Apr 072016


Less than a year ago, we said goodbye to our 16-year-old cat, Polly. She had lived a long, healthy life, but it was still gut wrenching to finally have her put down. We loved her quirky, independent personality, how she was aware of anything that was new in the house, including the odd visit by a mouse. She was our Indoor Rodent Control Officer. Polly received lots of love and affection, but was never allowed to set foot outdoors. We still miss her greatly.

In a world where people are increasingly isolated from each other and often connect with fellow human beings more through social media than face-to-face, our relationship with pets is treasured like never before. Not only do they serve as a source of comfort but there is also something about animals that seems genuine and honest – unlike many human relationships. Dog and cat ownership has exploded in Canada and the United States, and people are going to extraordinary lengths – and expense – to keep their pets healthy and happy.


But cats aren’t the only species with welfare concerns. People like me who object to free-roaming cats are often dismissed as “nature lovers”, which implies that we value the life of an individual bird or chipmunk more than a cat. This is false. What I value is biodiversity – a rich natural world where every species can thrive. I don’t lose sleep over the death of an individual robin or small mammal and, yes, the death of a family cat is clearly more traumatic. But I am concerned about what kind of world we’re leaving future generations. I want my grandchildren to have the same opportunities to enjoy nature as I have had. We are setting our children and grandchildren up to live in a much lonelier planet where a multitude of avian voices will have been forever silenced. Cats, however, are in no danger of extinction. Future generations are absolutely guaranteed to be able to enjoy the companionship of these fascinating animals.

Birds today face formidable obstacles. During migration, the list of death traps includes tall buildings, towers, power lines, windows, road traffic, pesticides, loss of feeding and resting habitat, and climate-change fueled storms that are more intense than ever before. More and more birds arrive back on their nesting grounds to find it logged over, paved over, fragmented by new roads, or converted into housing developments, shopping centres, and golf courses. Free-roaming cats, however, represent the biggest of all human-caused threats.

Cats have evolved to be indiscriminate predators and take a huge toll on species that are already plummeting in number such as many of our warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, and grassland species. Many of these birds turn up in city backyards during migration or nest around cottages and farms – places where an encounter with a cat is very likely. Cats also leave countless baby birds orphaned and almost sure to die. Even just a scratch from a cat’s claws can be enough to kill many small creatures.

Wood Thrush, a species in serious decline - Wikimedia

Wood Thrush, a species in serious decline – Wikimedia


In a four-year study carried out by Environment Canada and published in 2013 in “Avian Conservation and Ecology”, it was found that human-related activities kill roughly 269 million birds and two million bird nests in Canada each year. Most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by the impacts of feral and pet cats, and collisions with transmission lines, buildings and vehicles. Cats appear to kill as many birds as all other sources combined – more than 100 million birds annually in Canada. Species that nest or feed on or near the ground are especially vulnerable to cat predation. They also estimate that collisions with residential and commercial buildings kill an estimated 16-42 million birds each year – mostly at house windows.

Many people feel that not allowing a cat to wander freely is cruel and that they miss out on something vitally important to their well-being. However, allowing your cat to roam around outdoors is not good for the animal, either. Outdoor cats live an average of only five to seven years while indoor cats can easily live to be 15 or more. They also run the risk of being hit by cars, attacked by other animals, being exposed to diseases like leukemia or feline AIDS, suffering at the hands of an irate neighbour, or simply getting lost. They also swell the population of stray or feral cats.

Some cat owners also deny that their tabby ever kills birds and mammals while roaming outdoors, but these are wishful thoughts. Critter-cam videos reveal that even the most docile and adorable felines routinely kill birds, chipmunks, baby rabbits, monarch butterflies and many other creatures. Feeder birds are especially easy prey. Cats often lurk in shrubbery near feeders and birdbaths awaiting a chance to pounce. Even if they are wearing a bell collar, they quickly learn to control their movements to prevent the bell from ringing.

It is also important to remember that cats have never been part of North American ecosystems. They are a non-native species that descended from the Middle Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). Our North American birds, therefore, have never had time to evolve adaptations to avoid cat predation. It therefore makes no sense for Canadians to say that allowing a domestic cat to go outside to hunt is part of the natural order of things. It is no more natural than the zebra mussel or purple loosestrife.

