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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2005

Solutions elusive as authorities ponder problem of feral felines

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
This unneutered male cat was brought to the Toledo Animal Shelter, which adopts out about 600 cats a year. This unneutered male cat was brought to the Toledo Animal Shelter, which adopts out about 600 cats a year.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

It appears there are definitely some dog people in Wisconsin.

A proposal there to legalize shooting wild, or feral, cats has outraged cat owners across the country and sparked death threats against a scientist who has studied problems associated with free-roaming cats.

If death threats sound like an exaggeration, just ask him.

"Would you like to listen to one?" asked Stanley Temple, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor whose research has suggested rural cats kill millions of birds and other wildlife. "Here, it's still on my voice mail."

He plays back a message from his answering machine in which a woman's voice can be heard hissing out a threat:

"You cat-murdering [expletive]. What goes around, comes around. I declare open season on Stanley Temple."

The story heated up earlier this year when a LaCrosse, Wis., firefighter spoke to officials at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and told them he was angry that cats had stalked the birds at his bird feeder outside his home. He proposed that farmers, hunters, and others in rural Wisconsin be allowed to shoot stray cats. He soon got death threats too.

Before shaking your head in disgust at those in Wisconsin or, depending on your view of cats, praising them, consider this: It has been legal to shoot stray cats in rural Ohio for years.

"If you're out in the country, a wild cat basically has no status," said Dave Risley, administrator of wildlife management and research for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "They fall into a gray area. I'm not sure any state agency has any authority over feral cats."

In other words, cats in rural areas of Ohio are fair game. (Shooting a firearm within city limits is generally frowned upon, so keep your pistols holstered, city folk). It's illegal to shoot feral cats in Michigan.

Aimee St. Arnaud, director of Perrysburg-based Humane Ohio, was dismayed to hear of the cat shooting idea in Wisconsin, a proposal which would still need legislative and gubernatorial approval if it continues to go forward. The governor has already said he opposes it.

"It's ridiculous. We hope they vote this down," she said. "It's not going to work. There are much more humane and effective solutions."

Jack Fynes, president of the board for the Toledo Animal Shelter, agreed.

"The feral cat problem is a serious problem, but shooting cats is not the answer," he said.

His organization shelters stray cats, spays and neuters them, and typically adopts out about 600 cats a year to those who want a cat.

Just what solution to use when dealing with stray cats and feral cats - usually defined as unowned cats born in the wild - has long been a controversial topic nationwide.

"In my opinion, this issue has been let go locally and statewide," said Tom Skeldon, the Lucas County dog warden, who said he would support a vigorous trapping and euthanization program for stray cats.

But Mr. Skeldon doubts any politician will ever propose that.

"It's not the kind of issue a smart politician hangs their hat on. It's like the third rail. Cats kill politicians," he said. "If you do something about it, you make people mad. If you don't, you make people mad."

For example, Toledo has an ordinance requiring all cat owners to purchase annual licenses and have their cats on a leash when off their property, but Mr. Skeldon said no effort is spent enforcing the regulation. The result? Only 103 annual cat licenses have been sold in Toledo so far this year.

Earlier this month, a panel sponsored by the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department spoke about the feral cat issue, with all on the panel agreeing that the root of the problem is irresponsible pet owners, especially those who believe cats need to roam free.

"We can't blame cats. This is a people problem," Ms. St. Arnaud said. "A lot of people have the misperception that a cat has to go outside."

Her organization funds a private program known as Operation Felix that spays or neuters cats and releases them back into the wild or to someone who wants to adopt the cat. She said this is a more humane and practical solution than euthanizing cats as Mr. Skeldon suggests. Her group's goal is to treat 2,000 cats this year and 5,000 next year. While primarily serving Lucas County, the organization hopes to eventually take in cats from surrounding counties.

"We always say whether you love or hate cats, you should support our program because the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of free-roaming cats," she said.

Mr. Temple is skeptical of trap, neuter, and release programs like Operation Felix.

"They don't really work at all from my perspective because the cats go right back out," he said.

Mr. Temple, who grew up in Cleveland, said he hasn't taken a position on the cat shooting proposal in Wisconsin, instead pushing for public education on the importance of keeping cats indoors. Mr. Risley and Mr. Temple stress that habitat loss because of humans is the biggest threat to wildlife, but both said that cats contribute to the population decline of many bird species.

What got Mr. Temple involved in the controversy was the mention of a study he did in Wisconsin on the impact of cats on wildlife. He estimated there more than 1.4 million free-roaming cats in his state. From an analysis of what cats in his study ate, he found that a cat eats at least 28 wild animals a year, with 20 percent of those birds. He said that means at least 7.8 million birds are killed annually in Wisconsin.

Dr. Tim Reichard, a Toledo veterinarian, helped start a program at the Toledo Zoo to deal with feral cats because of the dangers cats can pose to zoo animals through various diseases.

A cat owner himself, he said he is concerned about the impact cats have on wildlife, but said Ms. St. Arnaud's approach is more socially acceptable. Though he believes euthanasia should be an option, it is opposed by so many people that it is better to try to spay and neuter cats so at least they won't keep reproducing.

He said while he understands the concerns of cat lovers over inhumane methods of controlling feral cats, the bigger picture also has to be addressed:

"You have to look at the pain and suffering these cats are causing to all these other animals, the birds, chipmunks, and rabbits. They suffer pain and injury, too," he said. "That's what people forget about."

Contact Luke Shockman at: lshockman@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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