I read recently an interesting and somewhat depressing article in the November issue of Outside magazine about the feral cat population on the Hawaiian islands. Scientists have strong evidence linking the deaths of some endangered monk seals by toxoplasmosis to the feces of way too many stray cats. According to the article, cats are the only species that can transmit living toxo parasites in its feces to other species (this is why pregnant women are warned not to scoop the litter box). While many other species on the island may act as host for the toxo without showing any symptoms, for some reason the seals are falling prey to it. And they are already being impacted by other things such as climate change, adding insult to injury.
So what are they Hawaiian islanders to do? Feelings are mixed. Scientists and ecologists would like to reduce the number of wild felines through humane culling. Cat lovers, on the other hand, want to continue their trap, neuter, and release (TNR) programs, saying those practices keep cat colony populations in check. Yet according to the article, and other publications I have read, TNR is not successful there or just about anywhere else. The main reason… people continue to dump unwanted cats in places where they see other cats. So the colonies continue to grow even as fewer cats are having kittens.
As a cat parent and cat enthusiast myself, this article sparked many thoughts in my head. I can sympathize with the cat lovers… who would want to put down perfectly healthy and cute cats? Yet the environmentalist and bird lover in me sees the flip side as well… all those cats are not only inadvertently killing monk seals, but they are intentionally killing endangered birds across the islands and other places throughout the world. Cats are predators and not native to the Hawaiian islands or anywhere for that matter. They have been introduced into habitats by us. So shouldn’t we have a responsibility to deal with the aftermath of that domestication?
I worked on invasive species issues for many years. Any time I see a European house sparrow in my backyard I cringe. They bully the native birds and even kill ones like bluebirds, taking their nest boxes as their own. Yet it’s not the sparrow’s fault. They didn’t choose to come to the United States. It was people that brought them here. And people must come up with humane and effective solutions for all invasive species, lest we lose countless other species from our inaction.
In terms of the cats on the Hawaiian islands, they live in a relatively closed ecosystem, being surrounded on all sides by the Pacific Ocean. We could have a success story here. People could take action to protect the remaining endangered bird species, monk seals, and other animals falling prey. But it will require making some tough moves. Someone will need to convince the cat lovers that those other species are more important in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully many of those stray cats will find homes. Hopefully an effective public education campaign will teach people to spay/neuter their house cats, keep them indoors, and not dump them on the side of the road if they no longer want them, so the colonies can finally shrink in size. And failing all that, I hope people on both sides of the issue can sit down respectfully, with open ears and minds, and come to a solution that is not passion-based, but based on real science.
What do you think?