Photo courtesy of The Wildlife Society

There are few issues in wildlife biology that are as contentious and emotional as that of feral cats. It’s akin to modern politics, it seems that you are on one side or the other and there is no in between. For instance, the front cover of a recent issue of the Wildlife Professional produced by The Wildlife Society asks you to pick one: Cats or Conservation – suggesting you can’t have it both ways. (Read the article by clicking the photo below).

wildlife professional

A survey published in 2012 by Peterson et al. (Cat Colony Opinions) confirmed this dichotomy as well; when it comes to cats, there is little agreement between bird conservationists and cat colony caretakers – representatives of these two groups vastly disagreed on nearly every question asked in the survey from the impacts cats have on native bird populations to whether cats should be considered protected wildlife.

No matter which way you look at it, cats are not a native species, they were introduced and after domestication, became a separate species, Felis catus. In most cases, they do not simply fill the niche of a native predator. Feral, or free-ranging, unowned cats, have been implicated as a cause or contributor to the extinction of 33 species of bird, reptile and mammal species on islands world-wide. While the debate rages on about the size of the impact that cats have on mainland bird and mammal populations, there’s not much doubt that cats and birds just don’t mix!

cats and birds

Cats and birds cross paths at Eel Point on Nantucket
photo credit: Danielle O’Dell

TNR Programs

The efficacy of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs is hotly debated all over the world. Conservationists contend that they do not stop the killing of native wildlife, are vectors of disease, and are an ineffective means of reducing cat populations. TNR proponents believe that these programs will eventually eliminate feral cats and that spaying and neutering decreases the distance which cats range and diminishes aggressiveness and the hunter instinct.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation, as well as other island conservation organizations, are tasked with protecting our nesting species of rare and endangered shorebirds. In fact, we’re mandated by the state and federal governments to do so. Over the years of monitoring shorebird populations on island beaches, we have accumulated evidence that cats are indeed predating upon these nesting birds, so we’re certainly concerned about feral or free-ranging cats on Nantucket. We are most interested in seeing numbers of free-ranging cats decrease in prime shorebird nesting habitat.

What you can do to help on Nantucket:

While TNR programs on the mainland may be rife with problems and controversy, Nantucket (as all Nantucketers know!) is just a little bit different, in oh, so many ways! We have a few things going for us in terms of the feral cat issue. First of all, we’re an island. Unless people are ferrying cats from the mainland, we don’t have a constant, outside source of new cats entering the population so we have a real chance at reducing the number of cats. Secondly, we have Cattrap Nantucket, a non-profit organization with incredibly dedicated leaders and volunteers. Their goal is to reduce the feral cat population on Nantucket in a humane way through trap-neuter/spay, adoption and education programs. Every cat they trap is spayed or neutered and evaluated for adopt-ability. They work incredibly hard to socialize cats and kittens so that they can be adopted rather than released back into the wild. Over the years, through tireless trapping and adoption efforts, they have seen the numbers of feral cats decrease steadily. And they care about birds too – they have agreed that maintained cat colonies should not be in close proximity to critical habitat for nesting shorebirds.

CatTrap Brochure1As you can imagine, the work of Cattrap is incredibly expensive and time-consuming and the organization is always in need of volunteers and support. See their Facebook page for more information. If you’re in the market for a kitten, check with Cattrap first!


Cattrap advocates keeping your cats inside and we couldn’t agree more. Not even my fat, happy and well-fed house kitty could resist the fluttery-goodness of our feathered friends so it’s best to keep Felix inside. It’s better for the cat too – indoor cats are perfectly happy, live longer, avoid exposure to disease and cat fights, and will never get hit by cars.

No matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to the issue of feral cats, it is best to remember that we all have some common ground. None of us believes that the life of a feral cat is an easy one and we all have the common goal of reducing the number of free-ranging cats, if no other reason, than it is most humane. It certainly helps to keep this in mind when considering “choosing a side” on this issue.