Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cape May and Cats (Again)

The Cape May city council decided to keep its trap-neuter-release policy for feral cats. The council was required to create a wildlife management plan for its beaches to protect ground-nesting birds.

Amendments to the plan were:
  • Continue TNR program under control of registered caregivers monitored by the city’s Animal Control Officer.
  • A phasing in of microchipping animals.
  • Establishment of a 1,000-foot buffer zone between cat colonies and beach nesting areas of endangered birds.
  • Eliminate requirement of licensing cats.
  • Establish a census of cats to be conducted every five years.
  • Enact stiff fines for animal abandonment.
According to its backers, the TNR policy so far has shown some success in reducing the feral cat population:
City Animal Control Officer John Queenan said the TNR program was successful in the city and had lowered the feral cat population from close to 400 cats in 1995, when it began, to about 100 cats currently. Since all cats returned to the outdoors are neutered, he said cat colonies were decreasing in size and would continue to do so as cats died off due to old age.
piping ploverStill, the town had been warned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the policy may violate federal law protecting several species of birds. Piping plovers, least terns, and black skimmers nest on Cape May beaches and thus are especially vulnerable to predation and disturbance. Federal agencies recommended a buffer zone of one mile, which would force Cape May to remove feral cat colonies entirely.

So my question is: will a 1,000-foot buffer zone be enough to protect beach-nesting birds? To me it does not sound like much of a barrier. The American Bird Conservancy gives some reason for doubt that the plan will be effective for protecting birds, as does the Fish and Wildlife Service. ABC conducted a review of policies in five states, including New Jersey, and concluded that the success of TNR is probably overstated:
TNR has been promoted by national and local groups as the only humane way to manage stray and feral cats. Unfortunately, managed cat colonies are known to persist for 15 or more years, and well-fed cats still prey on birds and other wildlife. The ability of TNR programs to reduce a local population of stray and feral cats, i.e. in a neighborhood, depends on a number of variables, including original size of the colony, the location, the commitment and skill of the volunteers, their financial resources, whether there are local cat control ordinances in place and enforced, and whether there are low-cost spay/neuter services readily available. It is also important to note that spayed or neutered cats that have a regular food source are likely to live longer than feral cats without human assistance.
Birdchaser suggests that birders boycott Cape May until a better policy is enacted, or at least raise complaints. One organization with a major presence at the cape is NJ Audubon. So far they have been fairly quiet on this issue and appear to be avoiding public comment. (Most TNR-related content on their website is a year or more old.) I do not know whether they are trying to influence the outcome behind the scenes. I would be interested in reading their perspective on this, in any case.

Update: Rob pointed out in comments that the results of the TNR program in Cape May have been overstated:
Feral cat colony caretakers have often not helped their cause by maintaining colonies near sensitive wildlife habitats, and by not sterilizing enough cats, fast enough, to reduce the visible population to none within the three-to-five-year average lifespan of a feral cat who survives kittenhood.

Cape May, New Jersey, for example, has had an active neuter/return network since 1992, encouraged by animal control chief John Queenan. ANIMAL PEOPLE mentioned the Cape May project as a model for other communities in 1993. But Cape May is perhaps the most frequented resting and feeding area for migratory birds along the entire Atlantic flyway. Many visiting species are in decline, including the tiny red knot, which flies each year all the way from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back. Cape May is also among the nesting habitats of the endangered piping plover.

The Cape May economy is driven by birders' visits. When Cape May still had an estimated 500 feral cats in 2003, ten years into the neuter/return program, the city allowed neuter/return advocates to maintain 10 cat feeding stations and weather shelters, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began demanding that feral cat feeding be ended.

Many cats were removed from sensitive areas and housed in two trailers, one belonging to Cape May Animal Control and the other to Animal Outreach of Cape May County, the primary local cat rescue group since 1995. On May 19, 2007, however, the trailers caught fire, killing 37 cats. Cape May is currently considering withdrawing support for neuter/return and prohibiting feeding cats outdoors.
If there were 500 feral cats in 2003 (i.e., 100 more than in 1995), then any subsequent reductions are probably a result of something other than the program.