The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The cat people vs. bird people war has made it to federal court

A feral cat sits in a wooded area near a beach parking lot at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh, N.Y. (Frank Eltman/AP)

Jones Beach State Park in New York becomes home at this time of year to tiny shorebirds called piping plovers. They settle along the Atlantic Coast after wintering in the Caribbean and nest in divots in the sand — what’s left of it, anyway. Coastal development has contributed to the bird’s decline, and it’s considered threatened by the federal government and endangered by the state of New York.

Jones Beach park is also home to two colonies of feral cats. They’re fed by volunteers, who have built the 30 or so felines shanty-type shelters with tarps and cinder block.

Now the birds’ and cats’ shared space is the subject of a federal lawsuit that is the latest salvo in the very pitched battle between outdoor cat advocates and bird advocates in the United States.

Friends of the plovers have long complained that the Jones Beach cats prey on plovers and their chicks. This month, American Bird Conservancy sued state parks commissioner Rose Harvey, alleging she is violating the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing the cats to stay and creating “the likelihood of injury” to the birds.

“This is a natural nesting habitat for piping plovers, and unfortunately it has been invaded by introduced predators,” said Grant Sizemore, director of the conservancy’s program on invasive species, which is what many environmental advocates consider cats to be. “They should be removed by New York state parks.”

The Jones Beach cat caretakers are aghast.

“They’re going to be put down,” Marion McKenna told CBS 2 New York, referring to the cats she cares for. “Why don’t you just take a machine gun and kill them all now?”

If that sounds overly dramatic, well, it wouldn’t be the first time in the cat people vs. bird people conflict.

Many wildlife advocates view free-ranging cats as uber predators that spread diseases and destroy wildlife, and they point to a 2013 report that concluded American cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year. They oppose the increasingly popular programs in which homeless cats are trapped, neutered and returned to the streets — or beach, in the New York situation — saying there’s no evidence they decrease the cat population and can actually encourage cat owners to dump unwanted pets.

Outdoor cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds a year, study says

Proponents argue that trap-neuter-return, or TNR, programs prevent mass euthanasia of street cats and can lead to population decline through attrition. The 2013 report, they say, vastly overstated the cat predation problem. (Peter J. Wolf dissects the report on his blog, Vox Felina.)

The conflict has played out in court before — once, over piping plovers. In 2006, Jim Stevenson, the executive director of an ornithological society in Texas, fatally (and remorselessly) shot a cat that he said was stalking a piping plover.

Bird lovers raised money in his defense. Cat lovers called him a monster. Stevenson was charged with animal cruelty, but a judge declared a mistrial when the jury was hung. The case, however, prompted Texas to prohibit the killing of feral cats.

In 2011, Nico Dauphiné, a bird researcher at the National Zoo with a rich history of anti-outdoor cat activism, was convicted of attempting to poison feral felines in Washington.

“For the people who care about cats, this is like the abortion debate,”  Pamela Jo Hatley, a Florida lawyer and wildlife advocate told reporter Luke Mullins, who profiled Dauphiné in a Washingtonian article headlined “Apocalypse Meow.”

“Members of both these groups feel they have concerns that have been ignored,” Nils Peterson, an associate professor in North Carolina State University’s Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Program, told Audubon magazine. “This feeling of injustice is part of what leads them to identify with their groups.”

Fight over ferals boils down to one question: Do alley cats live a good life?

The Jones beach battle has been simmering for years. The New York Times wrote about it in 2006, when state parks officials were mulling a cat removal. At the time, volunteers were feeding their feline charges broiled chicken and Thanksgiving turkey, and they argued that the colonies would eventually die off if authorities cracked down on animal abandonment.

Neither removal nor die-off happened, and last year the Times was back at the beach, where, it wrote, state parks workers had erected “miles of symbolic barriers to protect the piping plovers during nesting season.” Caretakers of the cats, whose colonies are located one-quarter to two-thirds of a mile from the plover nests, said the animals weren’t hunters.

“Every day the cats get fresh water and fresh food,” McKenna told the Times. “They are not hungry. They stay where they are.”

The American Bird Conservancy lawsuit counters that “feeding cats does not eliminate their instinctive hunting behavior” and cites studies indicating outdoor cats roam far and wide. A 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report on piping plovers, it notes, identified cats, “particularly those associated with human-subsidized feral cat colonies,” as “an increasing threat to piping plovers and other beach-nesting birds.” (That report also called out other predators such as coyotes and raccoons.)

Even the presence of cats can stress the birds into infertility, the lawsuit says.

A New York state parks spokesman told The Washington Post that it would be “improper” to comment on pending litigation. But in a letter to the conservancy in 2015, Harvey wrote the cats’ caretakers “object strongly” to removal. Nevertheless, she wrote, her office would analyze the Jones Beach feline population and “begin the removal of these cats’ shelters and feeding stations” and “where appropriate remove these feral cats in a humane way.”

The bird conservancy now wants the court to order that to happen. Ideally, the cats would get “forever homes,” Sizemore said.

“It’s a sad state of affairs. It’s not any way for cats to live,” he said. “You wouldn’t want your precious little Fluffy living in this sort of situation. It’s outdoors, exposed to the elements, and what these cats really deserve is a loving home.”

Feral cat advocates argue that the animals often make terrible pets and end up being euthanized.

“It would be fantastic if the animals could be placed in a sanctuary, or some enclosed,” space, Sizemore said. “The key point is that they must be separated from the environment.”

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