Killing Machine Behind a Cute Face ; Feral, Stray and Pet Cats Hunt Billions of Animals a Year, U.S. Study Finds

By Angier, Natalie | International Herald Tribune, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

Killing Machine Behind a Cute Face ; Feral, Stray and Pet Cats Hunt Billions of Animals a Year, U.S. Study Finds


Angier, Natalie, International Herald Tribune


Domestic cats in the United States kill billions of birds and mammals a year, according to a new report, a rate that is much higher than previous estimates.

For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over long distances, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: Cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.

In a report that scaled up local surveys and pilot studies to national dimensions, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States -- both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day in the outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it -- kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.

The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so- called anthropogenic causes.

Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and an author of the report, said the mortality figures that emerge from the new model "are shockingly high."

"When we ran the model, we didn't know what to expect," said Dr. Marra, who performed the analysis with his colleague, Scott R. Loss, and Tom Will of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We were absolutely stunned by the results." The study appeared Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The findings are the first serious estimate of just how much wildlife the United States' vast population of free-roaming domestic cats manages to kill each year.

"We've been discussing this problem of cats and wildlife for years and years, and now we finally have some good science to start nailing down the numbers," said George H. Fenwick, the president and chief executive of the American Bird Conservancy. "This is a great leap forward over the quality of research we had before."

In devising their mathematical model, the researchers systematically sifted through the existing scientific literature on cat-wildlife interactions, eliminated studies in which the sample size was too small or the results too extreme, and then extracted and standardized the findings from the 21 most rigorous studies. The results admittedly come with wide ranges and uncertainties.

Nevertheless, the new report is likely to fuel the sometimes vitriolic debate between environmentalists who see free-roaming domestic cats as an invasive species -- super predators whose numbers are growing globally even as the songbirds and many other animals the cats prey on are in decline -- and animal welfare advocates who are appalled by the millions of unwanted cats (and dogs) killed in animal shelters each year. …

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