Cat’s cradle

Zoologists, vets see direct connection between street cat proliferation and diminishment of Israeli wildlife; rights activists argue that such accusations are nothing less than a ‘21st-century witch-hunt.

Cats [illustrative]. (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Cats [illustrative].
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
When Dr. Ido Kan saw a goldfinch fly by on a walk with his daughter through Rehovot last year, he was amazed to point out to her a bird that he’d thought had all but disappeared from the city since his own childhood.
“I never thought about the cat as a reason,” he says. “I always thought it was the rise in urbanization.”
Kan, a 36-year-old veterinarian in his hometown, fears that the country’s enormous population of stray domestic cats may be a contributing factor in the diminishment of certain wildlife species – particularly birds like the goldfinch, red robin, blackbirds and members of the genus Parus, as well as certain kinds of lizards. Looking back at his childhood years, he recalled that a wide range of birds used to populate the streets of Rehovot – yet the same was not true of the friendly felines that now sun themselves on the city’s sidewalks.
Journal articles by scientists across the world – a few of them in Israel – have presented studies that provide extensive backup for Kan’s hypothesis. Yet on the opposite end of the spectrum, animal rights activists and other researchers slam these studies as erroneously blaming cats for destruction that man alone has inflicted on nature.
“It’s very difficult to put a finger on a single factor as to why a single bird population was reduced,” Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University’s zoology department tells The Jerusalem Post.
Yet while he stresses that the disappearance of such wildlife species is undoubtedly due to a combination of factors, he notes that studies – conducted particularly on islands abroad, but even at home – have proved that the introduction of cats into many places has “caused enormous damage not only to birds, but to reptiles and mammals.”
“Cats eat wildlife, including endangered species, and they roam around settled areas we live in within a diameter of a mile or more,” he says, referring to a specific Israeli study that a former student of his led.
That study, “The Domestic Cat as a Predator of Israeli Wildlife,” was published in the Israel Journal of Ecology and Evolution in 2007 by Yom-Tov and then-TAU master’s degree student Inbal Brickner-Braun, in conjunction with Prof. Eli Geffen, also from the zoology department. Explaining that the cat became a fully domesticated animal in Egypt only about 4,000 years ago, the article begins by noting that there are between six and 25 domestic cats per 100 persons throughout the entire world.
In 1998, there were an estimated 208,000 pet cats in Israel, and feral stray cats have shown an enormous density: about 2,300 adult stray cats per square kilometer in Jerusalem in 1995, compared to 229 cats per in Bristol, England, in 2005, the study says.
The article posits several principal reasons for the widespread phenomenon of stray cats in Israel, including that organic waste is readily available in garbage containers and that feeding stray cats remains quite popular.
Although there is no record of a study of predatory habits among domestic cats specifically in Israel, the article notes that “the domestic cat is known as an avid and efficient predator, whose hunting and killing drives do not differ from those of its wild ancestor.”
The study ultimately finds that domestic cats in Israel enrich their diets with many wild species of animals, including 12 mammals, 26 birds, 18 reptiles and one amphibian, in addition to the scavenged garbage they consume.
“Our data show that domestic cats hunt a great variety of animals, and where such cats are numerous, they may exert considerable pressure on wild animals,” the authors write. “However, since we do not have data on the population size of any of the prey species, we cannot provide estimates on the proportion of prey populations taken by cats. Nevertheless, in a densely populated country like Israel, where in its northern and central Mediterranean half there are hardly any settlements that are farther than five km. from one another, the potential impact of cats on some species, especially endangered ones, may be considerable.”
The authors recommend that the relevant authorities, such as the Agriculture Ministry’s Veterinary Services, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and regional veterinarians, take steps to control domestic cat populations – by eliminating open garbage dumps and forbidding the feeding of domestic cats outside the home.
A 2003 article in the journal Biological Conservation, called “Landowners and Cat Predation across Rural-to-Urban Landscapes,” similarly looked specifically at the impacts of cat predation on birds on southeastern Michigan land plots, all located along three bird migration routes. On average, the researchers found that cats attacked between 0.7 and 1.4 birds per week, targeting approximately 23 species there – including two that are of conservational concern. Across the three bird migration areas, the report calculated that there were between 800 and 3,100 cats that killed between 16,000 and 47,000 birds during breeding season.
