Cat controls no joke for county wildlife biologist
Taking some heat after suggesting Pitkin County curb the free roaming of domestic cats, the county’s wildlife biologist says leashed felines aren’t the point – vanishing species are.
“I’ve been hearing people grumble that leashes on cats are ridiculous and don’t commissioners have anything better to?” said biologist Jonathan Lowsky. “It is a pretty silly image and that’s not where our concern lies.”
Throughout the United States, many millions of birds are killed annually by domestic cats. In Colorado alone, the Division of Wildlife estimates that 23 million birds become prey to free-roaming cats.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, biologists express serious concern for 15 to 20 endangered species of birds.
“This is about one day your son or daughter saying, `what happened to the pretty yellow birds that used to be by the river?’ ” Lowsky said. “How do you explain to them that while you were on watch, you let all the pretty yellow birds disappear? At the rate the population is growing, particularly in the Roaring Fork area, this is the chance to do something that might help slow the decline of vanishing species.”
A clampdown on cats remains in the discussion stage, but if the county does put regulations in place, the focus would be encouraging cat owners to keep their pets indoors in sensitive wildlife habitat.
Lowsky stresses he has not suggested the county attempt to regulate all cats – those, for example, prowling neighborhoods that have been built out for quite some time. Rather, he said, the emphasis would be to keep cats indoors when development introduces the pets into new habitats – “pristine areas where a cat is a brand new influence,” he said.
Owners may think fewer birds in their yard can’t be that big a deal, Lowsky noted, but when you add up the four or five a year a cat may kill and multiply that by the several hundred domestic cats in the area, four or five birds turn into thousands.
“People once thought there was no way passenger pigeons could disappear. There were hundreds of millions in the country. But one day you look around and it seems that suddenly they’re gone. But it wasn’t sudden,” Lowsky said.
And, Lowsky added, keeping a domestic cat indoors may be as important to protecting the pet from predators as it is in protecting the cat’s prey. Studies show indoor cats outlive free-roaming cats by more than 10 years, he said. On average, indoor cats live to about 15 years of age while outdoor cats are lucky if they stay clear of wild predators past age four, Lowsky said.
The county’s first step to control cats will likely involve educating pet owners. “First we’re going to try to appeal to owners,” Lowsky said. “But frankly I don’t see why there’s such a discrepancy between cats and dogs. Dogs are strictly prohibited from roaming freely but cats can go anywhere.”
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