It’s almost an old story now, but I hope it won’t die just yet. In a March 14 OpEd in the Orlando Sentinel, a name brand pain reliever was noted as being toxic to feral cats. Ted Williams, the author of the piece and one of our most respected writers on the subject of environmental stewardship, also opined that the practice of trapping, neutering, and releasing (TNR) feral cats did little to reduce their populations and nothing to reduce their unconscionable toll on wildlife.
Taking angry exception to Mr. Williams article, feral cat advocates took up their torches and pitchforks and got Mr. Williams suspended from his editor-at-large post at Audubon Magazine, where he’d been an institution for over 30 years. This move by Audubon in turn incited outrage in the conservation and sportsmen communities (Mr. Williams has long inspired fly fishermen to stand up for aquatic habitat). Then Audubon – perhaps realizing that the people to whom it had initially kowtowed were not only irrational but universally recognizable as such – reinstated Ted Williams.
Now everything is the same as before, with a few exceptions. For their deer-in-the-headlights response to the cat lunatics, Audubon will continue to get ass-whooped, and it will probably be a while until they regain the respect they once deserved. The cat advocates will continue to gun for Ted Williams, probably until they see his head on a spike. Most important, though, people who care for nature are waking up to the fact that the cancer of ferals is quite advanced.
Extremely and tragically so, in fact. By the thousands of acres, feral horses have defoliated, dewatered and otherwise pulverized high desert rangeland, rendering it prone to erosion and inhospitable to native wildlife. Feral hogs root up farmland and wildland with equal gusto and will eat anything they find, be it scaled, feathered or furred. When it can catch one, a feral hog will eat a cat. Burmese pythons, star players in Florida’s feral-induced wildlife holocaust, snarf their share of feral hogs.
Feral pythons and horses probably number in the tens of thousands. Add a couple zeroes for pigs. Nationwide, however, the population of feral cats absolutely smokes all that. There are tens of millions of them, along with tens of millions of house cats that also kill. In his article, Ted Williams cited a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study that put the annual bird and mammal body count in the billions.
Feral animals destroy directly and indirectly. They create sudden shocks to habitats that have been flexibly balanced for long periods, systems that achieved such resilience by adapting to and incorporating specific inputs over the same many years. In other words, feral cats can kill snakes not only with their teeth but by decimating the snake food supply as well.
To the purely objective eye in the sky, there is no controversy as to the damage ferals inflict on stable ecosystems. None whatsoever, though there is plenty regarding how we might reduce these impacts. If it was up to me, we would employ every available means to completely eradicate feral cats, dogs, hogs, horses, pythons, and any other invasive animal known to be detrimental to regional species diversity (with one major exception, of course, out of respect to our laws against homicide).
Many if not most would reject my approach. Personally, I’m not comfortable with its proximity, or that it entails the actual laying on of hands and the associated accountability. In the case of cats, though, we would do well to admit to ourselves that accountability is everywhere we look. To keep my own cat from yowling around the house and waking up my son, I let her outside at night, fully aware of the hell I am visiting upon the critters in my neighborhood. I feel no better in the morning, especially if she’s brought me a decapped horny toad and I feel like drowning her in the bathtub.
Especially in morally absolute America, we inevitably bend and twist and snap under the weight of playing God. Cat enthusiasts, for example, have become drunk on the same upside-down, defensive-righteous hypocrisy of gun huggers and climate change deniers. One hundred fifty rounds were used to mow down the innocents at Sandy Hook, which kind of isn’t but kind of is our collective fault. By not taking our petroleum addiction seriously, we didn’t invite Katrina to New Orleans so much as we ignored the years of urgent emails in which she told us she was coming. And although we love our cats, the feathers across the grass comprise an undeniable wrong. There is no refuting any of this.
Something I’ve written several times since starting this blog bears repeating in a different way: sometimes it sucks to be on top. By virtue of our membership in one of the most dominant and influential species in the history of life itself, we each have blood on our hands from birth. This is a truth I try to remember when I fish a cutthroat stream and consider it my duty to kill all the feral brown trout that I’m allowed. I remember it also when I fish a well-established brown trout fishery that hasn’t naturally reared a cutthroat trout for almost a century. Fight the fish fast, try not to touch it, take a picture while it’s catching its breath. But most of all, do the best you can.