CHICAGO — A battle of political correctness is brewing between bird watchers and cat lovers over Cook County's program allowing feral cat colonies.
The county has had an ordinance on the books for more than five years allowing for feral cat colonies, and according to Donna Alexander, head of the Department of Animal and Rabies Control, it's been very successful.
Feral cats are typically trapped, neutered and released by those authorized to manage cat colonies, with hopes the population gradually is reduced. And the number of feral cats has dwindled year by year, officials said.
"We are trying to effectively take care of the cats that we have, manage the population as best as we can," Alexander said. "To me, it's an ordinance that has really worked."
Yet a recent study showing that cats kill 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year caught the attention of County Board Commissioner Larry Suffredin after the Sun-Times wrote an editorial on it earlier this month. Suffredin has called a hearing on the matter, tentatively set for March 19.
Alexander will "report to us on the management of feral cat colonies in Cook County," Suffredin said. "This is them telling us how it's working, and then we'll figure out what we should do next."
Yet bird watchers know what they want done: euthanization of feral cats.
"The argument I hear many times is you can't blame the cats for the problem, which is true," said Chicago Audubon Society President Roger Shamley. "The cats don't create the problem. People create the problem," by releasing cats into the wild for a variety of reasons, including economic hardship, he said.
"But people also have the wherewithal to correct the problem. And that would be at the expense, in many cases, of the cats," he said.
Anti-Cruelty Society President Robyn Barbiers said euthanization is the solution for most bird enthusiasts.
"That's not very palatable," she said.
The only two alternatives to that, she said, are to do nothing, "which is not very good, for a lot of reasons," or trap, neuter and release the animals.
"Of the three options, that in our opinion is the best," Barbiers said. "With time, the population will be reduced."
Shamley also suggested putting the cats in no-kill shelters, but Alexander pointed out that's not really practical. A cat that's been wild for as little as six months is next to impossible to re-domesticate, she said, and housing and feeding those cats would only drain humane shelters that in many cases are already struggling with tight budgets.
"It's also dangerous for the shelter staff," Alexander said.
The Anti-Cruelty Society is not actually an official sponsor of the program, although it provides traps to catch feral cats and will spay or neuter them for free. Alexander said that while her office oversees the program, it intentionally does not keep records of the names and locations of those overseeing the cat colonies, because Freedom of Information Act requests could be used to deal out retribution to those managing cat colonies, or even to poison the cats.
Instead, that's left to authorized oversight agencies such as PAWS Chicago, which claims responsibility for 250 colonies in Chicago with 2,300 cats.
"We absolutely are supportive of the ordinance that was put in place. Trap-neuter-release is the way to go," PAWS Executive Director Rochelle Michalek said.
The Audubon Society disagrees, Shamley said.
"I don't see how that really helps you," he added. "They're still going to be killing birds. They have to eat."
Michalek, however, pointed out that when the colonies actually are tended and fed, the cats don't have to hunt to eat. At the same time, cat urine acts as a natural repellent for rats and mice.
"In the city of Chicago, where you have colonies, you don't have a major rodent problem," she said.
Alexander added that when feral cats are vaccinated for rabies, they actually act as a "buffer" to help prevent the incursion of rabies-carrying species such as bats, raccoons and skunks.
Michalek said PAWS vaccinates along with its TNR program and has treated 5,000 cats over the last five years. Alexander said 12,000 cats had been vaccinated countywide through the program.
Suffredin, speaking for bird watchers, has speculated on the impact cats have on songbirds in the Forest Preserve District. Alexander said she'll be presenting the results of a study undertaken by the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation showing that feral cats actually tend to stick to residential areas.
"They don't go into the Forest Preserve District," Alexander said, because they are more likely to be prey than predator there. "They are coyote food in the Forest Preserve District."
Still, it figures to be a contentious hearing next month when the County Board reassesses the program — a real catfight.