Cat carrying a bird it had just killed - Wikimedia

Cat carrying a bird it had just killed – Wikimedia

Keeping tabby happy

Like dogs, cats should be allowed to explore the outdoors under supervision, such as a securely fenced yard. One local resident who contacted me had two leash-trained cats and both lived to the old age of 20. She added, “When people say ‘leashes aren’t natural for cats’, you can tell them about mine!” Some local cat owners have a window cat enclosure built onto the house, which the cat can access at will. From emails I’ve received, cats love them and use them day and night. There is a wide variety of commercially-available enclosures.

With a little patience, cats that are used to being let out can be trained to stay inside. Yes, there might be a lot of meowing at first, but the task is not impossible. Different strategies include keeping the cat indoors for gradually longer periods and making life inside fun by providing a cat tree or kitty jungle gym to climb. You might also want to give your cat a feline friend for company and entertainment.

 Taking action

An attempt to address the problem of feral cats – free-roaming felines living in groups (colonies) in the wild – is already taking place in Peterborough through Operation Catnip, a very committed group of volunteers whose goal is to reduce the population and suffering of feral and abandoned cats in our community by providing TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return). Over the past three years, Operation Catnip has provided TNR to 441 cats in 115 feral cat colonies. The goal of TNR is to slowly reduce feral cat populations over time. However, scientific evidence clearly indicates it’s impossible to spay or neuter a sufficient number of cats to affect feral cat numbers at the population level. Studies have also proven that feral cats are an even greater threat to wildlife than owned cats and perpetuate problems such as transmission of disease and damage to property.

Operation Catnip also supports responsible pet ownership bylaws, which require cat owners to keep their pet on their property. The group is the impetus behind an animal welfare initiative that Peterborough city staff has prepared, which will also address the issues of feral cats and cats roaming at large. Council’s Committee of the Whole will receive the report later this spring.

Municipalities across Canada are taking action. In Calgary, for example, cats are treated in the same manner as dogs. They are licensed, provided with an identification tag but not allowed to run free. They must remain on the owner’s property. Calgary has seen a dramatic drop in cat euthanasia and a huge increase in the return of lost animals to their owner. Oakville, too, has taken steps to control free-roaming cats. Cats are no longer allowed to wander at will and must have identification, which can be a tag or microchip.

There is also the question of respect for neighbours. In addition to the aggravation of having a cut foul and dig in your garden, a free-roaming cat in the neighbourhood reduces the enjoyment of feeding birds and chipmunks. There is always the nagging fear – and sense of guilt – that you are making them more vulnerable to being killed. As a society, we have come a long way in recent years. No longer do we smoke or wear strong scents in public, let our dogs run loose, or spray our lawns with pesticide. Nor should we allow our cats to roam freely.

Eastern Chipmunk - Wikimedia

Eastern Chipmunk – Wikimedia








Oct 242013

Three contentious issues


                This week, I’d like to provide news up-dates and personal thoughts on three contentious issues that should be of interest to anyone who cares about the natural world and, in the case of climate change, the future of this planet as we know it.


Parkway Trail between Hilliard and Cumberland

Parkway Trail between Hilliard and Cumberland

Parkway Opposition

                It is time for all of us who care about greenspace and the protection of the natural environment in Peterborough to speak up on the Parkway issue. Opposition to the road and bridge is being led by the “Parks not Parkways” campaign, an initiative of the Peterborough Greenspace Coalition.  The coalition unites the Friends of Jackson Park, Friends of Peterborough Trails, the Peterborough Field Naturalists and the No Parkway group.  Now is the chance to be heard. The environmental assessment recommendation of a full Parkway with a four-lane bridge through Jackson Park goes to Council’s Committee of the Whole on November 13, with Council voting on the proposal November 20. Both are public meetings at the Evinrude Centre. I urge you to get involved by letting your Councillor know how you feel about this issue, requesting a lawn sign, signing the on-line petition, donating money or volunteering time. You should also consider coming and speaking at the meetings. For more information, go to parksnotparkways.ca

Among the many reasons to oppose the Parkway  are the projected cost of 67 million dollars – almost $1,000 dollars for every citizen of Peterborough; the horrendous physical and aesthetic damage that would be done to Jackson Park by the construction of a four-lane bridge; the loss of greenspace along the Parkway where children can safely play and take part in outdoor education activities – there are no less than five schools located near the route; the fact that the proposed Parkway links only 20% of the City’s planned north end residences to only one of the two main employment areas in Peterborough; the loss of one of the City’s largest and most significant greenspace corridors where plants and animals are easily observed and people can connect with nature;  and, finally, the fact that in the 2003 referendum, voters already said NO to the Parkway.  Remember, too, that construction of the Parkway will only save a projected one to three minutes of driving time.