“Our results, even taken conservatively, indicate that cat predation most likely plays an important role in fluctuations of bird populations, and should receive more attention in wildlife conservation and landscape studies,” the article says.
To Dr. Roni King, the chief veterinarian for the INPA, the idea that cats have a significant impact on wildlife populations “is not a question” – rather, he explains, it’s an issue of “magnitude.”
“They are not part of the system, and...
they can reproduce so fast,” he tells the Post. “Because of the climate, the potential is amazing, and nothing stops the breeding of cats.”
In his experience, he says, he finds that the cats do not target specific types of animals in their predatory endeavors, but instead tend to go after “anything that moves.”
“The domestication of cats [occurred] not long ago, and they are such good hunters,” he says.
Yom-Tov in part attributes the strengthening and proliferation of the country’s feral cat population to the fact that humans have a tendency to feed them.
“I think the way to stop the cat population from exploding, which is really happening now, is to stop feeding them in the streets,” he says.
“I think very positively of having a pet at home – a goldfish or a cat or a dog,” he continues, but he calls feeding street cats a hobby that people force upon the public in a “totally irresponsible manner.”
“If you want to rear 1,000 cats, do it at home,” he says. “Why are you doing it on the streets and causing damage to wildlife?” Both Yom-Tov and Kan tell the Post that they feel feeding the street cats causes a disruption in the natural wildlife system.
“If we let a healthy animal go out against a wild animal that is not that healthy, of course the cat that is being fed will have an advantage against the wild animal,” Kan says. “We need to understand that cats are part of the cycle of life, the food chain. If we feed them, we break the chain.”
In Rehovot, Kan has been particularly critical of active cat-feeding initiatives that go on within the Weizmann Institute of Science and Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture campuses. Reportedly, organized feeding occurs within these and other university and business campuses around the country, in order to maintain feline territoriality and thereby ward off sickly intruders from the outside.
“As an institute, it’s very wise for them to do it,” Kan says. “If they are feeding a small pack of cats and they are all castrated and neutered, they have cats that are healthy and live for many years.
They have fewer chances of diseases, so this small group of cats prevents new cats from getting into the area. They will protect the territory.”
In doing so, however, these institutions create a robust group of healthy cats that are eager to hunt the wildlife around them, emphasizes Kan.
“They are hunters and do it as a genetic need,” he adds.
Yom-Tov says he sees the same phenomenon occurring at Tel Aviv University and at the Hebrew University’s Jerusalem campuses. In his mind, a positive solution for municipalities would be to institute an enforcement system of fining people who feed cats in public spaces. In 2005, Rishon Lezion published intentions to fine residents who fed street cats without special permits, but an outcry from animal rights activists eventually curbed this legislation.
Another issue, Yom-Tov says, is the passive feeding that occurs through garbage that people often leave out in the open.
“People in Israel throw garbage everywhere, and garbage is available to rats and mice and crows and cats and anything else,” he says.
HOWEVER, IN response to the assertion that cats are contributing to the disappearance of Israeli wildlife, Yonatan Shpiegel, an attorney for Let the Animals Live, maintains that such accusations are entirely false.
“Research and examinations conducted around the world show that the claims by officials regarding the impact of feral cats on wildlife are baseless allegations at best and biased at worst,” Shpiegel says on behalf of the animal rights organization. “We regret that, once again, people are choosing to try to lay the blame for the destruction of animals, destruction that is caused mostly by humans themselves, simply on cats.”
Citing reports from the Environmental Protection Ministry, he stresses that feral cats are an important element in the ecological balance of Israel, since they live mostly in urban spaces and hunt many animals that are otherwise considered pests or invasive species.
In areas of the world without such a vibrant cat population, there are outbreaks of pest populations such as rats, mice and cockroaches, which truly disrupt the balance of nature, he argues.
Meanwhile, feeding cats in an orderly manner makes their need to rummage through garbage cans superfluous, he says, and any argument that cats become stronger by consuming food left in garbage cans is “unfounded and incorrect.”
In addition, he continues, when cats do consume garbage, they act as a “natural waste treatment” and thereby reduce the volume of garbage in the world.
Calling this situation “a real 21st-century witch-hunt,” the attorney adds, “It really amazes me that instead of focusing on the source of 99 percent of animals being killed – man – some researchers continue to focus on the cats.”
