Ed. Note: The following commentary was submitted in response to the November 15 feature “Invasive Species,” which focused on Maui’s feral cat population in general, and specifically on an informational meeting held by Friends of Haleakala National Park. One of the presenters at the meeting, state wildlife biologist Fern Duvall, focused on the impact cats have on endemic, endangered birds.
As an observer at a presentation of Friends of Haleakala regarding cats as an invasive species and the follow-up article in MauiTime, I would like to make a few comments, but first I would like to introduce myself as a lover of all animals who has great respect for all creatures great and small. In fact, some 30 years ago, I was front page news as “The Bird Lady of the Conejo” in California, but that’s another story.
As inhabitants of an island, I would hope we are all aware of how Maui came to be. Volcanic undersea eruptions eventually broke through the ocean’s surface and hot lava cooled to form a land mass. So initially, Maui was a mass of molten and hardened lava. Every animal, every insect, every bird, every tree that ever came to this lovely island was an invasive species. That includes man.
As for who is the largest destroyer of unique ecosystems, we can once again point to man—not feral dogs, not snakes, not pigs, not cats. This leads to a bigger question: do we destroy one species to supposedly save another? Because if that is true, we would have to start with human beings.
Now, on to the cats and the near hysteria they seem to inspire in people who are fond of stating, “they are killing the birds.” What about the loss of specialized habit to development, roads, condos, hotels and homes as man continues to turn pristine areas into concrete, bricks and mortar? Yes, cats do kill birds, though studies have also shown that many of the birds killed are old, injured, sick and/or left the nest too early to survive on their own. But hey, cats are also killing and—studies have shown—in far larger numbers, mice, rats, roaches, centipedes and many bugs that drive most humans into a fearful state. Can you really imagine Maui without any community (loose, roaming, undomesticated) cats? Studies have shown that when the majority of cats were removed from islands, these islands were overrun with rodents and insects. Wow, what a paradise we would have without the cats.
Spread of disease was mentioned at the Friends of Haleakala presentation, so I think it is very important to note that the bubonic plague was spread throughout Europe by fleas on rats. The hantavirus is also spread by rodents. Nowhere in the studies or literature does it state that these dreaded diseases were spread by cats. Other diseases mentioned at the Friends of Haleakala meeting included typhus, E. coli, Bartonella, toxoplasmosis. Fern Duvall said that toxoplasmosis has been detected in nene geese, spinner dolphins and monk seals, so I guess that means we should stay out of the ocean. E. coli has been detected in many of the foods we eat including various meats and vegetables. Guess that means we should stop eating those foods. Typhus is spread by fleas and lice. Bartonella is spread by infected fleas.
If you have been paying attention, you will note that many of these diseases are spread by fleas, which are found on rats and mice. So take away the free-roaming cats (many of which are treated for fleas) that prey on rats and mice and you have a rampant explosion of fleas on rats and mice who can and do jump off their main prey and bite humans. Viola, you have an epidemic.
The now-proven method of dealing with and curtailing the population of free-roaming, un-owned, community cats in cat colonies is through Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR), along with constant monitoring by a caretaker or caretakers who provide food, water, medical treatment and sterilization to any new colony member. Studies have shown that over time, these colonies do decrease in size, although there will always be people who dump new cats.
As a lover of all animals, I believe cat lovers and bird lovers can work together to insure that endangered species are protected. Cats can be relocated from extremely sensitive areas. Fencing can be placed around ground-nesting bird sites. Here’s a recent example of cat and bird lovers cooperating: Cimmeron Morrissey identified an explosion of neglected homeless and feral cats living along the bay trail in Foster City, California and was inspired to take action. There were 174 cats living along the trail at the time. She began trapping the cats to have them sterilized. Kittens and friendly adult cats were adopted out. Foster City officials had also noticed the cats, as had the Sequoia Audubon Society, which wanted to protect local birds. In 2004, a collaboration between the Foster City, Homeless Cat Network and the Sequoia Audubon Society was formed to create Project Bay Cat, which was developed to curb the cat population’s growth through aggressive spay/neuter and adoption programs, as well as protect bird habitat and keep the path’s landscape debris-free. Thanks to these efforts, the colony has shrunk by 35 percent due to spay/neuter, vaccination and adoption efforts, 72 cats/kittens now have loving homes, 95 percent of the cats have been altered, the cats are healthy and cared for and the local bird population is thriving.
Please note that not one cat was killed to save the birds. Here was a successful plan that did not involve murdering cats. Heck, they’ve been killing cats on Maui for 50-plus years. Has it worked? Intelligent, caring people on both sides can work together to provide solutions that do not involve destroying one species to save another. In the interests of keeping this commentary short and readable, I have not included the names of the studies from which I got my data, however I would be happy to provide this information; contact me at [email protected]
In summation, as a person who cares what happens to cats and birds, I believe the solution lies in working together to reduce the cat population through sterilization and in finding ways to keep the cats out of areas where there are endangered species. We need the cats to control the rodent population on Maui. If they were not around, we would see a huge influx of rodent flea-borne illnesses and more human infections caused by spider and centipede bites and the diseases spread by roaches. These free-roaming cats actually provide a wondrous benefit for humans.
Phyllis Tavares, Executive Director, 9th Life Hawaii