Feral Animals May Be Hard on the Environment, but Attitudes Differ on Managing Their Numbers Wild, but Not Free

Article excerpt

A young foal feeds in a saltwater marsh on Cumberland Island, surrounded by mares and a stallion.

Human visitors approach and the adult horses twitch with anticipation. Tails swish and snap nervously. The horses protectively encircle the young foal.

Though their ancestors were domesticated, the horses on Cumberland Island are considered feral. They fear humans as much as their wild counterparts.

Feral animals are domesticated creatures born in the wild. Typically such creatures lead short, sometimes disease-ridden lives.

So Cumberland offers a snapshot of a question that confronts everyone from biologists and wildlife experts to homeowners concerned about the occasional wild cat: What can be done about these animals?

The issue of feral animals has been ongoing at Cumberland Island since it was established as a national seashore in 1972.

Horses graze in environmentally sensitive saltwater marshes, destroying habitat for wading birds and shellfish. They also roam in the island's dunes, eating grasses that prevent erosion of the constantly shifting sands.

And public attitude toward these animals varies. Feral hogs get little sympathy, partly because of their destructive nature, but more likely because they are not considered a companion animal -- one that humans develop a bond with, said Heidi Prescott, national director for the animal protection group Fund for Animals.

"When the horse situation came up, our phones rang off the hooks," Prescott said, noting that few people complain when hog eradication programs are announced at parks nationwide.

"Companion animals they know, but they're going to have a different attitude about a pig."

This could be a key factor in determining the future of various feral animals.

"Horses are more charismatic and likable than pigs," said Jeffrey Brooks, a wildlife specialist who recently completed a graduate student thesis for the University of Georgia on visitor attitudes toward the reintroduction of bobcats on Cumberland Island. "A lot of people go over to the island just to see the horses, but feral animals are extremely hard on the environment."

While feral hogs and horses on Cumberland Island have attracted recent media attention, feral cats, in particular, have a devastating impact on the urban environment, Brooks said.

Besides spreading diseases such as rabies, feral cats breed with their domesticated counterparts, adding to the number of unwanted animals that face bleak futures. Their fighting during breeding season can be disturbing to residents.

Nearly as many feral cats -- 60 million -- roam urban areas as their domesticated counterparts, said Leslie Sinclair, a veterinarian and director of issues for companion animals for The Humane Society of the United States.

"The species itself is domesticated," she said. "They're not wildlife. You don't find them anywhere but in close proximity to humans."

Reaction toward feral cats varies.

"There is a wide range of opinions from absolute intolerance to tolerance and sympathy," Sinclair said. "It depends on the mood of the community."

Though their bloodlines are domesticated, age is by far the greatest factor in determining whether a feral animal can be domesticated, said Dorothy Fragaszy, a professor specializing in animal behavior at the University of Georgia.

"There is only a short period when an animal is open to socialization," Fragaszy said.

That period is near the time an animal born in a domestic environment would begin to develop a relationship with humans. But it gets more difficult to establish a bond with a feral animal as it gets older, Fragaszy said.

"Trying to domesticate a fullgrown feral animal is an almost impossible task," she said. …