For years, Sam Wood has been a proponent of hunting and killing invasive species, such as wild hogs, that can threaten the native ecosystems. His Facebook page is filled with photos showing the 48-year-old outdoorsman taking down sparrows and starlings, pigeons and rats.
But Wood’s most recent mark seems to have made him the target: feral cats.
It started earlier this month, when the Wisconsin resident shared a stock photo of a cat in a trap.
“Some may find this offensive but the truth is feral cats are a huge problem,” he wrote online. “I know this post will cause some backlash from the Disney educated but by putting the truth out there and not hiding we can educate some folks.
“Back in the 80’s we used to get $5 for a cat hide. Buyers had pallets of cat hides. The hides were used as trim on leather gloves. Some trappers targeted cats year round which helped the environment tremendously and it also gave them gas money and they used the meat for bait. Now we have bunny huggers that want to protect cats. They refuse to educate themselves as to the true impact of what they are doing and saying.”
In an interview, Wood said he sets up traps near his home in Wild Rose, a small town in central Wisconsin, to catch raccoons and other small animals to sell on the fur market. But sometimes, he said, he inadvertently catches feral cats.
Those are the animals he shoots and kills.
“I take the opportunity to remove them,” Wood said, adding that he gets “no enjoyment out of killing a cat. It sucks.”
Wood’s argument? That feral felines are an invasive species threatening the native ecosystems and that he is doing his part to help take them out.
“A feral cat is better off dead on the ground than it is alive,” he said. “It’s harsh — it’s harsh to say, but it’s the truth.”
That opinion puts Wood firmly on one side of the simmering debate over free-roaming house cats and feral cats, a conundrum that’s deep-rooted and difficult to resolve in a nation where cats are not native but are the most popular pet. Both sides typically agree that feral felines are a problem. But some argue that the animals should be humanely trapped, sterilized and then released in a bid to decrease the stray population. Others call that method ineffective and say cats should be removed and euthanized to preserve birds and other native species.
“I think there are animal rights people who have a perfectly valid point of view in thinking that the cat shouldn’t be killed, and I think there’s also a perfectly valid point of view that you should control this nonnative population if it’s hurting native species,” Dov Sax, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, said in an interview. “So I think the crux of the issue is that they’re both reasonable points of view and that’s what makes this issue difficult.”
The conflict over this topic can get ugly. In 2011, for example, a bird researcher in Washington was convicted of attempted animal cruelty for trying to poison feral cats. Wood said that since publicizing his opinion — and the way in which he kills cats — he has become the target of cyberbullying and death threats.
The stock photo he posted, which showed a cat caught in a Conibear spring trap, drew thousands of commenters to his Facebook page — some in favor, some against. “You are a sick individual,” one commenter wrote. Wood, in turn, urged his supporters not to snap back at the animal rights advocates.
“We have eyes on us,” Wood told them. “If you’re a loyal supporter and you’re passionate about this, I’m going to ask you for a favor: Don’t fall into the trap of the antis and the radicals.”
“I have some hunters on here that say, ‘You’re an unethical hunter. You make us all look bad,’ ” Wood said in a video on Facebook. “Actually I don’t. I am actually the guy who stands behind his beliefs. I think most of you out there that are hunters will agree we have a feral hog problem in the United States. People actually pay to hunt hogs. And when I ask them, ‘Why are you pig-hunting?’ — ‘Well, they’re bad for the environment and we’ve got to get rid of them,’ and everything else,” he added. “But that will be one of the same guys that say ‘You’re unethical for shooting a cat.’ ”
Many wildlife conservation organizations agree with Wood on the environmental perils of cats, which are thought to have been domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean region and then taken by humans all over the globe. The Invasive Species Specialist Group, an international network of scientists and policy experts, lists Felis catus, or the domestic cat, among 100 of the “world’s worst” invaders. The Wildlife Society says that because cats have “no native range,” they are “considered a non-native, invasive, feral species when allowed outdoors to interact with native ecosystems.”
Chuck Knapp, vice president of conservation and research at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, said he respects the passion and position of cat lovers who feel that the animals “deserve to roam free.” But, he said, “then you have the conservationists, such as myself, and we’re thinking of the natural ecosystems, which cats are not part of, and feel that native animals should be preserved and not killed by these cats.”
That’s not how the Humane Society of the United States views it. Katie Lisnik, the organization’s director of cat protection and policy, wrote in an email that the society views cats as “domesticated animals” distinct from their wild ancestors — animals that have no native range and should not be subject to wildlife designations like “invasive species.”
Melissa Tedrowe, Wisconsin state director for the Humane Society, said laws in some states permit killing feral cats. Although Wisconsin law does not declare it legal, she said, it also does not prohibit it.
Wild Rose Police Chief Russ Monacelli told ABC affiliate WISN that he has gotten calls from people across the country who want Wood to be held accountable. But, the chief told the station, Wood has not broken any laws.
Wood said he went public with his story because he wants to educate people about invasive species and urge them to keep their cats indoors.
“Ultimately, irresponsible pet ownership is the problem,” Wood said. “That is the root of this problem. We have a problem, let’s admit it.”