By Tony Croasdale, Environmental Education Planner, Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center

This time of year, many folks are posting instructions on how to provide shelter for stray cats. I understand why people think this is the right thing to do; however, this compassion is misplaced. House cats are not native to this continent. They were domesticated from the wildcat of Eurasia. Our native wildlife did not evolve with wildcats and therefore our birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians did not develop behaviors to evade them. Outside cats kill billions of birds and small mammals every year in the United States alone. Free-roaming cats exchange disease with wildlife that endanger the wildlife, the cats, and humans. When people feed and shelter outside cats, it provides a place where wildlife come into contact with cats. Raccoons, skunks, foxes, and other wild animals also become accustomed to eating cat food and their behaviors change. These feral cat colonies also attract people to dump unwanted cats. The trend towards “no-kill” shelters means that shelters can fill up and not accept any more cats, so folks looking to get rid of their cats will dump them where they think they will be fed and sheltered.

House cats are domesticated from wildcats that are fully capable of surviving in the winter without shelter. As outside cats have such a negative impact on native animals, whatever advantage they get from humans gives them an advantage to kill more of our native animals. You may think letting a cat survive on its own is cruel, but consider the cruelty to other animals. Feeding feral cats does not stop them from killing wildlife the same way that feeding my cat doesn’t stop her from killing mice. These outside cats will kill hundreds to thousands of wild prey in their lifetime, even as domestic animals and wild fish are killed to make pet food. While it is understandable that some people have a strong emotional attachment towards outside cats since cats are such a popular pet, many other people feel similarly towards wildlife, such as “birders” and “herpers,” whose hobby is observing wild birds and herptiles (the collective group of reptiles and amphibians), respectively.

If feeding and sheltering cats is environmentally irresponsible, then what should people do? The best thing to do is capture the cats and bring them to a shelter. TNR (Trap Neuter Release) is becoming increasingly popular as a solution. However, there is no evidence to support the notion that this method significantly reduces cat populations, if at all. Cats can have multiple litters a year, so unless the vast majority of cats in a population are captured every year, and no new cats are introduced to the population, the population will not decline. The notion that you must feed cats to condition them to be captured is false. As previously mentioned these feeding stations do more harm than good. Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing at all. If you cannot remove cats from the wild to prevent them from killing native wildlife, at least do not provide them with even more advantages. 

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Check out other stories in our ongoing series about the animals you can spot at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation facilities!