Maybe city should rethink its short-sighted rat-removal program
Imagine you’re a human (hope that’s not a reach), and saber-toothed tigers are stalking you when you leave the house, and you don’t have a weapon.
Here are some stats on saber-toothed tigers: eight feet long, 600 pounds, seven-inch fangs and heads like basketballs. They ate big mammals but have been extinct for 10,000 years. Phew!
But my point is that a saber-toothed tiger would be to you as a house cat is to a songbird.
We like songbirds, don’t we? The little fellows in your backyard?
Cardinals, robins, thrushes, wrens, swallows, warblers, nightingales?
Birds repopulate quickly, but since 1970, North America has lost a quarter of its bird population — roughly 3 billion birds — to all kinds of trauma. Count climate change, pesticides, loss of habitat, collisions with glass buildings, windmills and cars as part of the reason.
Then there are cats.
Cats — those pets we Americans absolutely love, to the tune of roughly 100 million of the little preciouses — kill, according to the American Bird Conservancy, 2.4 billion birds a year in the U.S.
No, not all the deaths in that total are songbirds. Migratory birds, waterbirds and raptors are in jeopardy, too, from many forces.
But house cats (about 18 inches long, 10 pounds on average) when let out are pure lurking death for the type of bird we see and hear on a daily basis. Indeed, as the Conservancy states, “Predation by domestic cats is the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States.’’
Remember, 2.4 billion birds. Think about that. It’s seven times the human population of the U.S., year after year. And almost 70% of that carnage is from outdoor, unowned cats.
This is why the well-intentioned release in Chicago of feral cats for rat-killing purposes is as dimwitted as it is pie-eyed.
You see, loose cats might kill a rat or two, but they’ll kill approximately 18 birds in the process. Rats are tough, nasty, disgusting, stealthy. Birds are sweet, chirping, well, sitting ducks.
It is true Chicago has been declared the ‘‘rattiest city’’ in the U.S. for the sixth straight year by the Orkin pest-control company, and we must do something about our vermin population.
But not this way.
Sure, it sounds good, this so called Cats at Work program. The Tree House Humane Society, which bills itself as ‘‘Chicago’s oldest cage-free cat shelter,’’ is placing 10-15 neutered and feral — read: homeless — cats in various locations around the city and has been for almost a decade.
The society provides a small outdoor, heated house, water and food to the ‘‘owners’’ of these street cats that otherwise likely would be euthanized.
The program is nice for the cats — 1,000 of which have been placed so far — but birds? Not so much.
In fact, studies have shown cats are not all that interested in rats. They’ll snag mice and chipmunks and shrews and voles and frogs and rabbits. Rats? Maybe.
But birds? Now that’s dinner!
The problem here is that cats are, per the Journal of Nature Communication, ‘‘natural born killers.’’
An article I’ve saved from the October 2016 issue of Smithsonian Magazine entitled, “A Plague of House Cats,’’ states baldly that cats are ‘‘the world’s most devastating invasive species.’’
The reason is that house cats, once from the Near East, while partially domesticated, retain all the killing tools of big cats. They haven’t undergone the deep metamorphosis that dogs and pigs and other domesticated animals have. They have retractable claws, sharp teeth, can climb trees and jump like panthers.
They can see in the ultraviolet, hear in the ultrasound and have an incredible understanding of three-dimensional space that allows them to judge the height of sounds.
Oh, and they always — always — land safely on their feet. Did you happen to see the cat that jumped from a flaming fifth-story Chicago apartment the other day — and walked away? There you go.
Nor does it matter if the outdoor cat wears a bell, is well-fed, is a tabby, solid color, furry or sleek. Cats want to kill something. All the time.
Pest control gone wrong has a long history. Consider harlequin ladybirds, poison toads, mosquitofish and, my favorite, the Asian mongoose, introduced to Hawaii to eat rats, even though it prefers — that’s right — birds instead.
You cat lovers never have to worry about cats dying out, by the way. They can breed at six months, and it’s estimated one amorous pair, unimpeded, could produce 354,000 descendants in five years.
So let’s stop rats some other way. Please?
And folks, keep your house cats in the house.