MAUI'S FERAL CAT CONUNDRUM
An invasive species is running rampant on the island, spreading disease and threatening endemic species. Is there a solution, or are they here to stay?
November 19, 2009
The predator pads silently through the pili grass, crouched low, muscles tensed. Slits of yellow, nearly obscured by distended black pupils, glow from the corners of its eyes. Its ears, sensitive enough to pick up ultrasonic frequencies, fan methodically. Its tail twitches, its shoulders hunch and ripple. There is a pause and then—pounce!
The 'ua'u turns too late. The bird tries to lift its wings, to scramble back to its burrow, but two sets of retractable claws sink into its back, pinning it to the ground. Powerful jaws clamp down on the 'ua'u's neck as knifelike teeth lodge between its cervical vertebrae, severing its spinal cord with a sickening pop.
Noiselessly as it came, the predator stalks away, dragging its lifeless prize into the bushes. As night envelopes Haleakala, yellow eyes pierce the darkness and a low yowl can be heard over the crunch of feathers and bones.
The predator is perhaps the most skilled and voracious on Maui—a genetically honed hunter with a wide range of prey that includes endemic endangered species. And its numbers are growing.
CATS IN PARADISE
Our relationship with cats dates back thousands of years. The dog may be man's best friend, but Felis catus is the most widely owned pet on the planet, with "600 million cats liv[ing] among humans worldwide," according to a report in the June issue of Scientific American. They come into our homes, rub against our legs, claw our furniture, curl up in our laps and sleep in our beds. We feed them, play with them, love them like members of the family.
Because of this association, it's easy to forget what powerful creatures they are. Sure, domestication has swelled their bellies and dulled their instincts. But under the surface, little Fluffy is a territorial carnivore, genetically indistinguishable from her untamed feline ancestors.
That becomes obvious when cats go feral. A feral cat—not to be confused with a stray—is a cat that was either born in the wild or abandoned at a young age. Feral cats "are not socialized and disdain human contact," according to the Maui Humane Society's definition. They may look like our beloved pets, but for all intents and purposes they are wild animals.
And there are a lot of them on Maui. Feral cats are nocturnal and skittish, and colonies have taken hold in remote regions, making accurate counts difficult to come by. Fern Duvall, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, cites an estimate that puts the figure as high as 400,000. Maui Humane Society Director Jocelyn Bouchard says there is "no scientific basis for that number," but that "certainly we're talking about a couple hundred thousand." Either way, there are at least as many feral cats living on Maui as there are humans—and they might outnumber us two to one.
"They've found paradise in the same place we have," Duvall told a group of about 50 concerned residents at the Tavares Community Center in Pukalani last week. "And it has had catastrophic results."
Duvall showed graphic slides featuring the partially digested remains of native birds pulled from the stomachs of feral cats. He said thus far Maui's cats haven't pushed any native species to extinction but added "that could change soon."
Duvall laid out several reasons why cats are a particularly harmful invasive species. First, they're extremely fecund—a fertile male and female cat and their descendants can produce up to 420,000 offspring in a seven-year span. Even factoring in high kitten mortality and shorter lifespans, it's easy to see how a feral feline population can explode in a tropical location with abundant food and few competing predators.
Cats are also "opportunistic hunters," meaning they'll stalk and kill prey even when they aren't hungry (as every owner whose Friskies-fattened housecat has left a half-chewed rat on the doorstep can attest). And they're obligate carnivores—they have to eat meat. "There's no such thing as a vegetarian cat," Duvall said, eliciting one of the evening's few laughs.
Add the fact that Hawaii's endemic birds aren't hardwired to fear cats and you've got a recipe for disaster. "Hawaii has more unique species than almost any place on Earth," said Duvall. "It's a very special heritage...feral cats are a threat to that."
Duvall was joined at the meeting—sponsored by Friends of Haleakala National Park—by Maui's public health officer, Dr. Lorrin Pang. Dr. Pang outlined some of the diseases that can be spread by cats: typhus, E. coli, salmonella, Bartonella (better known as cat scratch fever), toxoplasmosis. That last one is a parasite found in cat feces. Duvall said it's been detected in animals ranging from nene geese to spinner dolphins and monk seals.
"Cat colonies are becoming the norm, not the exception," said Duvall. Of course, the question that naturally follows is, what are we going to do about it?
TO KILL OR NOT TO KILL?
