Dear EarthTalk: I understand that pet cats prey on lots of birds and other "neighborhood" wildlife, but isn't it cruel to force felines to live indoors only? And isn't human encroachment the real issue for bird populations, not a few opportunistic cats?--Jason Braunstein, Laos, NM
While it is true that habitat loss as a result of human encroachment is a primary threat to birds and wildlife of all kinds, outdoor cats are no doubt exacerbating the loss of biodiversity as their numbers swell and they carry on their instinctual business of hunting.
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Peter Marra estimates that outdoor cats in the United States, counting both pets and feral animals, kill up to 3.7 billion birds each year--along with up to 20 billion other small mammals. Researchers estimate that roughly 114 million cats live in the contiguous U.S., 84 million of them pets and the rest feral--and that as many as 70 percent of pet cats spend some time roaming outside and hunting.
"Cats are a nonnative species," reminds Marra, adding that they often target native species and can transform places that would normally harbor many young birds into "sinks that drain birds from neighboring populations." As a result of this ongoing predation, many environmentalists and animal lovers think cats should stay inside. "The big message is responsible pet ownership," Marra says. He acknowledges that feral cats may be the bigger problem, but pet cats still catch as many as two billion wild animals a year.
The non-profit American Humane Association reports that there are several ways to keep indoor cats happy even though they are restricted from chasing and hunting wildlife. Getting Fluffy a companion (another cat or even a dog)...