Shooting Domestic Cats to Save Wild Birds

Wild birds are dying by the millions in Wisconsin and other states. One of the reasons is that cats, both wild and domesticated, are killing them. But a proposal to allow residents to shoot stray cats has naturally stirred up a huge controversy.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In Wisconsin, there's a battle raging between animal lovers. Millions of birds are dying each year, but proposals to save them have angered cat lovers. Sandy Hausman has the story.

SANDY HAUSMAN reporting:

Stanley Temple is a wildlife ecologist from the University of Wisconsin who's spent years studying grassland birds. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin State Journal wrote about his research, and Temple was soon the target of death threats.

Professor STANLEY TEMPLE (University of Wisconsin): The phone started ringing Sunday afternoon at my home and the phone rang all night long. I was alarmed.

HAUSMAN: You see, Temple had discovered that grassland bird populations were dropping. He knew agriculture and real estate development had destroyed nesting sites, but he told his students something else was taking a significant toll.

Prof. TEMPLE: Cats have been involved in the extinction of more bird species worldwide than any other factor except habitat destruction.

HAUSMAN: Based on his research, Temple estimated that cats, both domestic and free-ranging, were killing at least 7.8 million birds each year in his state alone. That information led members of a citizens group called the Conversation Congress to suggest what some saw as a radical solution, that in rural areas, people be allowed to shoot stray cats just as they're now permitted to kill skunks, possums and weasels. Professor Temple, himself a cat owner, wasn't sure that would work. After all, there are millions of unclaimed felines wandering the Wisconsin countryside.

Prof. TEMPLE: I simply don't know what impact it would have, but I suspected it would be ineffective.

HAUSMAN: Still, Temple's name had appeared in a newspaper story about the proposal to shoot cats, prompting threatening phone calls. Someone tacked a vicious note to his office door. He was attacked on radio talk shows, and a self-proclaimed witch from upstate New York even put a curse on him.

Like Temple, state lawmakers were frightened by the public outcry and decided not to even discuss the proposal, according to University of Wisconsin ecologist Chris Lepczyk.

Mr. CHRIS LEPCZYK (University of Wisconsin): It became so emotional so fast that it overwhelmed, in my mind, a good discussion.

HAUSMAN: The Madison/Wisconsin Audobon Society, with 2,500 members, is now calling on owners of pet cats to keep them inside. Executive secretary Karen Edder-Hale says cats kill even when well fed.

Ms. KAREN EDDER-HALE (Executive Secretary, Madison/Wisconsin Audobon Society): They have a hunting instinct. So even when they aren't hungry, most of them will hunt. Even flies or other insects get into your house, you will see them chasing those insects.

HAUSMAN: And ecologist Lepczyk thinks it's time to start treating cats the way we treat dogs.

Mr. LEPCZYK: We don't allow dogs to run free, and society really decided that years ago because of things like rabies and human health.

HAUSMAN: He's got nothing against cats; in fact, he owns three of them. So does Audobon's Edder-Hale, who argues keeping cats inside is good for them, too. If allowed to roam, they're at risk for catching diseases, being hit by cars or devoured by wild animals.

Ms. EDDER-HALE: Coyotes, gray-horned owls, other predators that are out there.

HAUSMAN: But what about all those stray cats with no owners to keep them inside? Lepczyk suggests a statewide program to trap and put them up for adoption or place them in captive colonies. When critics say that's unnatural, he argues the needs of felines should be weighed against the survival of birds that evolved in a place where there were once no cats.

Mr. LEPCZYK: Well, cats are not natural in this landscape. They're not native to North America, and we have to think about trade-offs.

HAUSMAN: But with all the political controversy surrounding one ill-fated proposal, Lepczyk fears it will be years before society agrees on a solution to this problem. For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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