added to the untold numbers of feral cats.

Biologists tell the story of Tibbles, a pet cat taken to New Zealand in 1894. She is said to have single-handedly hunted a vulnerable bird species to extinction.

In Britain, only 26 percent of cat owners keep their felines inside. A pro-cat group called Cats Protection advises bringing cats indoors at night and feeding them healthy diets to deter their predatory behavior.

The idea that providing gourmet meals for a cat will turn off their urge to hunt is highly questionable. Gata adored the liver patties that my mother cooked specifically for her. (The patties were individually wrapped and frozen so that Gata could get one every morning.)

Nonetheless, Gata one day came back into the house with a bird in her mouth. She dropped it at my mother’s feet and looked up to her for thanks, which she didn’t get.

Face it. Cats are predators. The most pampered feline is out for the hunt.

I’ve been writing about politics for quite some time, but I’ve rarely come across a more hostile audience than when I served on a panel arguing for a ban on organized feral cat colonies that cared for the cats but didn’t fence them in. Their defenders, all in their cat T-shirts, made for a fierce crowd.

The director of the Polish Academy of Sciences was surprised at the blowback when he labeled cats an “alien invasive species.” Wojciech Solarz explained that he wasn’t calling for cats to be euthanized. He was noting that domestic cats kill large numbers of birds and other mammals, thus harming biodiversity.

Birds are a passion. I’ve planted native trees and shrubs with berries to keep them coming around. I also maintain a clean birdbath that is very popular on hot days. But now and then, I spot a neighbor’s cat slinking behind the leaves. Recently, a cat was seen partly obscured by vegetation hanging over the birdbath, ready to pounce. Of course, I moved the birdbath and took shears to nearby branches.

You need a mouser out in the barn? OK. But understand that cats, whether workers or just companions, are responsible for the extermination of entire bird species.

Your sweet little kitty is a killing machine. Keep her indoors.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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