I’m living next to a killer named Frankie. He’s black-and-white and sweet as cats go; he’s also a menace that nobody talks much about, though feral and free-roaming housecats like Frankie have become a tragic problem all over the world.
Every year in America, cats, many of them well-fed pets, kill about 12.3 billion mammals and 2.4 billion birds. When you open the door, your friendly furry feline transforms into a miniature terrorist. It’s as if outdoor domestic cats are an invasive species, predators that are pampered and subsidized by doting owners.
Feral cats are an even bigger problem. In the United States, there are some 60 million unwanted cats. No wonder: With a survival rate of 2.8 kittens per litter with continued breeding, two cats can become 3,822 cats in just four years.
Frankie belongs to my neighbors. We live in a small southern Idaho community, surrounded by sagebrush foothills and lots of wildlife. A marsh hosts red-winged blackbirds and assorted ducks. Deer wander past my window daily, as well as the occasional red fox, and quail and pheasant calls fill the air. Red-tailed, Swainson’s, sharp-shinned, and Cooper’s hawks all share the sky with a golden eagle, though not at the same time. The Cooper’s is a particular fixture; I occasionally see him dining on a finch but don’t begrudge him his meal. After all, he’s a native.
That’s where Frankie comes in. His owner opens the door for this well-fed, neutered cat and the carnage begins. First, he digs up my flowerbed to relieve himself, then he hunts.
He bags about a bird a day. I saw him snatch a finch last week; the following day a quail succumbed to his ambush. Now that it’s summer, the quail bring their fuzzy chicks to my yard, where I’ve scattered seeds for them. Last year, we had 36 chicks every day. But now the quail are afraid. I hear their alarm calls and always spot Frankie skulking in the bushes.
Of course, an easy solution exists for the house cat problem. Got a pet cat? Keep it in your house -- forever. The Humane Society says indoor cats live much longer and healthier lives than outdoor cats: 18–20 years, vs. 3–4 years. My indoor-only cat lived nearly 19 years. Outdoors, cats can be bitten by other cats, killed by vehicles or predators, infected by sick cats, stolen or simply lost. For all these reasons and more, animal welfare organizations urge all cat owners to keep their pets inside.
And what about being considerate or even neighborly? Frankie and friends know no property boundaries, yet their owners don’t seem to care. Most dog owners know it’s not right to let a dog poop in a neighbor’s yard, and that includes even a very small dog.
So before you open the door to let your cat out -- wait. Think about the wildlife your cat kills. Think about your neighbor’s yard. Get a litter box. Be responsible for your cat. You can’t solve the feral cat problem alone, but each of us can solve the problem of the cats we own. Let’s make it not OK to let your cat out so it runs loose.
Domestic animals by definition are not meant to run wild. We contain them behind fences or by other means, both for their protection and to promote civility. As fences cannot contain felines, a responsible cat owner keeps a cat in the house.
With the encouragement of my town council president, I’ve placed a letter on every doorstep in my neighborhood explaining why cats belong indoors, and informing cat owners that any cats on private property can be picked up and taken to the animal shelter. Frankie’s not the only hunter in the neighborhood: About 25 pet cats hunt in our marsh or other backyards.
Despite phone calls, notes on the door and requests from the town council, however, Frankie’s owners still let him out. So yesterday Frankie made his first trip to the animal shelter, purring in my lap. I admit I felt horrible doing this, but I also felt that his avian carnage must stop. His owners will now have to make the same hour-long drive that I did, plus pay about $40 to bail him out. I’m prepared to do this indefinitely so the wildlife here can live in peace. Today, as I type, six adult quail with perhaps 20 chicks are scurrying through the grass outside my window. Their feline stalker is away, at least for now.
Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a writer and editor for Pilot Getaways magazine and editor of The Flyline, a monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.