"I'd love to spay feral cats all day, but I've got to pay my mortgage," said a woman who identified herself as a vet, during the question and answer session following Duvall and Pang's presentations. "You get the resources together and I'll do it," she added, to a smattering of applause.
According to Duvall, to stabilize the population of feral cats on-island, 74 percent would have to be spayed or neutered. Right now, he said, we're spaying and neutering less than 1 percent.
"This is a huge problem," acknowledges Bouchard. "When they're in these remote areas, it becomes very difficult to control."
The Maui Humane Society supports a policy known as TNR, "trap, neuter, return." Bouchard adds an "M," for "manage." Once a colony has been stabilized, it's important to monitor the health and wellbeing of the animals and their environment, she says.
While it endorses TNR, the Humane Society does euthanize animals. On the far end of the spectrum is Makawao-based 9th Life Hawaii, an organization that says it has "sterilized more than 1,700 cats" since 2006. "We are the undisputed leaders of the NO KILL movement on Maui, a movement that is being embraced world-wide," reads the group's mission statement.
One of the works cited by 9th Life and other no-kill proponents is Redemption, a book by animal rights activist and former attorney Nathan Winograd. In his chapter on feral cats, Winograd rejects eradication, and accuses those who support killing feral cats to protect native species of "biological xenophobia."
"The notion that native species have more value than non-native ones finds its roots historically in Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany," he writes. (He does add that the "nativist movement" is not "inherently racist.")
For Winograd and others who share his views, the eradication of feral cats is not only immoral, but also impractical. "[N]ature cannot be frozen in time," he writes. "No matter how many so-called 'non-native' animals (and plants for that matter) are killed, the goal of total eradication will never be reached. As far as feral cats are concerned, they will always exist."
Several people at the meeting brought up similar points. One woman asked why feral cats were being singled out over pigs, mongooses and other invasive animals. Another questioner wondered, "If we get rid of the cats, won't the rats take over?"
To the first point, Duvall acknowledged cats aren't the only threat to endangered birds. To the second, he said it's a common misconception that predators control the prey population. In fact, he said, it's the other way around—a female cat will ovulate more frequently if prey is plentiful, propagating as quickly and profusely as the environment allows.
Duvall urged cat owners to spay and neuter their pets and to keep animals and food indoors. He said people who feed cat colonies, while they often "have good intentions," are contributing to the problem. But he stopped short of endorsing eradication, or any other sweeping solution.
"I'm [only] here to call attention to the problem," he said. He did add that the DLNR is working on rules to address the issue, but the clearest point that came across during the nearly three-hour meeting was: nobody has an answer.
ONLY OURSELVES TO BLAME
Other islands have dealt with feral cats. According to a 2004 study published in the journal Conservation Biology, feral cats have been completely eliminated from nearly 50 islands worldwide, through a combination of trapping, hunting, poisoning and the introduction of disease. (All of which, clearly, could have serious, unintended environmental consequences.) However, most of those islands were smaller than 2 square-miles, and the largest—Marion Island in the Indian Ocean—was 112 square-miles. Maui is 727 square-miles. Add its unique geography and isolation, and comparisons become problematic.
It's also worth noting that cats are by no means newcomers to Hawaii—they're nearly as entrenched as we are. A December 2007 New York Times report called Captain James Cook "a veritable Johnny Appleseed of the cat." (Not the worst thing he's ever been called.) Cook and other Westerners may have planted Hawaii's fertile feline garden, but subsequent generations of humans (of all races and cultures) have tended it and helped it flourish. In fact, Bouchard says, it's a cycle that builds on itself: as the feral cat population grows, so does the myth that releasing cats into the wild to fend for themselves is a viable option. "People who are moving off-island or have unwanted kittens see all the [feral] cats out there and think, 'Well, they've got a fighting chance,'" she says.
As the meeting in Pukalani wound down, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be: blame the humans. "Get rid of people!" one person shouted to a murmur of approval. She doesn't go that far, but Bouchard agrees we have to accept culpability. "We need to point the finger back at ourselves," she says. "The best way to stem the tide is to change our own behavior."
There's certainly truth in that. But whether the answer is TNR, eradication or some combination of the two, it'll require a massive outpouring of resources and manpower to get results. Until then, even if you disagree with his philosophy, it seems like Winograd is right: feral cats will always exist. MauiTime, Jacob Shafer
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