Prince Georges County Council Ignores Slaughter of Wildlife – Chooses Protection of Feral Cats

Ear-tipped Cat
Ear-tipped Cat

(Washington, D.C., November 21, 2012) American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the nation's leading bird conservation groups, has denounced a Prince George's County, Maryland “Ear-Tipped Cats” bill that was passed by the county Council yesterday. The bill will result in increased wildlife mortality at the hands of ever increasing numbers of free-roaming, predatory, ownerless cats. Despite the fact that opponents of the bill outnumbered supporters in both of the two hearings that were held, the bill – CB-41-2012 – passed by a 7:1 majority.

Ear-tipped cats are feral cats that have been trapped, neutered, and then re-released. The Prince George's County Bill, which was introduced by Council Member Mary Lehman, essentially requires that any ear-tipped cats collected by animal control officers be released as soon as possible back to the areas where they were captured.

In urging rejection of the bill, ABC conservation biologist and Prince Georges County resident Benjamin Skolnik said at one of the hearings that “Cat overpopulation is largely 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, kill hundreds of millions of wild birds and other animals each year in the U.S., including endangered species. Birds that nest or feed on the ground are especially vulnerable to cat attacks.”

Skolnik cited a peer-reviewed paper authored by Dr. Peter Marra, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. In his study, conducted in Takoma Park, Prince George's County, he attached radio transmitters to fledgling Gray Catbirds, a common 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 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.

“In addition to the dramatic effects domestic cats can have on bird populations in urban and suburban areas, TNR is also simply not humane to the cats or people,” Skolnik said. “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.”
For even the best run TNR colony, practitioners will admit that not all of the cats are trapped for vaccination, and the cat food left out for them attracts more cats. Colonies often become dumping grounds for unwanted pets, thus continuing the inhumane cycle. This is why feral cats have about one-third to one-fifth of the life span of indoor, owned cats. Perhaps that is why the National Association of Public Health Veterinarians, The Wildlife Society, and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have joined ABC in opposing TNR programs.

“Furthermore, an ear-tipped cat is simply not proof that it has been vaccinated. And even if vaccinated against a whole host of zoonotic diseases transmissible to humans, it is highly unlikely these cats receive the necessary booster shots to remain inoculated,” Skolnik testified.

Most troubling, there is nothing in the new Prince George's County regulation that says the cats brought in by animal control must be vaccinated before being re-released.

Skolnik also cautioned the Council that federal, state, and local governments have responsibilities to uphold the federal Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and must also carry out their paramount responsibility of protecting public health. Failing to do so can result in legal penalties and civil liability. There have also been numerous reports in the press of a young girl contracting rabies from a feral cat.  Transmission via feral cats is a particular public health concern as demonstrated by the large proportion of rabies treatment for human exposures associated with cats.  Each year between 30,000-38,000 people are estimated to receive rabies post-exposure vaccination due to a potential exposure.

ABC had suggested that Prince Georges County enact mandatory licensing programs, whereby the fees collected could fund programs to help find homes for the stray and abandoned pets, and 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 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,” Skolnik said.