There are an estimated 50 million feral cats living in America right now. That's not outdoor cats, the ones who roam the neighborhood but whose owners call them in at night. That's 50 million feral cats: domestic cats that have returned to the wild and generally don't want anything to do with humans.
Most animal advocates agree that the number of cats roaming US neighborhoods is a problem—in part, because cats have a huge impact on the environment. A 2013 report published by Nature estimated that cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds and somewhere between 6.3 and 22 billion mammals nationwide, each year. Researchers have pinned the extinction of 33 kinds of birds on cats, and the Invasive Species Specialist Group lists domestic cats on its top 100 list of "the world's worst invasive species."
But rounding up millions of feral cats is next to impossible, and some cat advocates insist that cats should stay outside. "Cats have lived outdoors alongside people for about 10,000 years," said Liz Holtz, Associate Director of Law and Policy with Alley Cat Allies. "Kitty litter wasn't invented until the 1940s, so there were no indoor cats." Cat owners, too, are reluctant to change: Despite reports that cats are having a major impact on wildlife, a recent survey of cat owners found that, regardless of how many animals their furry friends might kill, they would still let them out.
That's why bird people say it is well past time for cats to be controlled. "They are an introduced predator," said Grant Sizemore, director of Invasive Species Programs at the American Bird Conservancy. "In 1492 there were zero domestic cats in North America, and now we have more than 100 million in the United States. And each one of them has an impact when allowed to roam outdoors."
The way both sides see it, there will be blood.
In the past, extreme bird advocates have called for eye-for-an-eye (or cat-for-a-bird) measures. In 2013, a now former editor of Audubon Magazine penned an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, suggesting that people poison feral cats with Tylenol, which is fatal to felines. In June, two cats were stabbed in Portland—and the Animal Legal Defense Fund is now $5,000 reward for information about the culprit. "Cats vs. birds: who has to die?" asked one CBS report from earlier this year.
"It's funny, I work on a lot of different issues, like spotted owls—highly controversial issues," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "Nothing has the antagonism that the cat-bird issue does. It's really quite a spectacle."
But Sallinger adds that while the debate is heated, it's also simplistic: "Cat advocates claim there's no significant [environmental] impact, and bird advocates say that we should round them up and kill them."
Obviously, it's neither realistic to kill all outdoor cats nor to let them roam without abandon. And in spite of the heated debates, there are people striving for solutions—people who both love cats and want to hear songbirds in their backyards. People like Dara Wasserman and Jon Beck.
No matter how hard they try, Wasserman and Beck can't hide how much they love cats. The walls of their Portland, Oregon, home are decorated with portraits of felines. "We brought those ones home from Europe," Wasserman told me, pointing to a series of three square paintings above their fireplace. There are glasses of water scattered around the house for one of their pet cats, who prefers to drink that way. And there's a heated cushion tucked by the bay window where their cats, Cordelia and Willow, like to relax and watch the birds.
A few years ago, Wasserman and Beck adopted their cats from a local agency that pushes a strict indoor-only policy. They wanted to honor that, Wasserman said, but they'd owned outdoor cats in the past, and were afraid the new cats were bored. As Cordelia and Willow would sit, staring at the bird feeder from their heated cushion, Wasserman and Beck wanted to let them out, but they also wanted to keep them safe and minimize destruction.
"We love to feed the birds," Wasserman said, pointing to the bird feeder, "but what you don't want it to be is an all-you-can-eat buffet."
Then, the couple learned about a tour of local "catios"—that's a cat patio—Wasserman realized she found a solution. "I came home and I said, 'I know what I want for my birthday. I want a catio.'"
Catios are outdoor enclosures for cats, sort of like a screened porch. Some of them are small and simple while others have elaborate features, like spiral staircases and elevated walkways. It's an elegant compromise for people who want to let their cats outdoors without letting them roam around killing birds and other animals.
"There are a lot of cat lovers who also love birds," said Olivia Hinton of the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon (FCCO), which co-sponsors Portland's catio tour. "We like the idea of protecting those little critters out there."
Since opening its doors in 1995, the FCCO has neutered over 74,000 feral cats. And while catios might seem like the most Portlandia thing imaginable, when used alongside trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs like the FCCO, they have been credited with helping to stabilize and eventually decrease feral cat populations. The catios also protect birds, which is why the catio tour is co-sponsored effort between the FCCO and the local Audubon Society.
"Portland still stands out as really the only place that has anything like this," Bob Sallinger said. "I always tell my friends in the bird community, much to their chagrin, that I'm very close with the feral cat coalition."
That's not to say that cats aren't killing birds in here: Sallinger says that 40 percent of the birds his organization sees at it's emergency care center are there because of cats.
Sizemore, of the American Bird Conservatory, agrees that catios could help birds. But, he says, people need to adjust how they think about cats. Pet cats who crave outdoor access can be given it with restriction—like a dog on a leash. "That's one of the things we'd like to change: to elevate the status of cats within the family," Sizemore said.
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On a recent summer day, Wasserman and Beck lead the way to their back patio, which has been converted into a modern cat palace of sorts. There are wooden ramps and platforms, a tree converted into a scratching post. There's even a spiral staircase, perfectly measured for cat paws. The space is enclosed with screens, and Willow and Cordelia access it any time—day or night—from their cat door.
Beck said sometimes he misses the way their old outdoor cats would follow them to the mailbox. Or the times when he'd garden and the cat would lay nearby, watching from the grass.
But here on the catio, there's enough room for two lounge chairs, where Wasserman said she likes to sit, read a book, and be with her beloved pets. The cats are safe from the coyotes that roam the neighborhood, as well as from dogs, cat fights, and cars. And they're a little closer to their prey here. Close, but not too close.
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