Every cat deserves a home. The domestic cat is called that for a reason: the species is the result of thousands of years of breeding by humans, and its natural habitat is the human home. A feral (meaning ‘wild’) cat is a domestic cat that is forced to fend for itself in the wild because it has no human home. Feral cats are therefore not a natural part of Bermuda’s (or any other) ecosystem; they are the result of human negligence.

Why are feral cats a problem?

Feral cats have long been recognized by conservationists as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity, particularly on oceanic islands that were formerly free of mammals and where species evolved without the defenses or instincts to evade such predators. Bermuda is no exception. Every year the Audubon Society receives reports of cat-killed bluebirds, especially during their nesting season, not to mention numerous other species of bird. Feral cats also pose a threat to Bermuda’s critically endangered endemic skink. Many cats are adept and voracious lizard hunters and they make no distinction between a lizard and a skink; it is likely that the dramatic growth in the feral cat population has been one of the contributing factors to the decline in the skink population over the same period. Cats that kill birds and skinks are not ‘bad cats’, they are simply following their natural instincts. The problem is that their presence in the environment is not natural.

In addition to the impact on our island’s fragile biodiversity, feral cats pose a threat to human health. There have been numerous scientific studies conducted in North America linking feral cat populations with toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii found in soil contaminated with cat faeces. Toxoplasmosis can have a devastating effect on human fetuses if pregnant women become infected, or on anyone with a compromised immune system. It has also been linked to impaired memory in seniors. Those at risk include gardeners, farmers and children playing outdoors. The continued presence of feral cat feeding stations in public parks, such as Astwood Park and Shelly Bay, which encourage very large numbers of feral cats at these locations, is a very real health hazard, as are any feeding stations in built-up areas where children play outdoors.

The feral cat population also puts at risk the health of domestic cats through the potential spread of diseases such as feline HIV. Since they are not routinely vaccinated or treated for worms and parasites, feral cats act as vectors for disease spreading to family pets.

A further threat is posed by the fact that feral cat feeding stations attract and nourish unwanted pests such as rats, mice and feral chickens, all of which in turn pose their own threats to public health and cause environmental and economic damage.

What can we do about it?
Most people agree that in an ideal world there would be no feral cats in Bermuda, and attempts have been made to tackle the problem. The Bermuda Feline Assistance Bureau (BFAB) was established in 1992 with the aim of controlling the feral cat population by means of trap, neuter & release programme. The idea was that neutering the cats before releasing them back into the wild would ensure the population of ferals would die out gradually since they were not reproducing. It was predicted that Bermuda’s feral cat population would be controlled within ten years. What has become abundantly clear is that this well-intentioned approach has not worked. Rather than decreasing, the feral cat population has grown considerably since 1992. There are a number of reasons the programme has not worked, despite BFAB’s best efforts. First, there are too many free- roaming domestic cats which have not been neutered by their owners, and the practice of abandoning un-neutered pets into the wild is also far too common. Unfortunately, feeding stations actually encourage such irresponsible behavior because people know that if they abandon a cat near a feeding station it will be fed.

Certainly the BFAB neutering programme has ensured that many thousands more kittens have not been born over the years. But the ability of cats to breed is so high that if only 5% of a population is not neutered before they can reproduce, that 5% can easily replace cats that die by natural causes. Feeding stations also permit a higher cat density in the wild, as the ready supply of nutrition ensures that the cats remain healthy and fertile enough to thrive and reproduce. Numerous scientific studies in the United States and elsewhere confirm that trap-neuter-release programmes do not work to reduce feral cat numbers and that feeding stations in fact result in the growth of feral cat numbers.

What else can we do? Cat licensing.
While there is disagreement between the Bermuda Audubon Society and BFAB regarding the trap, neuter and release approach and the use of feeding stations, we are in agreement that a key step in reducing the number of feral cats on the island would be to pass legislation requiring compulsory licensing of cats in the same way that was done so effectively to control the feral dog population in the 1970s. This legislation should require compulsory registration, microchipping, and neutering of pet cats except in cases where the owners wish to apply for a breeding licence. Over time, such legislation would reduce the number of unwanted kittens and would also enable authorities to distinguish between pet and feral cats.

We believe that cat licensing is in the long-term best interests of cats and would result in a more humane situation than that which exists at present, with large populations of often unhealthy ferals being supported in the wild, while many unwanted cats that cannot be placed in homes are euthanized.

Cat licensing legislation was in fact drafted back in 2003, but never enacted. Little effort would be required to dust off the draft and pass the legislation. With the existing dog licensing processes in place, the set-up cost to piggy-back on those processes for cats would not be prohibitory and ultimately the licence fees would cover the administration costs. Special arrangements could perhaps be put in place for a limited grace period to ensure the financial burden is not too high on those who currently own multiple cats.

At the same time as introducing cat licensing, the Bermuda Audubon Society supports a ban on the feeding of all feral animals in public nature reserves and parks, with effective sanctions in place to enforce such a ban. Such spaces should be havens for our native and endemic creatures. In the same way that we must protect the right of Bermudians to have priority in the local economic environment (through immigration restrictions and work permits), so we must protect the right of our local birds and reptiles to survive in their natural environment without threats from non-native species.

The Bermuda Audubon Society understands that the issue of feral cats is an emotive one. We are not anti-cat; indeed many of us are cat lovers. However, the responsible ownership of domestic cats is very different from supporting a large population of feral cats in the wild. We urge that a scientific approach be taken to addressing the problem that considers the larger issues of environmental protection and public health, and takes a long-term view. Such an approach was taken in the 1970s to deal with feral dogs; it attracted broad public support and successfully eliminated the problem. The same approach could now be applied to feral cats.

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Photos courtesy of Andrew Dobson, Paul Watson, Chris Burville, Ras Mykkal, Jennifer Gray, Rosalind Wingate, Rick Slaughter and others.

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Telephone: (441) 238-8628

Email: info@audubon.bm

Website: www.audubon.bm

The Bermuda Audubon Society
P.O. Box HM 1328
Hamilton HM FX