Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Feral Cats and their ecological impact

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Feral Cats (Felis Catis) and Their Role As An Introduced Species





Introduction


Here in Hawai’i there is great concern about the state of our native ecosystem. Many news reports have been done about many of the invasive species that have been allowed to proliferate on our islands. Most of these animals, such as the Coqui frog and Jackson’s Chameleon are “exotic” species that many people recognize as a nuisance. Yet, there is one invasive species that is so familiar to us, we may not even realize the possible threat that it may have on our native ecosystem, as well as the native ecosystems around the world. This animal is none other than the feral cat. Feral cats are offspring of domestic cats born in the wild that are wary of human contact. They are organized individuals that live in family packs; some have even compared them with Lions. This paper discusses the concern surrounding feral cats, the methods of controlling them, examples of feral cat eradication on an island, the problems that can arise after complete eradication, the difficulty in eradicating feral cats on a large land mass, and the ethical controversy on how to control feral cats humanely.


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Why the Concern?





Feral cats are excellent predators and have an excellent ability to survive in all types of climates. Feral cat habitats include rainforests, deserts, and alpine areas (Calver et al. 18). They can survive with relatively no drinking water, and feed on a wide variety of smaller vertebrate animals such as birds, rodents, small reptiles, and amphibians (Calver et al. 18). Feral cats make homes out of vacant animal burrows, trees, dense brush, caves, and various vacant areas in urban settings such as dumps, alleyways, shipyards, and abandoned cars (Calver et al. 18). Feral cats breed in the spring through late summer, and a single female can produce up to seven kittens. The cats reach sexual maturity at about one year, and can reproduce continuously until late in their lives (Calver et al. 18).


The major concern about feral cats on islands is that they usually have no natural predators, causing uncontrollable population growth, and severe predation. Even with predators such as the fox, wolf, dingoes, and other large carnivores on larger land masses, the cats have an uncanny ability to maintain stable population numbers. They pose a major threat to native birds as well as small native mammals. It is estimated that feral cats kill an estimated 1 birds per cat per year. There are even human health concerns associated with zoonotic diseases such as rabies, toxoplasmosis, and cat scratch fever (Patronek et al. 18).


Methods of Controlling Feral Cats





There are many methods of controlling feral cat populations, but actual results are variable because of the difficulty in locating many of the cat colonies, and also because of the sheer numbers of cat populations. It is estimated that in the mainland United States alone there are at least 0 million feral cats (Pimental 000). Other problems may arise because some of the methods of control may pose a risk to non-target animals, and even humans (especially children). Even with control programs installed, the actual effectiveness of the methods used are hard to measure because while the number of cats eradicated are known, the numbers still alive are relatively impossible to calculate, especially on large land masses. Methods of control include shooting, trapping (for euthanasia, or spay/neuter trap and release programs), poison baiting, and even virus-vectored immunocontraceptives (Courchamp et al. 000). Designing a control program must also take into account the economics of the methods used. Hunting cats takes considerable man power, and can get quite expensive. Baiting cats with toxins require much less man power, but not only can it affect non target animals, it can also poison indigenous fauna. Calver et al. (16) reported that in Australia, use of the toxin, flouroacetate, after a long period of time caused a high concentration in vegetation, and also in the bodies of dead herbivores. Pet owners should also prevent contributing to the cat population by sterilizing their companion animals, and restricting contact with feral cats because of possible disease transmission. Some have even suggested implementing a night time curfew for domestic cats, and requiring micro chip identification so if the animals are trapped, they can be returned without mistaken euthanasia (Calver et al 18).


Because of some of the negative effects of some of these methods (poison, shooting) the chosen method of use should be well thought out and planned, weighing the possibility of death to other animals, and effects on the environment.


Eradication Programs on Islands





Feral Cats once preyed upon these Frigate birds on Jarvis Island but have been successfully eradicated.


Islands have very fragile ecosystems, and are home to many indigenous, native species. Cats pose a major threat because many of the islands they inhabit are also a home and /or breeding ground for many seabird species, many of whom are threatened or endangered. The seabirds nest on the ground, and cats prey upon young chicks as well as eggs. There have been many eradication programs used on various small islands with relatively no human population. These eradication programs have been effective because of the use of various control methods, which corresponded to the relative densities of the cat populations and other factors such as topography (Carver et al 18).


For example, on Gabo Island, a control program active from 187-11 successfully eradicated the feral cat population. Scientists first tried shooting and trapping, but these attempts proved unsuccessful. The only method that worked on the island was poison-baiting in which dead chicks were inoculated with 1080 toxin and left in cat prone areas (Twyford et al 000).


