Today I’m thinking about cats and sustainability. “Oh no,” you’re thinking, “The crazy cat lady’s gonna go on about how much she loves felines.”
Well, it’s no secret that I love the critters (it’s listed right there on my ‘About’ page!). Yet there’s also a place for them in the discussion of our planet and sustainability.
The number of stray (feral and domesticated) cats in the U.S. is estimated to be between 35 and 75 million. It’s tricky to pinpoint the number, but you get the idea – there are a whole lot of them, and they can be a hot-button issue.
Consider the Google employees who, with best intentions, feed strays near their office in Mountain View, California. They also trap the cats and kittens, adopting out those they can and performing ‘TNR’—trap, neuter, and release (with notched ear for identification)—on the rest. The hundreds of remaining cats, mainly ferals, are threatening the local existence of burrowing owls, a species of special concern in California due to overall population decline (even well-fed cats express their hunting instincts). Disharmony between wildlife biologists and GCat Rescue, the Google group, has ensued.
Or ponder the recent decision of the District of Columbia to attempt, over the next three years, to count every cat in the city and track their movement, shelter and house cats included. Fear not, the $1.5 million allotted for the study isn’t taxpayer-sourced (though I’d argue it’s a better use of money than many of the decisions made in D.C.); it’s been raised by animal advocacy groups.
The effort relies on high-tech tools such as cameras with infrared sensors and a smartphone app that crowdsources help via photo submissions of cats, owned or observed. Think ‘kitty library’. The expectation is that knowing how many cats live there is key to creating policies to manage the population, and they believe the lessons learned will be scalable to other cities as well.
There’s a litany of problems that can be exacerbated by the presence of so many strays – diseases like rabies and toxoplasmosis that can be passed to humans (though these are not specific to cats), or the killing of up to an estimated 2 billion birds per year. And something else, with which I’m now intensely familiar – genetic issues due to inbreeding in stray colonies.
The accompanying photo is of my cats, Ziggy and ZuZu. They were born in my friend Kerry’s back yard and, super-hero that she is, she’s been practicing TNR and socialization of feral kittens for years. I fell for and adopted them from a litter of five for which she performed this labor of love; they reached their eighth birthday this past spring.
In all honesty, I love my two babies like there’s no tomorrow but I don’t believe I’ll adopt colony cats again. There’s a reason I call the elegantly tuxedo-clad Ziggy ‘my $10,000 boy’ (and counting). Have you ever counted eight weeks of your life where most of your free time was spent in a room with only a mattress on the floor and a cat recovering from surgery for a broken leg? Ziggy and I spent a quality summer doing just that in 2011, after which he was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, wherein collagen doesn’t grow efficiently into bone. And that bow-leggedness that literally appeared overnight in ZuZu (the runt of the litter), early on? Likely the same thing, according to the vet.
Between Zig and Zu I can also list these other challenges we’ve encountered: dermatitis, digestion issues, neural problems, frequent vomiting, kidney infection, over-grooming, arthritis.
I would never, ever trade in my Z’s; they’re sweet, affectionate kitties and I’ll just say it – burying my face in Zig’s belly and chest when he offers them up for kisses is pretty much my happy place.
But…returning to my point, there’s one word that, if enacted, would go a long way towards solving these issues:
Which comes down to the most fallible mammal of all, humans.
That is, humans who ‘adopt’ cats for which they don’t provide adequate care or responsibly spay/neuter them. Quite often such cats end up producing multiple litters of kittens that are completely off the radar, and conscience, of their ‘owners’. Some kittens are lucky enough to end up in the care of people like my friend, but the majority end up feral and lead truncated, difficult lives. Lather, rinse, repeat – you see the inherent problem here.
The challenges facing us with regard to sustainability are wide and deep, to be sure. Yet consider the benefits to be realized if responsible pet ownership resulted in a steep decline in the number of stray cats: lower threat of disease and species extinction, less need to spend precious funds on population management, and healthier animals overall – resulting in less financial and emotional stress on their human caretakers. That’s a win/win…..and Kerry could spend more time hanging out by her catio with a well-deserved glass of wine!