So far, so good. Now comes the real problem: unowned cats, which include strays and ferals. Born in the wild or abandoned, feral cats spend almost no time with humans; they’re basically wild animals. Stray cats, by contrast, often have a working relationship with humans. They might live in managed communities, where a human caretaker regular feeds and watches over them—“subsidizing” them, in Marra’s words—meaning their numbers can soar to rates they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Whether stray or feral, these cats kill on average three times as many animals as owned cats, according to Marra.
Cats kill; that much is clear. “The science is all pretty bloody obvious,” as Michael Clinchy, a Canadian biologist focusing on predator-prey relationships at the University of Victoria, puts it. But cats also spread disease. Outdoor cats can transmit plague, rabies, feline leukemia and a mysterious parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii. The extinction of the Hawaiian crow, or ʻalalā, in 2002 is thought to have been caused in part by the spread of Toxoplasma via feral cats. “The diseases from cats is what’s going to change this whole equation,” Marra says.
Americans own about 86 million cats, or one cat for every three households. That makes cats more popular, petwise, than dogs, and we haven’t even gotten to Internet memes yet. But not all pet cats are created equal. The majority of them—about two-thirds to three-fourths, surveys say—are your sweet, harmless, cuddly housecats, which seldom set foot outside. Marra takes no issue with these lap cats. Their instincts may be lethal, but they rarely get the chance to harm more than a house mouse.
Feral cat advocates and ecologists agree on very little. But one thing they both will say is this: There are too many cats outside. Feral cat advocates say these dense numbers threaten the welfare of cats themselves, which lead miserable lives colored by fights and starvation. Ecologists, meanwhile, worry about those cats’ victims—as well whether the cats might be spreading disease to humans and other animals.
Despite these kinds of successes, many ecologists say flatly that TNR doesn’t work. The problem is that, for TNR to succeed in large populations, at least 75 percent of cats in a colony must be sterilized. That rarely happens. The trouble is that negligent pet owners continue to abandon pet cats, which then join existing colonies; additionally, non-neutered stray cats can wander in. Like efforts at vaccinating schools against chickenpox, just a few stragglers can undermine an entire TNR program. Any short-term reduction in colony size is therefore quickly reversed, a group of researchers including Levy and ecologist Patrick Foley reported after studying nearly 15,000 stray and feral cats.
The Toxoplasma threat, Marra writes, makes outdoor cats nothing less than a public health issue. He recommends that the federal government take on the task of eradicating cats from the landscape, via the Centers for Disease Control. He imagines taxpayer-supported public education campaigns, billboards about disease dangers and the importance of keeping cats inside, and large-scale eradication programs in vulnerable areas like Hawaii. To Wolf and others, the idea of such a policy is “absurd” and “screams of desperation.” But to Marra, it’s simply a logical conclusion: “We need to minimize the impact humans have,” he says. “Cats are one of the impacts.”
Cats are different than dogs in the sense that they can lead a semi-wild life and cost the owner virtually nothing. There are tens of thousands of these ‘pets’ living on the farms and the back streets of America’s cities. These animals are often infested with parasites and deadly viral diseases and survive by hunting which takes a tremendous toll on wildlife. Their quality of life is very poor and most do not live more than a few years. Everyone knows of these cats and their ‘owners’ and I do not consider their quality of care to be adequate enough to even consider it here. The following chart lists the cost of owning a cat from three perspectives: the lowest cost of adequate care, the high-end cost of care, and the cost of care for my own cats. In addition to listing the cost of owning a cat for the more expensive first year, the cost for owning the cat for the remaining 13 years is broken down as an average yearly cost and then totaled at the end showing how much it will cost to own a cat for 14 years.
Did the totals surprise you? I know some of you are thinking, ‘I would never spend that much,’ but in reality, these prices are on the conservative side. I live in the rural Midwest. In the large metropolitan areas the prices could easily be doubled. These prices also do not take into account animals with special health or behavioral problems. If you have a cat with a chronic illness, your veterinary cost could triple. Likewise, if you have a cat that urinates on the carpeting and you have to clean or replace the carpeting as a result, your costs are going to be higher. While some people think they can cut costs on food, litter, and veterinary expenses (which when combined are often the biggest expenses), my experience shows otherwise. If you feed cheap food, you can end up with a cat with urinary or intestinal problems and high veterinary bills. If you use cheap litter, your cat may use the living room carpet instead. The same goes for avoiding routine veterinary care; you will shorten your cat’s life or end up paying in the end. So these prices are pretty accurate. Even for myself with indoor/outdoor low maintenance cats (I do feed good food and use good clumping litter) the costs are still very significant. What does all this mean? Well first of all, it shows that there is no such thing as a free kitten. Secondly, it shows that we need to be very committed to our pet cats, both financially and with our time. If owners are not willing to meet their animal’s financial needs then they are rarely able to meet their pet’s social and basic care needs as well. Before we consider taking that ‘free kitten,’ we have to be prepared for the time and financial commitment that the animal requires. I have spent a lot of time taking care of animals that had owners that could not spend the money or time required to meet their basic care. The problem with this is that the animal has no control over its situation and suffers as a result. Therefore, I often spend time talking people out of getting a pet if they are not getting the pet for all of the right reasons. The animal shelters in this country are overflowing with abandoned and unwanted cats and dogs. Millions are euthanized every year and millions more lead unhappy and poor quality lives with owners that do not meet their basic needs. If you are thinking of getting a pet cat, be aware of the cost and time commitment required, and then choose a needy pet from a shelter. If you want to have a purebred cat, only purchase one that is guaranteed healthy, is well-bred, and whose parents and grandparents are free of any inheritable disease. If you are educated about the cat’s needs and committed to the pet, then you can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
People assume that Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and author of the recent book Cat Wars, hates cats. This is not the case. “I love cats,” he says, calling them “fascinating, magnificent animals,” that seem to have a “freakish love for me.” He’s even considered a pet cat, despite being mildly allergic. “This is the thing people don’t realize,” Marra told me recently at a café near his office in Washington, D.C. “I’m both a wild animal advocate and a domestic animal advocate. If my mother thought I wasn’t supporting cats, she’d be flipping in her grave.”
No one knows exactly how many stray and feral cats stalk the U.S. They are, by nature, elusive and transient. In a 2012 study, Marra used an estimate of 30 to 80 million; the Humane Society estimates a more conservative 30 to 40 million. Adithya Sambamurthy from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s The Reveal recently reported that unowned cats may rival the number of pet cats, placing them at about 80 million. That means, for every lap cat hunkering over his dish of Fancy Feast, there is another one prowling around for his dinner—like an evil twin, or a particle of antimatter.
For Marra, TNR is a feel-good solution that is no solution at all—a Band-Aid that has done little to stem the flow of cats. By refusing to look at the reality, he says, we are letting our “misplaced compassion” for cats get the better of our reason. That is why he and some other ecologists call for a more draconian approach: widespread removal of feral and stray cats, including euthanasia.