On Marion Island, located in the Southern Indian Ocean, a few cats were intentionally introduced to control mice at a meteorological station in 14. By 175, the cat population had increased to an estimated 175 feral cats that were preying on burrowing Petrels. The cats were estimated to have killed 450,000 Petrels per year. In order to combat this problem, scientists started an eradication program that spanned from 177-11, when the final cats were eradicated. Unlike Gabo island, shooting and trapping were the most useful methods of control in the beginning of the program. These control methods were coupled with biological control with the feline viral disease Panleukopenia. However, as cat densities diminished, shooting became ineffective and a combination of poison-baiting and trapping replaced it. This program shows how a control program must not only be designed well, but also be modified as time passes and feral cat populations decrease. (Bester et al. 000)


These control programs worked, but these islands had relatively no humans residing on them. Using these control programs as models for islands such as the Hawaiian Islands, may not be feasibly implemented because of the heavy human, as well as domestic pet population. While the various control methods could be used, they would probably have to be used more cautiously.


Controlling Feral Cats on Large Land Masses





While there is no doubt that feral cats do pose a major problem on larger land masses such as Australia and the United States and should be controlled, there is a lack of evidence that proves the cats are directly responsible for the decline in native species numbers. One Australian study showed that the majority of feral cats preyed upon other introduced species such as rabbits, and that native mammals only comprised -40% of the diet (Calver et al. 18). It is not to say that the cats are not responsible for decreases in native species populations, but rather it is harder to determine the effects of the feral cats because of such a large area. In contrast, it was found that feral cats that resided in Australian reserves did hinder attempts to reintroduce some native species into the habitat. This fact alone is argued to be enough reason to control feral cat colonies (Calver et al. 18).


In the United States, there is great concern over health issues in urban areas. There are also concerns with public safety, as some feral cats have reportedly attacked some individuals. Regardless of what the cause, feral cat control is very much needed in all areas. (Patronek 18)


Ethical Issues Involved with Feral Cat Control








Dealing with the objections of cat lovers and regulating domestic pets are a big issue in control programs in areas with human populations. There is great public concern over what kind of method is being used to control the populations. Many people have objected to shooting and poison trapping techniques because they argue that it is cruel and inhumane. It may also put their own animals in danger of accidental death. Using biological control methods is also a concern because of frequent contact between feral cats and domestic animals.


One control method has been utilized in place of some of these controversial methods, and has gained widespread public approval as a better way to deal with feral cats. It is characterized as a trap/sterilize/release program, and while not as rapid as other control methods it seems to be an ethical compromise. The program involves trapping the cats, sterilizing and tagging them (by tattoo or other ID) and releasing them back into the colony. Many programs also feed colonies of cats to help deter them away from preying on wildlife in such high numbers (Patronek 18).


Conclusion


In conclusion, feral cats are a major threat to native ecosystems, and should be controlled. There are many methods of control, and measures should be taken in designing the right control program for certain areas. Factors such as type of land mass (island vs. large land mass), topography, cat population densities, and presence of people and domestic animals should be considered. Care should also be taken in choosing as target- specific a control method as possible. While many control programs are up and running, volunteers are needed everyday to help in the effort of controlling feral cats. Even more importantly, domestic pet owners should responsibly sterilize their animals and limit their geographic movement so as not to contribute to the problem. These measures will greatly improve the current situation, and perhaps save many native wildlife from being lost forever.








Annotated Bibliography


M.C. Calver, D.R. King, D.A. Risbey, J. Short, and L.E. Twig. 18. Ecological Blunders and Conservation The Impact of Introduced Foxes and Cats on Australian Native Fauna. Journal of Biological Education 67-7.


Authors discussed implications that feral cats are responsible for many of the extinctions of native Australian fauna. Methods of control, public opposition, and experimental research is presented.


Twyford, Keith L.; Humphrey, Peter G.; Nunn, Ross P.; Willoughby, Lawson. 000. Eradication of Feral Cats (Felis catus) from Gabo Island, south-east Victoria. Ecological Management and Restoration 1 4-50.


Authors discuss the successful eradication of feral cats on Gabo Island.


Bester, M.N.; Bloomer J.P.; Bartlett, P.A.; Muller, D.D.; van Rooyen, M.; Buchner, H. 000. Final Eradication of Feral Cats from Sub-Antartic Marion Island, Southern Indian Ocean. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 0 5-58.


Authors discuss the effectiveness of techniques used to eradicate feral cat populations on Marion Island.


Courchamp, Franck; Cornell, Stephen J. 000. Virus-Vectored Immunocontraception to Control Feral Cats on Islands A Mathematical Model. Journal of Applied Ecology, 7 0-14.


Authors consider virus-vectored immunocontraception techniques might be effective in eradicating feral cat populations on islands.


Patronek ,GJ. 18. Free-roaming and Feral Cats�their impact on wildlife and human beings. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 1 18-6.


Author discusses the various effects of feral cats on human beings and wildlife, discussing zoonotic diseases, spread of feline infections to domestic cats, environmental impact, and methods of control.


Pimental, David. 000. Environmental and Economic Costs of Non-indigenous Species in the United States 10-.


Author discussed impact of non-native species on U.S. wildlife.











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