Killer kitties

A cat eyes its prey
A cat eyes its prey

A children's rhyme asks: “Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?” A new scientific study answers that question: In the company of countless others, the cat has been out hunting. The results are not pretty.

For all their cuteness, cats are killers — of birds and other animals. This isn’t a revelation, but the extraordinary extent of their death-dealing is.

Their predations are two to four times higher than previously estimated. Worried about the animal-life carnage caused by windmills or automobiles or poisons in the environment? Their damage is nothing compared to the work of cats.

According to scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American domestic cats kill 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals (such as chipmunks and voles) in a typical year. The culprits are both cats that live in homes but are allowed to roam and their feral brethren.

What is to be done? Some will argue that cats are doing only what their nature dictates. But the domesticated cat, while it retains its primitive instincts, is a creature of humankind.

This human-crafted problem needs a human-tailored remedy, or else we must live with a permanently unbalanced environment. Birds and other small mammals that are the prey of cats are not just beautiful creations, they also serve a useful ecological purpose — for example, keeping insects in check.

Feral cats pose a particularly big problem, for which a humane remedy is applied in parts of the country — trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs. Critics such as the American Bird Conservancy say TNR has been ineffective in reducing outdoor cat populations.

But Americans won’t accept cat hunts. That would seem like animal cruelty, even if the aim is to stop cruelty to other species at the paws of cats.

The real solution may be education. Pet owners must be persuaded that cats are indoor pets. Pussy cat, pussy cat, where should you be? In the living room, not outside where bird song needs to ring.