As we all know, cats are perfect pets and companion animals. They purr, they are fluffy, they are lovable, entertaining and beautiful. They sit on you and sleep on your bed. They talk to you. Cats have nothing but good sides. Right? Well… I have discovered one small drawback to cats. A drawback to cats?? I hear you say! Yes. Well. They like to catch mice and innocent birds from time to time.
Ah. Yes. The hunting instinct. A small inconvenience that we prefer to forget about. Except that some cats make it very hard to forget. One of my house cats is a ferocious hunter. She likes to hunt mice, bugs and geckos. Her specialty are grasshoppers. She likes to bite their back legs off and watch them crawl around stunted, batting at them every now and then. She also catches birds sometimes, young sparrows or even fully grown doves. I do my very best to take them away from her, but she is on to me. She runs off with her prey as I approach.
You see that collar she’s wearing, with the little bell on it? It has no effect at all. Besides, she loses it as soon as she possibly can. Her taste for hunting really is a problem, especially at this time of year, when young birds are trying to fly out of their nests and end up on the ground. We try to keep her inside as much as possible, but it is hard in a house with three young children. I do feel guilty, yes, that the birds pay the price for me having this cat.
Interestingly, I only feel guilty towards mice and birds when it concerns my house cats. In my pet zoo, I have two cats that live outside. We adopted them specifically to control the mouse problem, and they are doing their job admirably. There are a lot less mice around, and as mice attract snakes, this summer we fervently hope not to encounter any snakes in the pet zoo. The “barn cats” are called Tseli (shadow) and Stav (autumn). I have seen them catching numerous mice and birds. They also keep the crows on a distance, which is a good side effect. Crows steal our eggs, kill our ducklings and eat the poultry food. So no, I really don’t mind these two cats catching birds.
(I imagine Tseli and Stav wearing shades and camouflage, like security guards.)
Our “working cats” are by no means unique. There are mouse-catching cats all over the world in farms, stables, cafés, hotels, police stations, building sites and many other places. Many people appreciate their pest-reducing qualities. The domestication of the house cat is rooted in their ability to catch mice, rats and other small animals. As people began to settle down and invented agriculture, the need for mouse control arose. Cats showed up and fit into that gap perfectly. And of course, it helped that they were pretty, cute and cuddly!
The need for effective and environment-friendly rodent control continues to this day. There are even rescue groups who specifically connect cats that are not suitable as pets to people looking for a way to reduce their mouse population, like these: Working Cats Program. For more fun info about working cats in history, have a look at this: Purr-n-Fur Working Cats. Did you know, for instance, that some hotels used to employ cats as bed warmers? 🙂
So, our feline friends’ hunting instinct definitely has its upside. Unfortunately, it also has a downside. Roaming cats can severely damage wildlife populations. It is estimated that cats – feral and house cats – have been responsible for the extinction of at least 33 species of birds worldwide. There is even a story of a pet cat, Tibbles, who is said to have wiped out the entire population of the Stephens Island Wren single-handedly.
The only effective way to stop your cats hunting seems to be to keep them inside permanently. Unfortunately, this is virtually impossible for me with our lifestyle – half in, half outside, and the door is always open. Besides, the number of feral cats around here is far greater than the number of house cats. It seems to me that the most effective way to protect small wildlife is to control the population of feral cats. And the only right way to do that is by trap-neuter-release programs. I do my bit, adopt and neuter some strays, try to limit their wildlife-damaging activities, and hope that one day, the feral cat problem will be taken seriously.
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Dutch expatriate, mother of 3 boys, freelance translator and pet zoo keeper in a kibbutz in Israel.