Cape May New Jersey is one of the world's great birding spots, somewhere that has been long on my list of places I hope to visit some day. It is no longer on that list, as the city has shown that it cares little for the protection of birds, the same birds that draw thousands of visitors there every year. It has, contrary to a management plan by the US Fish and Wildlife Service designed to protect delicate species such as the Piping Plover, decided to retain a Trap Neuter Release (TNR) program for feral cats.
I should point out at the start that I am not anti-cat, I'm rather ambivalent towards them really. I am however very much anti-outdoor cat. Outdoor cats, be they feral, pets allowed to roam, or "barn" cats, are essentially an invasive species. And like most invasive species they have a negative impact on native species, in this case birds and small mammals. Cats are very efficient predators, and several studies have shown the impact that they have on bird populations. In extreme situations, usually island ecologies, they can have a devastating effect on bird populations.
The solution, is rather simple actually, if you have a pet cat keep it inside, it is the responsible thing to do. It isn't cruel, quite the opposite, cats will lead healthier safer lives as indoor cats. The situation gets muddier because, unfortunately not all cats are pets. Unwanted cats get released outdoors, people's pets wander away and stay away, feral cats begin feral cat populations. Sometime ago someone hit upon the idea of the Trap Neuter Release program of managing feral cats. Feral cats are trapped, examined (and in some cases destroyed if they are carrying certain diseases) and neutered, then released back to live out their lives. The goal is that the populations eventually disappears, being unable to reproduce and all.
It doesn't work, on a number of levels. Certainly from a wildlife management point of view, birds and small mammals continue to be killed. Populations, while in many cases lower, seem to reach some sort of equilibrium. Not all cats get trapped, ensuring there is still a breeding populations, peoples pets left to their own devices outside still wander away, and little Johnnies birthday gift cat still gets dropped off on that country road when little Johnny loses interest in it. Feral cats have in many cases terrible lives, beset by disease, vehicles, feral and free roaming dogs (don't get me started), and spotty food resources. It is cruel to let feral cat populations continue.
Unfortunately the cute and cuddly factor comes into play with management issues such as cats. It is the same with the over-population of deer, mute swans etc. People recoil at the thought of cats (deer, invasive swans) being destroyed, euthanized, culled, killed, slaughtered (please feel free to use what ever verb works for your comfort level or ideology). As the result decisions that would best sustain native or other natural fauna get put aside. I have a hard time believing that any one would be promoting a TNR program for feral pet iquanas, or Burmese Pythons. So, as a result of public outcries, proper decisions get set aside.
What can we do. Well, you can take the approach that Rob Fergus, of The Bird Chaser, has advocated much more eloquently than I could. Be active in trying to change poor decisions by, first of all by the City of Cape May and secondly by other municipal governments that promote TNR programs. Few things will get the attention of communities that make money from tourists, such as Cape May, as people staying away. If you are a birder, or a person who cares about birds, stay away from Cape May. Let the community know that you will not be patronizing them as long they have a TNR program in place. Tell the mayor, tell your friends, and if you blog - tell the world.
More importantly if you have a pet cat, keep it inside.
Oh, and before I leave the topic, please don't write to tell me that "Yes cats kill some birds, but more birds are killed by habitat loss, climate change, building strikes, deer over population, carpal tunnel syndrome or what ever." Birds are under threat on many fronts, almost all human driven (including feral and outdoor cats), ignoring one problem because there are others isn't the solution. People often ask what they can do to help birds, keeping cats indoors and opposing feral cat TNR programs is one simple thing you can do. There are many others.
And for those of you who support the Cape May TNR program and do not wish to see feral cats destroyed I offer the following solution. The feral cats are trapped and divided up among the people who wrote supporting the TNR program, provided of course that they release Cape May from any damages resulting from injuries from the now wild cats and/or any diseases they may carry AND that they agree to keep the cats indoors AND that any additional costs from a trapping distribution program versus a cull are divided up among the people who get the cats.