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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Don't let house cats run wild outdoors

Found in a 2013 study published in the peer reviewed scientific journal "Nature Communications,"—"Domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 and 20.7 billion small mammals every year."

That's right, billions.

Many people own domestic cats—some 90 to 100 million pet cats live in the United States. Cats make wonderful pets, are generally easy to take care of, and are usually very adept at catching live prey. Yet, as efficient a predator a cat is, it is a cat's hunting proficiency that, paradoxically, adds a degree of imperfection to an otherwise extraordinary animal.

A house cat that hunts, captures and kills wild birds and animals is only doing what comes natural. However, from my perspective, when a pet cat is allowed to roam the city streets or countryside fields, forests and roadside ditches to hunt out-of-doors, then it is not doing what is natural.

Billions of wild birds and small mammals are stalked and killed annually by domestic house cats. Without question, these excessive numbers are testament to a cat's amazing hunting prowess, but it also illustrates an important inference: the number of deaths to wildlife would not be so high if domestic cats were prohibited from wandering outside in the first place.

Keeping house cats indoors is appropriate for many reasons that go well beyond the fact that wildlife die in their clutches. A cat that remains indoors, for instance, enjoys a much longer and healthier life. Untold dangers await all cats that are allowed the freedom to roam outside.

Vehicles, wild animals such as coyotes, owls, hawks, and eagles, disease, parasites, weather, and people are some of the many hazards an outdoor cat faces. Because of these threats, and more, an outdoor cat lives on average only two to five years, whereas a well-cared for indoor cat can live as long as 17 or more years.

Indeed, dead cats on our roadways, sickly cats crossing our city streets, homeless cats showing up at our doorsteps, and cats hunting beneath our birdfeeders are common sights with so many domestic felines roaming virtually everywhere in every state.

I've never supported allowing house cats to roam free. After all, nature never intended for the domestic house cat to be a part of any natural and functioning ecosystem. The Canada lynx, bobcat, mountain lion, jaguar—yes—but not the domestic cat. Few predators are as efficient at capturing and killing their prey as cats are, wild and domestic alike.

Here are some interesting research data for you to consider. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin conducted a four-year study on rural free-roaming cats and, coupled with data from other studies, estimated that free-roaming cats in Wisconsin killed from 7.8 million to 217 million wild birds per year.

What the researchers did not study were the effects to wildlife from suburban and urban cats. As such, it can be assumed that the actual number of wildlife deaths caused by free-roaming cats is much, much higher. And think about this: the study estimated that feral cat densities in some parts of the state reached 114 cats per square mile!

In a Kansas study of cat predation in an urban area, it was shown that 83 percent of 41 study-cats killed wild birds. Most of the cat owners were unaware that their cats were capturing and killing wild birds, until they found evidence of feathers in scat or observed the cat with a bird or found parts of the bird somewhere in the house. The study also revealed that one particular cat, a de-clawed cat, killed more birds than any of the other 40 study cats.

I once watched a feral cat stalk a bluebird house. At first I was amused as I observed the cat inch closer and closer to the bluebird box that was mounted on top of a five-foot wood post. My amusement was based on my belief that the cat was wasting its time sneaking up to the box and that it was impossible for it to succeed in killing a bird in this manner. After all, the cat was on the ground and the bluebird or bluebirds may or may not be inside the box. And so I continued to watch the cat in its supposed exercise in futility.

Little did I know.

When the cat was nearly directly below the birdhouse, it crouched very low to the ground as it affixed its eyes on the box. The tip of the cat's tail twitching from side to side as I began to sense that something was about to happen. Slowly raising its hindquarters, the cat startlingly sprang up straight into the air and before I could blink the cat had its right front leg inside the entrance hole of the bluebird box up to its armpit.

Gripping the birdhouse with its other three clawed feet, the cat quickly pulled out of the house an adult bluebird and then into its mouth as it then leapt from the bluebird box to the ground with its meal clutched tightly between its canines.

Needless to say, domestic cats and wild animals are better off when cats spend their lives inside homes with their human caregivers. If a hapless mouse happens to get captured inside the house by a cat, then that's a good thing. But the perils of the outdoors are too many and our wildlife too important to allow pet house cats to run loose outside as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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