Sunday, August 05, 2007

Piping Plovers and Cats at Cape May

Cape May is known among birders as a prime birding destination, especially during fall migration. The area is also home to nesting populations of threatened bird species, including piping plovers. Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that feral cats in Cape May are a threat to the endangered species that live there and informed the town that the problem would need to be rectified. Unfortunately, feral cats are seen by some residents and visitors as part of the town's Victorian charm.

The federal government may intervene on the side of the birds, drawing mixed reactions here. Cat lovers fear that the cats will be euthanized, while bird lovers are wary of the possibility of rare species being wiped out.

“This is a very emotional issue; this really is a cat town,” said one resident, Pat Peckham. “I think they should leave the cats where they are. I’m a firm believer in letting nature take its course.”
The trouble is that feral cats really are not part of nature, at least not in North America. They are introduced domesticated animals that were released into the wild for a variety of reasons. Like other nonnative species, they can upset the balance of natural ecosystems. In some places, the impact may be debatable, but when mixed with rare species, nonnative predators are a major problem.

New Jersey Audubon is offering one possible compromise solution:
Mr. Stiles, the Audubon Society official, is working on a pilot project to find a middle ground. It would bring together animal control officials and advocacy groups to share information on endangered birds and cat colonies. Cats that are near endangered birds could be relocated, while others could be undisturbed.
Whether or not this would work remains to be seen. Cats are territorial hunters and defend their territories fiercely. Taking feral cats from one territory and moving them into another would cause stress and possibly injury for both the relocated cats and other cats in the areas where they would be moved. If there is a heavy saturation of feral cats in Cape May, as the article suggests, then other cats are likely to move into the newly-vacated territories. Without some form of feral population reduction, keeping cats away from plover nests would require constant vigilance and intervention.