As curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying the native animals of the Saskatchewan grasslands. One of the more interesting observations that I have made during my field adventures is how regularly I have seen farm or feral cats hunting on the grasslands. Almost daily during my field work I would see cats skulking in the tall grass, presumably trying to nab an unsuspecting mouse or small bird. I’ve even had a couple of instances where I’ve seen a farm cat hiding in badger or ground squirrel burrow — presumably these cats are preparing to ambush the next small critter that happens by. Seeing these cats hunting out in the grasslands became such a common occurrence that I quickly came to ignore it.
In the summer of 1999, I was studying endangered Burrowing Owls in the city of Moose Jaw. As part of this study, I was radio-tracking Burrowing Owls in and around the city. One day, I picked up the signal from one of my owls coming from a suburban neighbourhood. This was very unusual because Burrowing Owls tend to avoid people, and certainly tend to avoid houses and trees. When I finally found the owl, it was sitting on somebody’s front porch, dead, with a house cat standing over it.
Yes, someone’s pet cat had just killed one of Saskatchewan’s most iconic and endangered species.
I quickly shared the story of this incident with other wildlife biologists, and to my surprise many of them had similar stories of cats hunting and killing wildlife.
So, for a very long time now I have known and experienced firsthand the destructive consequences of cats roaming free in our farm yards or in our neighbourhoods. On January 29, a paper was published in Nature Communications that gives some real numbers of just how destructive domestic cats are to wildlife. I hope you are sitting down for this…in the United States alone, cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 BILLION birds and 6.9 and 20.7 BILLION mammals each year. TheNew York Times has published a news article that more fully describes the story, so I will not go into too much detail here. But one of the most incredible estimates that I read from the article is that domestic cats are one of the single greatest threats to wildlife in the United States, killing more birds and mammals than all other human-induced factors (e.g. pesticides, poisons, vehicle collisions etc.).
Now, before you think I have something against cats, I do not. I like cats, I’ve owned cats, I think cats are beautiful and fascinating (really, I do). But no matter what your feelings on cats might be, I think the consequences of free-roaming domestic cats is something that we should all be aware of, and something that we should all use to make informed decisions about how we place cats in our society.