According to Shpiegel, feeding stray cats is a proactive and helpful act that encourages the cats to concentrate in one area where they can be easily trapped for spaying and neutering.
These well-fed cats are also less inclined to hunt birds and other animals, he stresses.
“We regret to see that instead of promoting effective solutions regarding the reproduction of street cats, such as spaying and neutering, people are trying to divert public attention to cruel channels like starving cats and sanctioning cat feeders, who are bearing the burden of caring for and humanely reducing the size of the population,” he says.
He cites a document called “Humane Cat Population Management Guidance,” which the International Companion Animal Management Coalition published in 2011. It describes how “relationships between cat advocates and wildlife advocates can unfortunately be hostile with little dialogue between the two groups,” when the two groups should be jointly advocating for cat sterilization and stabilization.
The paper argues that because cats are “opportunistic feeders,” providing them with readily available food within a population management program can reduce their predation needs. However, the paper does acknowledge that because cats’ “motivations to hunt exist independent of end-goal consumption,” feeding cannot stop predation completely.
Still, the authors maintain, “the actions of humans have a much greater effect on vulnerable and threatened species than cat predation of wildlife.”
To curb the proliferation of feral cats on the country’s streets, the Agriculture Ministry launched a NIS 4.5 million campaign at the end of October to spay and neuter approximately 45,000 cats.
By doing so, the ministry says it hopes to reduce the suffering of cats, as well as the environmental and health hazards their presence causes.
“As a result of a multitude of feeders and food offerings in the streets, stray cats have multiplied significantly,” Dr.
Dganit Ben-Dov, chief animal welfare officer at the ministry’s Veterinary Services, said following the launch of the campaign. “On one hand, this is a severe problem of animal welfare, since street life results in cats suffering. On the other hand, in many cases, the cats become an environmental hazard, posing risks to food establishments, various institutions and hospitals.”
Agriculture Ministry calculations estimate the number of stray cats in the world at approximately 200 million.
Between 2009 and 2012, the ministry invested more than NIS 10m. in spaying and neutering more than 90,000 stray cats, the office notes.
Citing research by Dr. Hilit Finkler, who conducted her PhD work at TAU’s zoology department as well, the organization Anonymous for Animal Rights argues that “there is no effective substitute for spaying and neutering.” The animal rights group explains that such neutering activities must be coordinated with the local authorities and strive to sterilize 75% of cats in a single area. To achieve high rates of sterilization, this process must occur within a focused community of cats, even at the expense of postponing such a process in other areas.
Yet compared to human-initiated programs like construction, agriculture and gardening, “cats constitute a negligible factor in the dwindling of wildlife,” Anonymous for Animal Rights emphasizes.
“Spaying and neutering will reduce the scale and, of course, the penetration of cats into nature reserves,” the group says, adding that cat owners can also take measures to reduce predation, such as attaching warning bells to their cats’ collars, limiting their hours of leaving home, or enclosing yards with fencing.
While both animal rights organizations and many researchers argue that spaying and neutering the cats will indeed control their reproduction, Yom-Tov says he disagrees with this idea entirely.
“That’s a very good example of how to throw public money into the garbage without benefit,” he says.
“The only people who benefit are the vets who get money to castrate.”
Recalling a specific study published in the Preventative Veterinary Medicine journal in 2006 – called “Management of Feral Domestic Cats in the Urban Environment of Rome (Italy)” – Yom-Tov says he feels that mass cat castration often ends up amounting to a wasted effort.
In the study, the Italian researchers registered cat colonies in Rome and surveyed the results of a widespread neutering campaign that took place from 1991 to 2000. Although the neutering of about 8,000 cats during that time caused a general decrease in cat number, the percentage of cat immigration from elsewhere into these colonies was 21%, the article explains. Therefore, the researchers conclude, “all these efforts without an effective education of people to control the reproduction of house cats (as a prevention for abandonment) are a waste of money, time and energy.”
Although spaying and neutering missions may have positive intentions, Kan agrees with Yom-Tov that “it’s practically impossible to catch enough of them” to make the effort worthwhile.
ILENE LUBIN, the founder of Jerusalem-based organization the Meow Mitzvah Mission, is raising funds for what she feels could be a comprehensive solution to the street cat proliferation problem.
“No one thing is going to solve this problem,” she tells the Post. “It’s like an epidemic. If we don’t pull together all our resources, we are never going to solve this – for the birds, the cats or the people.”
