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Cat and bird feeder
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A Cat Tale

Reprinted from the 2005 Waterman and Hill-Traveller's Companion

Back in the 1980's a cat-owning zoology major in England retired to a small British seaside village to write his dissertation and thereby obtain his degree. His cat, as cats do, would often return in the morning with evidence of a successful hunt as a gift (and teaching aid) for her master. After several weeks of these "gifts", his curiosity aroused, he asked his neighbors in the small village to collect and save their cat's trophies as well. He collected them weekly for several months, analyzed the results and wrote a short paper on his findings.

He discovered that the 17 cats in his village were killing and retrieving a fairly substantial number of small creatures - mice, voles and birds - annually. When he extrapolated his findings to the whole of Britain he discovered that the five million pet cats with legal owners were killing at least 70 million small animals each year... 20 million of them birds. He suspected the numbers were significantly higher since his estimate did not include stray cats or the animals killed that the cats didn't show their owners. His paper ignited a firestorm of controversy among cat owners and a demand for more studies.

More recently researchers in the US have estimated that domestic and feral cats in Wisconsin alone kill 17 million small animals - which includes three and a half million birds - annually. When extrapolated to the country as a whole it's estimated that cats kill one billion creatures annually- 800 million small mammals and 200 million birds each year.

This is obviously a significant number of creatures; and just as obviously must be having a rather significant effect on our wild food chains. No doubt some tiny fraction of the victims of this onslaught are house mice which pose real health, economic and safety risks to humans - but unfortunately the cats are indiscriminate in their choice of victims. And the victims are not just the small animals they kill, but the hawks, owls, snakes and other animals up the food chain who rely on these animals for food.

A few years ago some friends of ours returned to this area and moved to a place in the country. The house was surrounded by old trees, an overgrown garden and grassy fields. In short order their two cats proceeded to capture and kill every lizard, snake, bird, vole and shrew, as well as a large assortment of small native rodents within a radius of half a mile. Their crowning achievement was destroying (and displaying for view) an entire colony of the beautiful Golden Mouse - an arboreal creature currently on Illinois' threatened species list.

Of course this slaughter isn't the fault of the cats. They're just doing what nature has outfitted them to do: hunt. The fault is ours for failing to foresee the effect of yet another alien species on our already overly stressed wildlife populations.

So if you're the owner of a cat, think long and hard about letting it roam the neighborhood. Keep it indoors, and not just for the wildlife's sake either. Studies have shown that cats kept indoors live much longer, healthier lives than those allowed to roam freely outside. Indoor cats live, on average, twice as long as their free roaming fellows. They're also far less likely to contract the host of new diseases that are claiming the lives of their more exposed, free ranging brethren, which makes them a lot cheaper (as far as vet bills go).

In short, keeping a cat indoors is just a better proposition for all concerned... especially the cat. And that, I am told, is the whole point of keeping one.


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