Photo credit: By Sara Golemon (Feral cats) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hawaii is home to one of the greatest populations of feral cats in the world. While most people imagine a place full of cats to be pretty heavenly, the problem in Hawaii has lead to spreading of disease and extinction of other endangered species. Public opinion on the state of the cats seems to be split right down the middle. So what is Hawaii going to do about their feral cat problem?
The state of the problem in Hawaii
It is estimated that there are 350,000 feral cats on the Hawaiian island of Oahu alone. Many acknowledge that this number is actually an underestimate as the population is growing daily and no efforts have been made to systematically count the current colony. And while a few stray cats might not be such a huge problem, with a population this big, Hawaii is in trouble. Worldwide, the domestic cat has contributed to 14% of modern bird, mammal and reptile extinction. This is especially alarming for Hawaii as this state is where 78% of extinctions in the US have occurred to date. On an island like Kauai, that is home to more endangered bird species than any other Hawaiian island, managing their feral cat population of 20,000 is essential in order to protect their wildlife.
Pro TNR with the Kauai Community Cat Project (KCCP)
The Kauai Community Cat Project is run by Basil Scott and his wife, Sue. The Scotts subscribe to the TNR approach: Trap, Neuter and Return. In addition to trapping and neutering, TNR also includes caring for cat colonies by providing them with food. The KCCP believe this approach will eventually suppress colony numbers and decrease hunting because the cats are being fed. The KCCP monitor approximately 25 cat colonies on Kauai and claim that 90% of cats under their protection are fixed.
There are over 250,000 TNR practitioners across the United States. The movement also has support from a lot of important and well-funded non-profit organizations.
Anti TNR with Senate Bill 2450
Senate Bill 2450 was introduced to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources earlier this year. The bill proposes outlawing all feeding of feral cats and has support from scientists and conservationists. Supporters of the bill point to the evidence: there is no scientific proof that TNR methods can eliminate a colony. Furthermore, cats, who are natural predators, will still hunt despite being fed. Even PETA, the largest animal welfare organization in the world, is strongly against TNR and admits that alternatives like euthanasia, while unpleasant, are sometimes necessary.
Those against the Senate Bill 2450 called it evil and the work of the devil on the Hawaiian Humane Society Facebook page. Over 100 cat advocates filled the legislative hearing room in February to speak out against the proposed bill. After two hours of emotional testimony, lawmakers decided to kill the bill.
Kauai Feral Cat Task Force
In 2013 the Kauai Feral Cat Task Force was founded out of the belief that the KCCP approach to TNR was ineffective because it still allowed the cat colonies to grow. The fundamental difference in the task force’s approach was that they believed newly abandoned cats or newly born kittens should be removed immediately to open shelters. Open shelters accept all animals but do practice euthanasia on animals that are sickly or unable to get adopted. Conversely, no-kill shelters do not practice euthanasia but are allowed to turn away animals. If the task force only brought new cats to no-kill shelters, many of the cats would be turned away and end up in the cat colonies. This would lead to an increase in the colony populations.
In their 2014 report, the task force believed Kauai could be free from feral cats by 2025 if they adopted a robust version of TNR that included taking all newly abandoned cats or newly born kittens to open shelters. Their report also outlined that after 2020, all colonies would be moved onto private land and fenced off. Naturally, Basil and Sue Scott along with many members of the KCCP strongly opposed the task force and their choice to approve euthanasia as part of their approach.
Toxoplasmosis in feral cats
Besides endangering local species, the feral cats of Hawaii pose another threat. Many carry and spread toxoplasmosis or “toxo.” The protozoa behind toxo can only sexually reproduce in the guts of certain members of the cat family, like feral cats. The cats then excrete the dangerous oocysts in their poop. While many animals ingest these oocysts and live with toxo symptom-free, it can be lethal amongst rats, birds and sadly, monk seals.
Cat advocates vs. the facts
Cat advocates, like Basil Scott, have strong beliefs when it comes to protecting the feral cats of Hawaii. Unfortunately, their beliefs don’t always stand up to the scientific facts. Basil Scott says that TNR as the KCCP practice it works and that colony numbers are decreasing. However, multiple studies in Florida, San Diego, Rome and London have shown that TNR is ineffective in reducing colony numbers. Scott also claims that there is a difference between feral jungle cats and what he refers to as “community cats” who live nears towns and don’t harm anyone or anything. Unfortunately, these community cats have been shown to be a threat to endangered birds that call these towns home. Lastly, Scott points to the fact that many humans and other species are infected with toxo - it’s not just the cats that spread it. And while Scott is correct in saying that other animals have toxo, toxo can only reproduce in cats and spread through their feces.
Unfortunately, the debate on feral cats has rendered Hawaii stuck in a stand-still. Inga Gibson, a policy consultant for the Humane Society of the United States in Hawaii, formed a group in 2009 to bring together cat advocates and conservationists. Discussions in the group started off positively but when asked to advice on an incident with an endangered bird species in 2012, the group could not reach consensus and so did nothing. The endangered bird in question was never spotted again.
At present, rangers are permitted to kill feral cats who are harming wildlife. In backcountry areas, they use fast-acting kill traps or live traps and then shoot the cats in the head. While these measures may sound extreme, they are actually considered humane ways to kill.
While an island-wide eradication approach has never been attempted in Hawaii, it has been successful in other areas around the world. However, this type of extreme eradication often utilizes less humane killing approaches and requires complete public buy in - something hard to guarantee when the issue of feral cats is so polarizing in Hawaii.
At this point, a way forward has not been reached by both sides, but one thing they do agree on is the need for increased public education. A large contributor to the increase in feral cat populations is the casual abandonment of cats by owners no longer interested in their care. A huge push for proper pet ownership through public education on animal care would be a win for both cat advocates and conservationists while they work to find a common ground that addresses the larger issue of the increasing feral cat colonies .