In her mind, a multifaceted program that involves launching a mass education campaign about the issue, setting up organized community cat-feeding stations, eliminating unruly garbage piles, and performing castrations would be key to successfully – and humanely – diminishing the street cat population.
“We have more birds migrating across Israel than everywhere else in the world,” Lubin says. “But making a law against stopping people from feeding cats – that’s not going to solve the problem. We have to have ways of dealing with the cats.”
Garnering community support through education would be a much more powerful tool than enforcing measures that legally prohibit people from exercising their desire to feed cats where and when they please, according to Lubin.
“Feeding the cats only exacerbates the problem. It doesn’t necessarily help the cats, either,” she adds, noting that chicken bones can kill cats, and sharp edges of tuna cans may easily injure them.
Echoing Lubin’s sentiments on community commitment to the issue, a 2006 Austral Ecology journal article on “Protecting Wildlife from Predation by Owned Domestic Cats” examines the willingness of citizens in Armadale, Western Australia, to regulate their domestic cats. The authors found that 70% of the city’s residents, except for urban men, expressed a willingness to keep their cats on their own property.
Meanwhile, 70% or more of respondents, regardless of gender or cat ownership, agreed there was a need to regulate cats, and that their presence in nature reserves was harmful to wildlife. The authors determined that regulation of cats could win support in this city and in others that have environmental issues as a result of cat presence.
In King’s mind, it is first and foremost critical to ensure that stray cats not be present in “remote places” like nature reserves, where they pose more of a threat to wildlife than they do near settled areas. As an INPA veterinarian, King explains that Israeli law does not allow him to touch any cats he finds in any of the country’s reserves.
“We were on some kind of ecological survey near the Dead Sea, and we were going down and a cat was following us,” he recalls. “Then we heard a jump, and a stone fell, and we saw he caught a lizard and then ate it.”
Stressing that he in no way supports the idea of killing the cats to eradicate them, King explains that in many countries, such as Australia or New Zealand, that is what nature conservationists do, using poisons and other methods.
A 2004 journal article called “A Review of Feral Cat Eradication on Islands” in Conservation Biology states in its opening line that “feral cats are directly responsible for a large percentage of global extinctions, particularly on islands.” On the islands studied, the most frequently used modes of eradication were hunting and trapping, followed by direct poisoning, secondary poisoning and disease introduction.
The authors go on to suggest that “because of the well-documented extinctions and near extinctions of native island animals caused by feral cats, land managers should routinely eradicate feral cats from islands of less than five” Only in cases with extensive planning and larger investments of time and effort should they consider eradication on medium-sized islands of between 10 and 30, the authors recommend.
Islands larger than 50 require the development of new techniques, the authors continue, acknowledging that eradication programs have become particularly complicated on large islands inhabited by humans, as cats have “been linked to humans since historical times.”
ACCORDING TO Yom-Tov, cats “are sacred animals in Israel – nobody is allowed to do any damage to sacred animals, so the cats have their day.” He notes that the last time he published an article about the effects of cats on wildlife, people responded by calling for his death.
Following a petition by Let the Animals Live and the Association for the Welfare of Cats, the High Court of Justice ruled on June 6, 2004, to restrict the killing of stray cats in Israel. While the judges did not rule to eliminate the practice completely, they did accept the petition and ordered that cats only be killed if they were endangering the safety of people and if there was no other possible solution. Meanwhile, they determined that only authorized municipal veterinarians could be responsible for eradicating those cats.
One solution that King says he tried at several of the INPA’s nature reserves was to write letters to NGOs that have cat shelters, requesting that they trap the cats and find them alternative lodging. Many did not even answer him, he says, and those that did told him they did not have space for more animals.
Regarding the idea of sterilizing cats found in nature reserves and releasing them elsewhere, Anonymous for Animal Rights says it would advocate such a procedure, but only in extreme cases.
“The distinction among ‘nature’ and ‘not nature’ and ‘animals that must be preserved’ and ‘animals that can be killed’ is artificial and problematic,” a statement f r o m the organization reads. “The goal that nature conservation agencies should [set] is creating a balance for the welfare of all living beings.”
In that vein, King stresses that wildlife conservation is not always precisely equivalent to animal welfare.
“We do things that are not for a specific animal – we do things for a whole species and the system,” he says.