[NAFEX] barn cats(long)

Lucky Pittman lucky.pittman at murraystate.edu
Mon Feb 19 09:41:15 EST 2007

There's been a discussion on barn cats on the small ruminant 
practitioners e-list that dovetails to some degree with the one 
that's been going on here on the NAFEX list.  Received this response 
over the weekend - thought it might be of interest to some of you NAFEXers.

>Again, I will apologize that this is a long post, as behavior and 
>domestication are special interests of mine.
>I would like to comment on the outdoor cats issue as well.  I 
>recognize that cats are predators and do at times take birds and at 
>times those birds are from struggling populations.  However, in my 
>experience, few people have the knowledge or desire to make an 
>indoor environment as enriched as a cat needs for optimum mental 
>health.  It is much like the zoos of yester-year, when wild cat 
>species were kept on boring, sterile cages.  Sure they lived longer 
>than their wild counterparts, but what kind of lives did they lead? 
>However now zoos undergo considerable design to provide more 
>enriched environments (decades back, prior to vet school, I worked a 
>summer with Hal Markowitz at the Portland zoo, who was an pioneer in 
>cognitive enrichment in the zoo setting). But the average cat owner 
>hasn't a clue how to evaluate and design an indoor environment for the
>behavioral needs of a cat.
>I think we also need to examine the issue of the prey that cats are 
>hunting and why humans domesticated cats in the first place.  In the 
>late 1990s, I lived for two years in Japan and got an English 
>language newspaper.  There I was reading about the serious crop 
>failure that was occurring in Vietnam, which was so severe that it 
>was feared it would cause widespread famine. The situation all came 
>back, it turns out, to cats.  What happened was the
>economy improved over the border in China, causing a proliferation 
>of specialty "Little Tiger Restaurants" in the border cities 
>surrounding Vietnam and in Saigon.  As the name implies, these 
>restaurants served up cooked domestic cat, which was considered a 
>delicacy.  This caused an economic draw for getting cats to supply 
>the restaurants, and a number of people started poaching the cats 
>from farm villages in Vietnam.  As the cats
>disappeared, the rat population exploded, moving out into the farms 
>fields and consuming all the staple crops.  I don't remember the 
>exact numbers, but it was billions of tons of human food being 
>lost.  I remember reading one story about a man who used a car 
>battery to electrify his rice paddy every night to kill thousands of 
>rats--woe to anyone else who accidentally stumbled off the path.  At 
>the time I left Japan and was no longer getting newspapers that ran 
>the story, the government had closed down all the Little Tiger 
>restaurants and were actively campaigning to the farmers to protect 
>their cats as a way of protecting their fields and food supply.
>The reason why humans, in this case the ancient Egyptians, 
>domesticated cats to begin with was because of their  hunting 
>prowess and their ability to protect our food supply from rodents 
>and pest species of small birds.  The domestication of the dog occurred while
>humans were still primarily hunter-gatherers.  Domestication of cats 
>followed the domestication of grains and plant agriculture and 
>storage and cats proved their value as small, effective predators 
>that could live on the edges of human civilization. Cats then 
>followed humanity everywhere we went, were of value to us because of 
>their hunting prowess.  They accompanied humans on sailing ships, 
>keeping our stores of food safe from rodents. Wherever there is 
>human agriculture, there cats have proved their value.  I think that 
>the current anti-cat movement fails to recognize the historical 
>perspective and fails to recognize that the value we humans  derive 
>from cats' hunting skills continues today.  We in our comfortable 
>domesticity haven't experienced the horseman of the Apocalypse that 
>was Pestilence.  But what if those millions of wildlife (mainly 
>rodents) killed now by outdoor and feral cats were instead allowed 
>to live and, as rodent populations are able to do, explosively 
>reproduce?  We are still creating and maintaining the habitats in 
>which rodents will flourish.  After all, if the feral cats didn't 
>have those rodents to hunt, there would not be a feral cat 
>population to begin with...the few people feeding these populations 
>are not maintaining them--the rodent population living in the 
>habitats we people have created is what is maintaining the feral cat 
>Cats have gone, hand in paw, along with human agriculture for 
>thousands of years, which is why many farmers tolerate, even 
>encourage, semi-feral populations of barn cats.