For many of us, there are more visceral arguments, as well. We simply don’t want to have to look at more pavement and concrete (e.g., Medical Drive between Weller and Parkhill); we don’t want to be assaulted by the noise and smell of traffic; and we don’t want to be assailed by the heat of the sun where once there was shade. In other words, we don’t want to give up anymore of Peterborough’s precious, health-giving greenspace to automobiles – even if we don’t use the greenspace ourselves.

It is also important to see the Parkway in relation to the debate on climate change and the absolute imperative of decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels and finding less damaging ways to help people travel through the City. My fear, however, is that there may not be enough people in Peterborough who  know about this issue, are paying attention and who care. As our urbanized society becomes increasingly disconnected from nature, fewer and fewer of us have a strong sense of all that stands to be lost through projects such as these. In the end, we will only fight to protect what we know and love,  and, sadly, a dwindling number of people know the natural world.


Climate change

According to the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in September, warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Scientists are 95% certain that humans are the dominant cause of the warming. The report states that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. In other words, human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and observed warming. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. The report concludes by saying that limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, scientific facts such as these are not enough to stop climate changer deniers, one of whom is a regular contributor to the Letters to the Editor section of this paper. As a result of the Internet, you can now find all manner of fringe opinion and cherry-picked research findings to defend denialist beliefs such as his. However, to accept the arguments denying the cause, extent and/or danger of climate change, you would have to believe that thousands of scientists across the world are either incompetent or are willfully participating in a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over the eyes of the public in an effort to continue to get research grants.  If you don’t believe scientists on climate change, why should you believe them on the dangers of smoking, on how to build a passenger jet or on any other area of scientific investigation? If scientists are as corrupt and/or unskilled as denialists imply, we would have to wonder if any scientific “facts” are trustworthy. That would mean our hospitals, economies, and technologies could not be trusted. Clearly, this is not the case. Furthermore, if trickery or ineptness were rampant, young and ambitious scientists would have exposed the charade or incompetence by now and become famous and highly-respected by doing so. You can rest assured that every argument that deniers have advanced has already been fully examined – and disproven – by researchers.

As lay people, we really have no choice but to base our beliefs and decision-making on what the best peer-reviewed, consensus-based science is telling us – not on right wing ideology, religious fundamentalism or anything else. The stakes are simply too high. And, so far, a massive, world-wide consensus clearly demonstrates that climate change is mostly man-made and a reality. As author Philip Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  In the meantime, climate change deniers gravely threaten us all by hampering efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cat carries a dead bird.

Cat carries a dead bird.

 Free-roaming cats

Over the past four years, Environment Canada scientists conducted extensive analyses to produce the first-ever estimates of annual direct bird mortality from human-related sources. Their findings were published earlier this month in Avian Conservation and Ecology, the electronic scientific journal of Bird Studies Canada and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists. The results indicate that human-related activities destroy roughly 269 million birds and 2 million bird nests in Canada each year.
Most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by feral and pet cats and collisions with transmission lines, buildings, and vehicles. Cats appear to kill as many birds as all other sources combined – more than 100 million birds annually in Canada. Species that nest or feed on or near the ground are especially vulnerable to cat predation. Collisions with electricity transmission and distribution lines have been identified as the second-largest human-caused source of bird mortality in Canada, causing between 10-41 million bird deaths per year. Collisions with residential and commercial buildings are the third-highest of the human-related causes, killing an estimated 16-42 million birds each year – mostly at houses.

There is some hope on the horizon, however, at least at the local level. For over a year now, Councilor Henry Clarke has been working on a new Peterborough cat by-law with a group of vets, the Peterborough Humane Society, City staff and citizen volunteers. The by-law will address owned cats running at large (i.e., pets) and attempts to deal with the feral cat problem (i.e., wild cats). According to Clarke, City staff is still working on the legal aspects of the by-law, but he is hopeful it will be brought to Council in the near future. It is more important than ever that cat owners – like me – keep our pet cats under our constant care and supervision and not allow them to wander outside at will. Not only is it disrespectful of neighbours but allowing cats to roam freely is taking a huge toll on our increasingly fragile natural world. Unlike so many other threats to nature, it is also a problem we can do something about.