The outdoor cat: neighborhood mascot or threat?

Zeke, a short-haired white and gray cat with a penchant for knocking down rats, is known in his Boston neighborhood as a fearless prowler.

Once, a neighbor called her landlady, Tricia Brennan, sounding slightly panicked.

“‘Zeke is in the back looking like he’s upsetting a raccoon,'” the neighbor said, according to Ms Brennan, a Unitarian Universalist minister.

“‘What do I do?'”

The confrontation ended when the neighbor scared the two creatures away with a broom, but the story only cemented the legend of Zeke. It was also a reminder that cats are descendants of the Near Eastern wildcat, a fierce solitary hunter.

You’ve seen them there – well-fed cats, sometimes with collars, stalking the streets like they own them or slumping down on a hot sidewalk to bask in the sun.

Cat lovers find them charming. Wildlife conservationists and bird lovers see furry killers and blame them for declining bird populations and the deaths of countless voles, chipmunks and other small animals.

How you feel about outdoor cats may also depend on where in the world you are. In the United States, about 81% of domestic cats are kept indoors, according to a 2021 population study of pet cats. But elsewhere it can be much more common to let them roam. In Denmark, only 17% of cats are strictly indoor pets, according to the same study. In Turkey, it is so common for feral cats to freely enter and leave cafes, restaurants and markets that a documentary has been made about the phenomenon. In Poland, they have recently been labeled as “invasive alien species”.

And in Britain, where the 2021 study found 74% of cat owners let their felines roam outside, many cat charities are advising pet owners on the best ways to keep cats safe outside. The idea might shock their American counterparts, who often refuse to adopt cats to people who want to keep their pets outdoors.

“We’ve always done it this way,” said Nicky Trevorrow, feline behaviorist at Cats Protection in Britain, who encourages owners to bring cats in at night and feed them high-quality diets to deter predatory behavior.

“As a behaviorist,” Ms. Trevorrow said, “I have to say I’m in the camp of giving cats space to breathe and be outside.”

But should cats have so much freedom?

For much of the 20th century, most cats stayed outdoors, said David Grimm, author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs” and associate editor of Science.

The invention of cat litter in 1947 made indoor cats more acceptable.

“But even then, people considered cats the least domesticated animal,” Grimm said. “And nobody wants to clean a litter box.”

In 1949, the Illinois General Assembly passed the “Cat Bill”, a measure to protect birds, which would have fined people who left their cats outdoors. Governor Adlai Stevenson vetoed the bill.

“It is in the nature of cats to do a number of unescorted roamings,” he said in a letter to lawmakers. “In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control cat crime.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s and early 1990s that more Americans began bringing their cats indoors, as conservationists warned of declining cat populations. birds and veterinarians have warned that an outdoor cat is more prone to disease, parasites and infection, and may be vulnerable to attack. large predators like coyotes and hawks, or high-speed cars.

But many owners have also felt conflicted about keeping a curious and restless creature indoors, said Mr Grimm, who has trained his own cats to walk on a leash when outdoors. .

Keeping them inside “didn’t feel right to me,” he said. “Just like I wouldn’t keep my kids inside all day. We can only take a limited number of animals from them.

Mrs. Brennan, Zeke’s owner, initially tried to keep him indoors. But he pinched her heels, tugged at Ms Brennan’s hair and jumped up so much that her teenage daughter locked herself in her bedroom.

‘It’s a tough peace you make,’ said Ms Brennan, 65, ‘having an outdoor chat’.

Wildlife scholars often tell the story of Tibbles, a cat that traveled with its owner to New Zealand in 1894.

The pair settled on Stephens Island, where a type of small, flightless bird abounded.

But when Tibbles arrived, she single-handedly hunted the birds to extinction, conservationists claimed.

Where cats were introduced, they decimated native creatures, according to a 2011 study by biologists.

“I’m convinced this is a pretty devastating invasive species,” said Jason Luscier, associate professor of biology at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY. He helped develop an app, called “Cat Tracker”, to get a more accurate reading on the number of outdoor cats around the world.

Professor Luscier, who stressed that he loves cats (“they’re super cuddly”), said it’s colonies of feral cats, which multiply easily and can overwhelm an ecosystem, that pose the greatest threat to birds and other wildlife, not outdoor pets that come in at night and get regular meals.

Ms Trevorrow, a behaviorist in Britain, said people often fail to look at the bigger threats facing birds, such as habitat loss and the commercial use of insect-killing pesticides, the natural prey of birds.

“I just feel like cats are being scapegoated,” Ms Trevorrow said.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain said the decline in bird populations was mainly due to man-made issues such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.

While there is evidence that cats can kill up to 27 million birds a year in Britain, “there is also evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly garden birds”, says Anna Feeney, spokesperson for the organization.

“Cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations,” she said in an email.

Ms Trevorrow has written guides for cat owners who want to keep their pets outdoors and maintain a garden that will attract birds and other pollinators.

“There is a way to have both without carnage,” Ms Trevorrow said.

Still, the best way to keep your cat – and wildlife – safe is to put it on a leash, keep it in a fenced area, or build a “catio” that will allow it to play outside without being exposed to the elements. , said Dr. José Arce, veterinarian and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Not all cats like wide open spaces.

Kelly Goshe said two of the three cats in her family, Catson and Puff, are determined prowlers. They roam around their patio and backyard in suburban Cleveland, under the watchful eye of his children, Sylvia, 9; Corinne, 7 years old; and Wesley, 4.

The cats gave them little choice, she says. Catson “will do anything to get out,” Sylvia said.

Puff figured out how to open the sliding door with her paws, she said.

But Luna, Puff’s sister, is terrified of going out.

“We left her standing by the screen door,” Ms Goshe said. “She’ll just stare at him and run away.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.