Prince George's Bill Will Increase Wildlife Mortality In County, Says Bird Conservation Group

Domestic cat with bird, Creative Commons
Domestic cat eating a bird, Creative Commons

(Washington, D.C., July 23, 2012) American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the nation's leading bird conservation groups, will testify that an “Ear-Tipped Cats” bill under consideration in Prince George's County, Maryland will result in increased wildlife mortality at the hands of ever increasing numbers of free-roaming, predatory, ownerless cats.

Ear-tipped cats are feral cats that are supposed to have been vaccinated for diseases such as rabies. The proposed Prince George's County Bill — CB-41-2012 — will be discussed at a public hearing on Tuesday at 10:00am. The bill, introduced by Council Member Mary Lehman, would essentially require that any ear-tipped cats collected by animal control officers be released as soon as possible back to the areas where they were captured.

“It has been well documented that free roaming or feral cats, regardless of whether they are ear-tipped, pose a serious threat to birds and other wildlife,” said Darin Schroder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy at ABC.” Furthermore, an ear-tipped cat is simply not proof that it has been vaccinated; it may only have been spayed or neutered. And even if vaccinated against when it was first trapped and ear-tipped, there is no way of knowing whether it has subsequently received the necessary booster shots to remain inoculated.”

Schroeder says cat overpopulation is a human-caused tragedy that affects the health and well-being of cats, our native wildlife, and the public. Numerous peer-reviewed, published, scientific studies have shown that outdoor cats, even well-fed ones with owners, kill hundreds of millions of wild birds and other animals each year in the United States, including endangered species. Birds that nest or feed on the ground are especially vulnerable to cat attacks.

One of those studies was conducted in Prince George's County by Dr. Peter Marra, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He attached radio transmitters to fledgling Gray Catbirds, a native bird species, tracking the factors that led to their mortality or survival. He found that predators were responsible for nearly 80 percent of the bird deaths, and that nearly half of those predators were domestic cats. In areas with fewer cats, the fledglings had a survival rate of roughly 50 percent, while only roughly 20 percent survived in areas with more cats.

Schroeder points out that free-roaming cats are in constant danger of being hit by cars, contracting diseases and parasites, or being attacked by other animals or people. Cats can transmit diseases such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, and cat scratch fever to humans. In fact, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared that cats are the top carrier of rabies in domestic animals. As a result, feral cats have about one-third to one-fifth of the lifespan of indoor, owned cats.

“Federal, state, and local governments have responsibilities to uphold the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and must also carry out their paramount responsibility of protecting public's health,” said Schroeder. “Failing to do so can result in legal penalties and civil liability.”

Rabies transmission via feral cats is a particular public health concern. This is demonstrated by the large number of post-exposure rabies treatments that have had to be administered following human-cat interactions. Between 30,000 and 38,000 people are estimated to receive rabies post-exposure treatment each year due to potential exposure.

ABC suggests that, instead of passing CB-41-202, Prince George's County enact mandatory licensing programs, whereby the fees collected can fund programs to help find homes for the stray and abandoned pets, and to educate pet owners about keeping their cats indoors.

Through its Cats Indoors Campaign, ABC and its many partners encourage people to keep their cats indoors, train them to go outside on a harness and leash, or build outdoor cat enclosures. Cats should be spayed or neutered before they can produce an unwanted litter, and should never be abandoned. Abandoning cats is illegal in many areas, is extremely cruel to cats, and is detrimental to birds and other wildlife. Further, the sanctioning of cat colonies by local officials only serves to encourage cat owners to dump more unwanted cats at these sites.

"As a society we do not expect to solve dog overpopulation problems by simply turning unwanted dogs loose onto the streets; the same should be true for cats. Ensuring responsible pet ownership is at the core of any long-term solution to the cat overpopulation problem," Schroeder says.