Feral cats pose threat to Pennsylvania wildlife species, but what can anyone do about it?

Sipping my morning coffee before work this week, I gazed out my dining room window to watch a new day come to life. It’s a nice way to wake up, enjoying the comfort of a warm home, while songbirds flutter from their roosts and begin rummaging through frosty leaf litter for breakfast.

But on this particular dawn, a flicker of movement caught my well-trained eyes, still sharp from an active hunting season. Hopping along the front hedgerow came a large cottontail rabbit.

After clearing my stacked firewood pile, it paused behind the ornamental shrubs that line my driveway. But suddenly, the rabbit’s ears stiffened, it cocked its head to the side, and stood up on hind legs to peer over the shrubbery toward the gravel path that leads to our home.

Naturally, my eyes shifted in the direction the rabbit was staring, and I noticed a shaggy-tailed tomcat slinking down the lane through the neighbor’s evergreens. The cat was taking its time beneath the spruce boughs, a favorite haunt for bunnies, sparrows and chickadees. It quickly became evident he was on the hunt for a filling breakfast of his own.

Before the large feline rounded the corner, the rabbit ducked into a burrow beneath the shrubs, and the cat came to a seated position staring at the hole, just waiting for the rabbit to re-emerge.

Irritated by what I was witnessing, I promptly set my coffee on the table and ran outside, clapping my hands and yelling like a crazed lunatic (I wonder what the neighbors thought). The cat ran down my drive, past the barn and into my back pasture. It paused long enough to raise its tail and spray scent on a cluster of tall grass before disappearing into the woods.

To be downright honest, this really ticked me off. One might question what the big deal is, and argue that it was just nature taking its course. However, I’d refute that claim by saying this wasn’t natural, and that feral cats have no rightful place in the ecosystem.

I’ll be the first to admit I dislike cats in general, but many people still love them and raise them as house pets. I get that. Still others enjoy having a barn cat around to keep mice populations at bay. I get that, too. But my recent experience got me to thinking these cats that roam freely wherever they choose to go must do damage to native wildlife populations. So I did a little research.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, outdoor cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States, which represents the combined impact of tens of millions of outdoor cats — some domesticated and others feral.

Moreover, researchers from the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center conducted a cat predation study that placed the small mammal death impact at 6.3-22.3 billion mammals killed by felines annually.

In the study abstract published in a 2013 edition of Nature Communications, the researchers stated: “Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.”

So I curiously looked into who exactly is responsible for regulating control measures for feral cats in Pennsylvania, and the results proved a bit murky.

By my findings, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has no official stance on wild cats, other than stating in 2003 that they are basically a detriment to wildlife, and it is illegal to release a domestic cat on State Game Lands. However, nothing is found on their website or in the PA Hunting & Trapping Digest regarding using lethal means to control populations of feral cats, whether a non-native nuisance species or otherwise.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has clear laws about dog licensures and ownership requirements, but says nothing about cats. And state animal cruelty laws dictate that people cannot kill, maim, or poison domestic animals, which includes cats … But how can one positively identify an outdoor cat as domestic or feral? And if they are indeed feral, is it legal to use lethal measures to dispatch them? Those are questions to which I couldn’t find a clear answer.

What I do know is that I have more than once incidentally trapped cats on my own property while targeting fox and raccoons. As much as I hate turning these invasive predators loose again, I am not sure I have the legal authority to kill them, so I let them go. Besides, I wouldn’t want one of my neighbors’ potential pets not returning home one day, despite them having absolutely no right being on my property.

The mystery behind feral cats in Pennsylvania is both puzzling and frustrating, and I’d love to have further clarification on the matter. Unlike the native wildlife species protected by the game code, which is upheld and enforced by annual Pennsylvania hunting and fur-taking license sales, feral cats seem to fall into a gray area of jurisdiction. We know they rob us all of wildlife, but what can anyone do about it?

Categories: Pennsylvania – Tyler Frantz

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