CONFER: Cats in New York will sink their claws into wildlife

Bob Confer

Last week’s passage of a bill to make illegal the declawing of cats proved to be incredibly divisive. New Yorkers fell into one, if not a few, of numerous camps.

Many cat lovers praised the move, claiming declawing is akin to ripping off your fingers at the knuckles.

Other cat lovers believed that unintended consequences will come about from the law, from people not adopting cats to owners giving up on them completely due to, respectively, the potential and reality of extensive damage to their homes.

Disgruntled taxpayers wondered why this had been elevated to an issue of importance given the socioeconomic malaise of upstate.

And, then, there was the group of people with whom I identify with the most on this issue – my fellow naturalists and ornithologists who fret about the impact that this will have on local wildlife. Clawed cats are killers.

The reasoning behind the bill’s introduction and passage begs the question: Where does and should “animal advocacy” begin and end? We ask that questions because we wonder why, if they are so concerned about animal welfare, the advocates seem not to care about the wildlife of the region, which is arguably far more important than this invasive species.

Yes, felis catus is an invasive species.

Whether feral, living in a barn or garage, or fully domesticated and sharing time indoors and outdoors, cats are a scourge on the natural world that demolish the integrity of our environment, no different than other threats currently bearing down on Western New York that were also introduced to the area by Man – the emerald ash borer (the beetle that is destroying every ash tree in the area) and the Asian carp (the monstrous fish that will upset the Great Lakes ecosystem).

Those two creatures will have measurable and considerable impact on our economy so they are perceived as major dangers by the populace at large. Cats, on the other hand, are not popularly reviled because their economic impact is nil and they’re “cute.”

Alas, no dollar value can be placed on the dangers cats pose to local wildlife. Yet, there’s nothing “cute” about what they do.

According to a 2010 study by the University of Nebraska Extension, there are 60 million stray and feral cats in the United States and another 88 million domestic cats that may spend time outside, and altogether they kill 1 billion of our feathered friends every year.

The American Bird Conservancy is less conservative in its numbers. They say predation by domestic cats is the No. 1 direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada. They estimate that in the United States alone, cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. The conservancy says cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild.

Other well-respected organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have been outspoken on the environmental dangers posed by cats.

We naturalists despise free-roaming cats because the unnatural predators make easy meals out of low-nesting and ground-nesting birds. Familiar woodland and lawn birds like thrushes, cardinals and ovenbirds are easy prey for the cats. For example, every year I get multiple pairs of catbirds attempting to raise broods in my yard and every year the catbird’s babies are eaten by, ironically, the mammals they get their name from.

Also consider the plight of rare and endangered sandpipers, plovers and nighthawks that call stony shorelines home. The local populations of these ground nesters have taken a massive beating along the Niagara River corridor and Great Lakes because so many people have championed and protected feral cat populations on Tonawanda Island and Goat Island and places like the lakeside hamlet of Olcott. The decimation of these birds was magnified by the well-intentioned Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs that never insisted on declawing the feral cats. All of this assault on Mother Nature will be magnified as house cats, barn cats, and the like join their feral friends in retaining their claws. They will become more efficient hunters and the loss of precious birds will continue, unabated.

It will be interesting or, rather, depressing to see the impact. In 2020, I will join hundreds of volunteers in conducting studies for the latest update of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. I guarantee when we work on the next edition 20 years later we will find most ground dwelling birds threatened if not endangered — they’re already on that path.

Is this really what animal lovers want? You can’t love one species of animal so much that it is detrimental to all others.

If you really love all animals, and not just your cats, put protections in place. Cats with claws are efficient killing machines so you have to save those creatures they would prey on. Keep all of your cats indoors, always. Actively participate in or donate to TNR programs to control feral cat populations. Don’t get a cat if you can’t control it.

I like cats — specifically true house cats — as I grew up with and enjoyed the company of felines. But I value the lives of our local wildlife well above the comfort of an invasive species. Getting rid of declawing is a portal to getting rid of so many beautiful birds … maybe even permanently.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.