The Outdoor Cat: Neighborhood Mascot or Menace? – The New York Times | Gmx Pharm

A white and gray shorthair tom with a penchant for slaying rats, Zeke is known in his Boston neighborhood as a fearless roamer.

A neighbor once called his owner, Tricia Brennan, sounding slightly panicked.

“‘Zeke is in the back and seems to be upset with a raccoon,'” the neighbor said, according to Ms Brennan, a Unitarian Universalist minister.

“‘What can I do?'”

The showdown ended when the neighbor shooed both creatures away with a broom, but the story only cemented the legend of Zeke. It was also a reminder that cats are descendants of the Middle Eastern wildcat, a fierce, solitary hunter.

You’ve seen them out there – well-fed cats, sometimes with collars, stalking the streets as if they were their own, or collapsing on a warm sidewalk to loll in the sun.

Cat lovers find them adorable. Conservationists and bird lovers see furry killers and blame them for the decline in bird populations and the deaths of countless voles, chipmunks, and other small animals.

How you feel about day releasers can also depend on where you are in the world. In the United States, about 81 percent of domestic cats are kept indoors, according to a 2021 Domestic Cat Demographics study. But elsewhere, letting them roam around can be far more common. According to the same study, only 17 percent of cats in Denmark are purely domestic animals. In Turkey, it is so common for wild cats to freely enter and exit cafes, restaurants and markets that a documentary was made about this phenomenon. In Poland, they were recently dubbed an “invasive alien species.”

And in the UK, where the 2021 study says 74 percent of cat owners let their cats roam outside, many cat charities are advising pet owners on how best to protect cats outdoors. The idea might come as a shock to her American counterparts, who often refuse to adopt cats to people who want to keep their pets outside.

“We’ve always done it this way,” says Nicky Trevorrow, cat behaviorist at Cats Protection in the UK, who encourages owners to bring cats in at night and feed them a quality food to discourage predatory behavior.

“As a behaviorist,” Ms. Trevorrow said, “I have to say that I am in the camp of giving cats room to breathe and outside.”

But should cats have that much freedom?

For much of the 20th century, most cats stayed outside, said David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs and assistant news editor at Science.

The invention of cat litter in 1947 made indoor cats more acceptable.

“But even then, people thought of cats as the less domesticated animal,” Grimm said. “And nobody wants to clean a litter box.”

In 1949, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Cat Bill, a bird protection measure that would have fined people for leaving their cats outside. Governor Adlai Stevenson vetoed the bill.

“It’s in the nature of cats to do some level of unaccompanied roaming,” he said in a letter to lawmakers. “In my opinion, the state of Illinois and its local government agencies already have enough to do without trying to control cat crime.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s and early ’90s that more Americans began to bring their cats indoors, as conservationists warned of declining bird populations and veterinarians warned that an outdoor cat was more susceptible to disease, parasites, and infection, and could be more vulnerable to attacks from larger predators like coyotes and hawks or speeding cars.

But many owners have also had concerns about keeping a curious, restless animal indoors, said Mr Grimm, who has taught his own cats to walk on a leash when they’re outside.

Keeping her inside “didn’t feel right,” he said. “Just like I wouldn’t leave my kids inside all day. We can only take so much animal from them.”

Ms. Brennan, Zeke’s owner, initially tried to keep him indoors. But he bit his heels, yanked at Ms. Brennan’s hair, and pounced on it so badly that her teenage daughter locked herself in her room.

“It’s an uncomfortable peace you make,” said Ms Brennan, 65, “of having a cat outdoors.”

Wildlife specialists often tell the story of Tibbles, a cat who traveled to New Zealand with her owner in 1894.

The couple settled on Stephens Island, where there were many small, flightless birds.

But when Tibbles arrived, she single-handedly hunted the birds to extinction, conservationists have claimed.

Where cats have been introduced, they have decimated native creatures, according to a 2011 study by biologists.

“I’m pretty adamant that this is a pretty devastating invasive species,” said Jason Luscier, associate professor of biology at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY. He helped develop an app called “Cat Tracker” to get a more accurate measurement of the number of outdoor cats around the world.

Professor Luscier, who stressed that he likes cats (“they’re super cuddly”), said colonies of feral cats, which can reproduce easily and overwhelm an ecosystem, pose the greater threat to birds and other wildlife, not outdoor pets who come in at night and are fed meals regularly.

Ms Trevorrow, the behaviorist in the UK, said people often don’t pay attention to the broader threats birds face, such as habitat loss and the commercial use of pesticides that kill insects, birds’ natural prey.

“I just feel like cats are being used as scapegoats,” Ms Trevorrow said.

The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the decline in bird populations was mainly due to human-caused problems such as climate change, pollution and agricultural management.

While there is evidence that cats kill up to 27 million birds a year in the UK, “there is also evidence that cats tend to prey on weak or sickly garden birds,” said Anna Feeney, a spokeswoman for the organization.

“Cats are unlikely to have a major impact on the population,” she said in an email.

Ms Trevorrow has written guides for cat owners who want to keep their pets outside and maintain a garden that attracts birds and other pollinators.

“There’s a way to have both without the carnage,” Ms Trevorrow said.

However, the best way to keep your cat — and wild animals — safe is to keep them on a leash, keep them in a fenced area, or build a “catio” that allows them to play outside without being exposed to the elements, said Dr. José Arce, a veterinarian and President of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Not all cats like the great outdoors.

Kelly Goshe said two of her family’s three cats, Catson and Puff, are determined roamers. Under the watchful eyes of her children Sylvia, 9; Corina, 7; and Wesley, 4.

The cats gave them no choice, she said. Catson “will do anything to get out,” Sylvia said.

Puff figured out how to open the sliding door with her paws, she said.

But Luna, Puff’s sister, is afraid to go outside.

“We left them by the screen door,” Ms. Goshe said. “She’ll just look at it and run away.”

Susan C Beachy contributed research.

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