Air Date: Week of February 20, 1998
Domesticated house cats love to stalk and capture prey. Some are prized for their mousing abilities, and love to go after birds. In fact, some people are concerned that cats may be responsible for the deaths of millions of song birds every year. And just how many? Well, the Mammal Society of London recently did some research on this very subject in Great Britain. Michael Woods led the project, and he says a large number of cat owners reported how many animals their pets caught and brought home over a five month period. Steve Curwood talks with Mr. Woods, the "Sherlock Holmes" of this murderous puzzle.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Domesticated house cats love to stalk and capture prey. Some are prized for their mousing abilities, and it seems that felines savor birds. In fact, some people are concerned that cats may be responsible for the deaths of millions of song birds every year. And just how many millions? Well, the Mammal Society of London recently did some research on this very subject in Great Britain. Michael Woods led the project, and he says a large number of cat owners reported how many animals their pets caught and brought home over a 5-month period.
WOODS: Fourteen hundred people wrote in asking for the survey form. All in all we got just under 1,000 cats' diets for that period.
CURWOOD: And how many animals did these 1,000 cats kill over that summer?
WOODS: Oh, that summer they killed 14,000 different animals.
CURWOOD: Wow, that's a lot.
WOODS: Huge amount, isn't it?
CURWOOD: How many were birds, and how many were other animals?
WOODS: Nearly 4,000 birds, and then the rest were other animals. Lots of mice, lots of rabbits, and invertebrates, and then some snakes and lizards.
CURWOOD: What do you guess how many birds that cats in Great Britain are killing each year?
WOODS: Quite difficult to extrapolate. In this country now we have more than 7 and a half million pet cats. They're the most popular pet. And we had 4,000 birds killed in 5 months by 1,000 cats. So, you know, I can't work it out off the top of my head, but it's a huge number.
CURWOOD: You think in the millions.
WOODS: Oh, I would have thought so, yes. We estimate that there are 200 million creatures killed every year by cats.
CURWOOD: Well, is it something that you're concerned about happening to the ecological balance if cats keep hunting this way?
WOODS: There are a certain number of animals in Britain that are a threat, and those are the very ones that cats also seem to be taking quite large numbers of. So, yes I think there is cause for concern. Not enough to say oh, goodness, maybe we've got to do something about these cats. But certainly worth ringing alarm bells and saying let's look at this whole problem a bit more seriously.
CURWOOD: What about possible solutions here? I mean, a number of people will put bells on their cats to warn birds. Do bells help?
WOODS: No. We found they made no difference at all. But that may be the sorts of bells that we're putting on cats. And we think in the Mammal Society that one of the things that we need to do is to look at designing better bells for cats that are actually more effective.
CURWOOD: This is sort of the flip side of designing a better mouse trap, isn't it?
WOODS: (Laughs) That's right, exactly. (Laughs)
CURWOOD: Now, let's face it. People love their cats. In fact, there are three in my household. What could I do to reduce the number of birds and other animals that the cats in my household kill?
WOODS: One of the things that we are very concerned about is the fact that certainly in Britain cats are allowed out, they go out and they hunt and they wander wherever they can. The only pet that's allowed to do that. And what we're suggesting is that (a) we're looking at better bells, but the second thing is that we feed birds in open areas, people who feed birds in their gardens, or feed them on the special bird tables that we have in Britain, which are cat-proof. They're like a flat board on the top of a post, to keep the cats off. Because it's not fair to invite these things in and then sort of set the cats on them, as it were. In Australia, for instance, you have to keep your cats in at night. And in some parts of Australia, if you let the cat out it has to go out into a run, a specially-made run. It's not allowed to run free. We're not asking to go anywhere near as far as that, but we are just raising the point that cats do kill an awful lot of things, and it could easily be that they are putting a number of species which are becoming more scarce in Britain at threat.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.
WOODS: You're very welcome. I've enjoyed it.
CURWOOD: Michael Woods is a member of the Mammal Society of London. He recently directed a study on the effects of cats on wildlife.
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