Cities in Kansas have been adopting a new approach for dealing with feral cats: neutering and vaccinating them, and then allowing the felines to roam free.
That has birdwatchers worried.
"Feral cats can be incredibly destructive to bird populations," said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas. “It does concern some of our local Audubon chapters throughout the state and elsewhere in the country.”
Wildlife conservationists accuse local governments that have adopted trap-neuter-return policies of valuing an invasive species over native birds and small mammals that the cats like to hunt.
Advocates say it’s more humane, and that neutering will reduce feral cat populations as the animals die of natural causes.
Wichita has been debating adding its own trap-neuter-return policy, or TNR, for months.
In communities, including Salina, North Newton, and Topeka, that have switched to neutering, the practice has drastically lowered the number of felines euthanized in city shelters. Lawrence is launching its program in May.
Friends of Felines, a group that's been neutering and releasing feral cats in Wichita ad hoc for years, points to a reduction in euthanizations as proof the approach works.
Wichita euthanized more than 3,000 cats in 2013. Last year the number dropped to fewer than 1,000. Wichita police also credit freelance neutering for the reduction.
But with the animals having a lifespan of about 15 years, opponents of releasing the neutered felines back onto the streets say that’s still a lot of time for hunting.
"I see them sitting underneath my birdfeeder," said Tom Ewert, president of the Wichita Audubon Society. "I haven't agreed to having these feral cats running around outside."
Ewert is wary of being labeled a cat hater — he has his own indoor cat. But he says outdoor cats devastate local wildlife.
A 2013 study estimated that domestic cats kill up to four billion birds a year in the United States, though that figure has been disputed. Cats have also been blamed for the extinction of dozens of species worldwide, including some mammals and reptiles.
While sharing the concerns for wildlife, PETA has also raised red flags about the brutal lives feral cats endure, struggling for adequate food and shelter. The animal rights group argues that care for the cats should include regular veterinary check-ups.
In Kansas cities, volunteers bring theferal cats to a veterinarian to be neutered and vaccinated, usually at the expense of the volunteer. The animals’ ears are clipped to identify that they've been neutered and to avoid unnecessary subsequent captures. Then they are let go.
The ordinance Wichita is considering would require the cats also be assigned to a caregiver. That volunteer would be allowed to care for up to eight cats, including their own domesticated felines. They would also have to provide some food and outdoor shelter for the animals.
Topeka’s program — adopted in 2010 — doesn’t designate caretakers but cat lovers usually step in to provide some assistance.
"Almost every colony that we come across or that are referred to us has a caregiver," said Susan Schmitz, a founder of Topeka Community Cat Fix.
For friendly strays, adoption is one alternative that opponents of neuter-and-return suggest.
But a feral cats by definition aren’t socialized with people, making adoption impossible. For Ewert and other birders that leaves only euthanasia.
"That's a terrible thing to say but we have a cat overpopulation right now and what are you going to do?" he said.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.
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