Fur Ball

The problems posed by feral cats seem to have nine lives.

Illustration: Kristin Lipman/Photos.com

It’s a hairy problem: What to do about feral cats? Colonies exist on every main Hawaiian island, comprising of lost and abandoned pets as well as born-in-the-wild ferals. They can be found at sea level, all the way up to 10,000 feet. No biologist has attempted a cat census, but people familiar with the issue say that there are likely hundreds of thousands of feral cats, if not millions, roaming the Islands.

It’s a rough and tumble life for the felines; they barely last five years in the wild, compared to 20 years for a pampered housecat, due to such factors as car collisions, disease and animal cruelty.

The cats themselves also cause a multitude of problems. For one, they’re carnivorous hunters, able to stalk and kill endangered Hawaiian birds such as palila (finch-billed Hawaiian honeycreeper), nene (Hawaiian goose) and uaa (Hawaiian petrel), each of which evolved without cats and lack necessary defenses. 

Steven Hess, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, says, “Eight to 11 percent of palila nests are depredated by feral cats each year.” A study carried out from 1998 to 2005 also found that the diet of 28 percent to 69 percent of feral cats on the Big Island contained birds, depending on the cats’ location, says Hess.

Many feral cats also carry such diseases as feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus and toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that cats shed in their feces and, when accidentally ingested, can cause severe illness in fetuses and people with compromised immune systems.

Some organizations support a control called trap, neuter and release (TNR), in which kittens and unsterilized cats are trapped and spayed or neutered in an attempt to control population. The theory is that if all cats in a colony are fixed, the colony will naturally die out. Otherwise, according to the Hawaii Island Humane Society, in seven years one cat and her offspring can create 420,000 more cats.

Cathy Swedelius, president of advoCATS, a nonproft organization on the Big Island that supports TNR, says that they’ve fixed more than 7,300 cats in the past 10 years. Although they don’t have hard numbers, she says that their TNR program is working. “We usually see an explosion of kittens in the spring. We’re noticing many colonies now without kittens,” says Swedelius, directly attributing the decline to TNR.

Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford says that the Big Island has “a massive feral cat problem,” and over the last two years has given a total of $21,500 of her district’s contingency money to advoCATS and the Hawaii Island Humane Society for spay and neuter programs.

Many private citizens also voluntarily care for cat colonies and take part in TNR programs. On Oahu, the Hawaiian Humane Society estimates that 45,000 households are feeding stray cats.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), however, doesn’t support the TNR method. Norma Bustos, wildlife biologist for DLNR, argues that not every cat in a colony will get fixed and that well-meaning caretakers only prompt more people to abandon cats in the outdoors since they think their felines will be in good hands.

“Even though a TNR cat can’t produce, it’s still an ecological threat to our native and endangered species,” says Bustos, who believes that all cats, even domestic, should be kept inside and suggests that an enclosed feral cat sanctuary could be one answer.

“Feral cats are introduced predators, and you can’t just keep releasing them into the fragile ecosystem that we have here in Hawaii.”

The first thing that every cat owner can do is to get little Fluffy fixed. Contact the Hawaiian Humane Society for more information at 946-2187 or www.hawaiianhumane.org.