If you live with a domestic cat, you know that your charming kitty isn’t truly “tame.” Sure, she lives in your home, and comforts you with her purring presence whenever she settles into your lap. But she moves through your house or apartment as if she were still in the wilderness from which she evolved 4,000 years ago. Even indoors, your sweet little pussycat chases nearly everything that moves. She crouches in ambush under the sofa, waiting to pounce on your foot as you walk past her. She attacks bits of string, crumpled pieces of paper, and even shadows. As night approaches, she pads silently through your bedroom, leaps onto the window sill, and within seconds, rips a tear into your screen and has a moth in her mouth.
Most people who live with cats would agree that their feline companions seem to have retained more of their wild natures than their canine counterparts. This is not to say that dogs don’t have their share of wolfish behaviors—they do. But cats tend to spend more time walking on the feral side of the fence. They hunt (often returning from their predatory adventures with unwanted trophy “gifts”); they wander (sometimes far from home and for several days); and they engage in noisy nocturnal turf wars (occasionally returning with battle scars).
Recently, the wild side of domestic cats has been capturing the interest of scientists. Projects such as “Kitty Cams” at the University of Georgia and the BBC’s The Secret Life of the Cat, used GPS, activity-sensing collars, and small cameras to track cats over various time periods. The inspiration was the fact that scientists know more about certain wild species of cats than they do about domestic cats. They decided it was time to find out what our feline friends were up to when we weren’t watching. Their data demonstrated that cats are even more active than we imagined. They regularly engage in extensive roaming, hunting, territorial skirmishes, occasional camaraderie with other cats, fights with dogs, and theft (raiding one another’s food bowls).
Another study—conducted last year by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the US Fish and Wildlife Service — focused on one specific aspect of feline behavior: predation. Their research shows that domestic cats are a major threat to wildlife, killing between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually. Although the study found that stray, feral, and farm cats were killing about three times as much wildlife as pet cats, our feline companions are nonetheless playing a significant role. In fact, the Smithsonian and Fish and Wildlife research suggests that the domestic cat is the greatest human-related threat to wildlife in the country.
So what can we do to limit wildlife mortality caused by cat predation? To start with, spay or neuter your cat so he or she doesn’t contribute to the feline overpopulation problem. Next, consider limiting your cat’s time outdoors. Most dog owners—either as a result of local laws or common sense—do not let their dogs roam freely through the neighborhood. Cat owners, on the other hand, are usually not subject to containment laws, and they often let their cats roam 24 hours a day. This is a long-standing double standard that we need to reconsider.
If you don’t want to confine your cats, then at least keep them inside at night. Not only will you significantly reduce their hunting (because cats are nocturnal by nature), but you will keep them from getting run over by cars, attacked by coyotes or dogs, and poisoned by toxic substances, such as antifreeze and pesticides. Finally, you can look into using a belled collar (which reduces a cat’s hunting success by a third), but you need to be sure it’s properly fitted so it doesn’t get entangled in underbrush or fencing.
Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.