They stalk our streets at night, killing indiscriminately. Silently stalking neighborhoods devouring pests, like rats, but also wreaking havoc on endangered mammals and songbirds. While they act as a scourge to small animal populations, their brethren sit contentedly purring on our laps, many of us entirely unaware of the devastation a free-roaming feline can cause local wildlife.
“There has been research showing that wildlife numbers are declining,” said Melissa Stolz from the Guelph Humane Society (GHS). “Cats are good predators on wildlife. So by leaving feral cats roaming, typically intact because if they’re fixed they are probably from a colony where someone has done a trap, neuter and release, and they are living in a general area. But by leaving them intact they are only going to have more kittens, and it’s just going to increase the population.”
Cats are extremely proficient hunters, and a have been listed as one of the top 100 worst invasive species. A study from the journal Nature Communications estimates that tens of billions of birds and mammals are killed annually by domestic cats in the United States, mostly by unowned cats. The unowned cat population in Canada is smaller than the States, but it is fair to say that they would have a proportionate effect on wildlife.
The GHS gets about five feral cats a month, a small portion of the thousands of cats taken in by the GHS. Generally these cats are adopted out as barn cats. Unfortunately, barn cats are generally still considered unowned for the purposes of population counts and hunt just as frequently as feral cats. Spaying and neutering barn cats is extremely important to control the population, but these animals will be hunting just as frequently as feral cats.
“For a cat that is going to be adopted into a home it’s a longer process,” said Stolz. For barn cats, the GHS keeps a list of people who have passed the requirements for adoption. “Whenever we get a barn cat, we can call somebody and get it lined up so that they can come pick up the barn cat as soon as possible.”
Accurate estimates for the number of unowned cats are difficult, but are generally around 60 to 100 million in North America. While most of those will be in the U.S., a sizeable chunk can be attributed to Canada. A recent study estimated there are around 10,000 unowned cats in Guelph.
“Obviously we want to provide support to individuals who have these feral cat communities,” said Megan Swan, an OSPCA agent who also works with animal control. “We want to make sure the feral cats aren’t sick or injured…. They aren’t owned by anyone, so they fit the definition, almost, as wildlife.”
The life of feral cats can be very difficult. Harsh winters, coyotes, vehicle collisions, disease and more all combine so that the life expectancy of feral cats is significantly shorter than house cats.