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Monday, April 15, 2013

This week’s Science Cafe asks: Are our cats a catastrophe for wildlife?

David Brooks

When it comes to pet cats, nobody can out-cuddle me: My wife and I have always had a cat or two or four that we pamper ridiculously. But we draw the line at the front door.

Ours have always been indoor-only cats, even when we lived in a trailer smaller than a Bedford walk-in closet. Keeping cats inside all the time can be a pain – yes, I’m looking at you, litter boxes – but I like seeing chipmunks dart around the stone wall and birds seek bugs in the yard. They wouldn’t be around if I released our cats, even some of the dimwits we have owned, because they are just too good at hunting. ...

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When it comes to pet cats, nobody can out-cuddle me: My wife and I have always had a cat or two or four that we pamper ridiculously. But we draw the line at the front door.

Ours have always been indoor-only cats, even when we lived in a trailer smaller than a Bedford walk-in closet. Keeping cats inside all the time can be a pain – yes, I’m looking at you, litter boxes – but I like seeing chipmunks dart around the stone wall and birds seek bugs in the yard. They wouldn’t be around if I released our cats, even some of the dimwits we have owned, because they are just too good at hunting.

That’s my opinion, but it’s not universal.

There are some who think the problem is at best overblown, and at worst an excuse for excessive anti-feline behavior, such as the fellow in New Zealand who wants the entire country to ban all cats because of the havoc they wreak on many of that island nation’s unique birds and small mammals.

In New Hampshire, the issue is most visible near Hampton Beach, where for years there has been debate over protecting piping plovers, an endangered ground-nesting bird, because of questions about how to handle a nearby population of feral (that is, wild) cats that some people feed. But it’s a potential issue anywhere there’s a pet cat.

That’s a lot of places: New Hampshire is among the top 10 states in our rate of feline ownership, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. All of which explains why this week’s Science Cafe New Hampshire will discuss the issue under the search-engine-friendly title “Cats or Catastrophes?”

As always, the cafe features a panel of experts who will answer questions from the audience at Killarney’s Irish Pub.

Among them will be Pamela Hunt, wildlife biologist for New Hampshire Audubon Society and a cat-owner (indoor only, of course), who jumped at my invitation to participate.

“We’ve been thinking about the cat stuff for two or three years,” she said.

Among researchers, the topic has risen in visibility since the January publication of a paper titled “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States,” by a trio of researchers.

The paper included this startling assessment: “We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4 (billion) to 3.7 billion birds, and 6.9 (billion) to 20.7 billion mammals annually. Unowned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality.”

Billions – wow!

The verb to note is “estimate,” because getting hard figures on cat kills is very, very difficult, even in a small place like New Hampshire.

“We don’t have any data. No one has done any good studies,” said Hunt, adding wistfully: “If we could get some funding …”

Hunt keeps her cats indoors, she said, although occasionally they escape.

“One will go two feet from the door, chews on grass for a while. I tell him to go inside and he does,” she said.

Hunt doesn’t harangue cat-owning friends or acquaintances but isn’t shy about discussing the issue.

“People I know, I’ll ask if they’re indoor. If they say no, I’ll say ‘well, they should be!’” she said. “Oftentimes, they’ll say ‘I know, I should.’”

Should you, indeed? Come to Science Cafe and discuss it – with or without a beer.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbroks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks on Twitter @granitegeek.