Trap, Neuter, Release

Feral Cat Population Control & the Impact on Wildlife

A few times a year I spend a Sunday morning spaying and neutering feral cats at the behest of Street Cat Companions, a branch of the not-for-profit New Mexico Animal Friends. This is a dedicated bunch committed to controlling New Mexico’s growing population of stray cats. How can I say no? I get to connect with a rotating cadre of professional colleagues who also donate their skills to do good. We get paid with doughnuts, apples, and a round of applause. It sounds simple but it’s also controversial.

We cat lovers comprise a rather passionate subculture. The Nichol family wouldn’t trade our kitty for anything. We play and snuggle with him as though he were a little person in a furry suit but we know better. “Tony”, like all cats, domestic or feral, is an obligate predator. He’s genetically programmed to stalk and kill not just rodents but North America’s dwindling population of song birds and other wildlife.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Felis silvestris catus (domestic cats) are not native to our continent. They’re screwing up our increasingly fragile ecosystem.

Cats are not evil; they were adapted by evolution for what they do. And they aren’t dogs with short ears. Kittens with no exposure to gentle human handling during their first 5 weeks can be impossible to domesticate. Raised by mothers who fear humans feral kittens imprint on their leaders’ avoidance behaviors. Wild is all they will ever be. After sterilization they are released back to their home turf.  We are not practicing pet medicine but attempting damage control of a wild urban species.

A recent letter in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association noted that this issue “seems to pit cat lovers against wildlife conservationists.” Should we simply trap and euthanize feral cats? I’ve thought this through pretty carefully and I’ve made my peace with it. I dedicated 8 years of hard study in college followed by a long career to save lives. We veterinarians are just not hard-wired to eliminate healthy creatures.