>I choose to have several outdoor cats in my barn because I prefer 
>that to trapping and poisoning rodents.  A decade ago we had a woman 
>killed by Hantavirus in my community, so I know that this is in my 
>resident deer mouse population. Trapping rodents puts me at 
>increased risk and poisoning them puts raptors at risk.  Leaving 
>them to reproduce and run amok in my barn and pastures is not a good 
>sustainable agricultural practice. There are snakes in my pastures, 
>but being cold blooded, they aren't much help in the winter and
>don't consume prey species as much as a warm blooded species with 
>higher energy demands.  I have, on occasions had skunks also living 
>in the barn, also eating the rodent population.  But I prefer the 
>cats to the skunks because the skunks kill my laying hens and the 
>cats do not.  My cats do kill the occasional bird--but in keeping 
>with the adage that common things happen commonly, the birds killed 
>are generally species that are in overabundance like starlings.  I 
>*don't* put out a bird feeder, which I think may be a
>detriment to wild bird populations by creating static, abnormally 
>concentrated wild bird feeding locations that brings birds into 
>close proximity and puts them at a higher risk of  social stress, 
>disease transmission and predatory risk (from more than just 
>cats).   (I wonder how many of the people who damn the cats also 
>create these abnormal feeding stations without questioning whether 
>they are potentially creating risk for the bird populations)?
>Most of the prey that are killed by cats are not any more "wild" 
>than the cats themselves.  They are species of animals who have 
>either invaded into new territories because of their ability to 
>exploit the niches we create (like the Norway rat), were 
>deliberately introduced (like the starling, which is no more native 
>than the cats) or are  native populations that are living at higher 
>densities because of the habitat we have created (like the deer mouse).
>Rare populations are also impacted by the hunting skills of the 
>cats, but not to the degree that these potentially damaging pest 
>species are impacted. I think we need to find another way to protect 
>the rare species from all the things that are challenging them (like 
>habitat destruction, competition from pest species, loss of nesting 
>habitat, pollution and pesticides) and leave the cats doing what the 
>cats have been doing the last 5 centuries....using their spectacular 
>hunting prowess to protect our food supply.  And for those of us who 
>also make our living from agriculture, we need to recognize that the 
>health of the outdoor cat population is related to the health and 
>sustainability of agriculture and extend our hand at keeping them 
>healthy and able to do their jobs (an example would be on-farm 
>vaccination and worming when we are there seeing to the 
>ruminants).  Part of our jobs when we go on a farm, could be to see 
>what the farmer needs to keep his outdoor cat population stable and 
>healthy.  As the Toxo case pointed out, a rapidly turning over 
>population with a lot of kittens and influx of new cats is not as 
>beneficial as a stable population.  We could teach farmers how to 
>better care for their barn cats. That is a niche we could explore.
>I think that those of us in agriculture need to appreciate what cats 
>do for agriculture and add our perspective to the outdoor cat debate.
>I also don't think you can always buy the argument that outdoor cats 
>necessarily live short, miserable lives.  They do certainly have 
>more challenges to their safety, like coyotes and cars.  But I have 
>a 20 year old retired barn cat who started living in my house a 
>while back, after having been born and raised and spending over a 
>decade as my primary barn cat.  She is mearowing to be fed, so I'd 
>better stop writing now.......
>Again I apologize for the length of this post.  It is a topic about 
>which I have given a lot of thought and I don't see this perspective 
>addressed much in the debates about this.
>Janice Willard, DVM, MS
>Moscow, ID
>>Well said; you make some good points, and I'm sure we all value wildlife.
>>I have no doubt that in certain situations, especially where habitat loss
>>has already threatened certain populations, cats may have an impact. It
>>behooves us all to try to minimze our ecologic footprint and manage our
>>own habitat responsibly. We do see plenty of what our cats kill and bring
>>home (or barf up), and birds are a very small part. The cats do a lot to
>>keep mice, squirrels and chipmunks out of the houses as well as the barns.
>>I stand corrected on the issue of older cats potentially shedding toxo, as
>>well, but still a resident adult population is likely to be healthier than
>>a transient one.

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