BOOKS: Maverick Cats
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2002:
Maverick Cats: Encounters with Feral Cats
Expanded and Updated Edition
by Ellen Perry Berkeley
with illustrations by Sandra Westford
The New England Press (P.O. Box 573, Shelburne, VT 05482), 2001.
159 pages, paperback. $14.95.
“Fewer than a dozen research papers had been published by the
mid-1970s” about feral cats, recalls Ellen Perry Berkeley in a new
final chapter of her 1982 classic Maverick Cats. “We now have more
than 20 times that number.”
Maverick Cats was the first serious book-length look at the
lives and ecological roles of feral cats, the first volume to pull
together all of the research findings available as of 20 years ago,
and perhaps the first description published in the U.S. of the
neuter/return method of feral cat control.
Berkeley did not begin her research as a “cat person,” and
certainly did not expect to become the figurative grandmother of
neuter/return in North America. Formerly senior editor of
Architectural Forum, Berkeley was and remains a strong advocate of
environmentally friendly design: of living harmoniously with nature,
not trying to fight it.
If Berkeley had accepted the dogma prevailing both then and
now among wildlife managers and mainstream environmentalists,
Maverick Cats might have become a treatise on how to kill an alleged
invasive species, appreciative of the wariness of the species but
only to the extent that any hunter admits the difficulty of
dispatching animals who run and hide.
Berkeley has long emphasized thoroughly understanding natural
dynamics, however, before presuming to know how nature “should”
influence a particular piece of property, and she brought the same
patience and attention to detail to her investigation of the lives of
the feral cats she discovered sharing the property she and her
husband Roy inhabit near Shaftsbury, Vermont.
Thus Maverick Cats instead became an appreciation of how well
feral cats have fit themselves into the natural environment as
amended by humans, filling the niches left by less adaptable and
less fecund native predators like the North American lynx, fisher,
and pine marten, who were long ago trapped, shot, or poisoned to
“I have kept the original book intact,” Berkeley wrote to
ANIMAL PEOPLE in the cover note accompanying our review copy, “but
have added two chapters. I am very glad to have done this updating,
to report on the most important new research and on the growing
acceptance of neuter/return. In addition, my explicit refutation of
the claims of the American Bird Conservancy includes material I have
not seen in print until now,” from B.M. Fitzgerald, author of a
paper entitled Feeding Ecology of Feral House Cats in New Zealand
Forest, which has been extensively misrepresented by ABC, the
National Audubon Society, and the Humane Society of the U.S. in
their ongoing campaigns against neuter/return.
“The ABC claimed that ‘extensive studies’ over half a century
had identified birds as comprising ’20 to 30 percent’ of the prey of
free-roaming cats,” Berkeley recounts in Maverick Cats. “I asked
the ABC for the source of this unlikely figure, thinking that
perhaps the ABC had merged mainland and island studies: a serious
Indeed, this is what the ABC did. Further, Fitzgerald
confirmed, the ABC, National Audubon Society, and HSUS have all
misrepresented studies of the sometime occurrence of types of prey in
cat diets with the frequency of cats actually consuming that prey.
Thus, if the diets of cats marooned on islands with little except
birds to hunt are included, about 21% of all feral cats appear to
hunt birds on occasion. Overall, however, Fitzgerald found that
under 10% of feral cats in mainland habitats hunt birds, and even
cats who do hunt birds subsist mainly on small mammals–especially
mice and rats.
The view that feral cats are an alien menace destroying
native birds is politically attractive worldwide to government
agencies, developers, and others who would like to foist off the
blame for species losses which are almost always actually the result
of depleted nesting and feeding habitat.
For those with a vested interest in misattributing to cats
the consequences of human activity, it is additionally convenience
to blame the presence of the cats on the very people who are working
hardest and most effectively toward eliminating the feral cat
population by means of neuter/return, regular feeding, and
socialization for eventual adoption placement of the cats who can be
In the U.S. northeast, where Berkeley lives and writes, the
major reasons for bird losses are deer nibbling away the forest
understory, as result of wildlife agencies encouraging
overproliferation of deer to stimulate sport hunting; loss of the
open grasslands which prevailed for about 200 years to the
combination of urban sprawl and former farm land reverting to forest;
and very heavy human use of beaches.
At Cedar Beach, Long Island, Newsday reported on June 16,
2002, a group called Caring for the Animals and Recovery of the
Environment “has reduced the cat population from 75 to about 15 by
spaying and neutering them, and has found homes for those tame
enough to adopt, said member Linda Dow.”
The 80% reduction in feral cat numbers, after three years,
is quite typical of the accomplishments of hundreds of similar
all-volunteer organizations who use the neuter/return
approach–whereas, traditional catch-and-kill only produces annual
boom-and-bust cycles of cat populations who replenish themselves
within months, and become progressively warier, as only the most
furtive cats reproduce successfully. Only slow population reduction
through natural attrition and nonreproduction avoids leaving a vacant
habitat that attracts immigrant cats, and allows native predators
such as the much less fecund hawks and owls the time they need to
breed up to the carrying capacity of the habitat niches that are
gradually opened to them.
Despite the success of the CARE program, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service and Town of Brookhaven have ordered that the last 15
feral cats at Cedar Beach be removed immediately, to protect
endangered piping plovers, and are attempting to discourage the
practice of cat-feeding neuter/return anywhere in the area.
CARE “could not have picked a worse place to drop these
cats,” insisted local biologist Wendell Giebel to Newsday staff
write Ann Givens, oblivious to the reality that CARE did not “drop”
any cats anywhere. Rather, the cats are still right where CARE
found them, but are now sterilized and vaccinated. They have
persisted in their waterfront habitat for generations and will
probably recover to persist for many more generations if surveilance
and neuter/return facilitated by regular cat-feeding is ended.
This same scenario is underway at other waterfront habitats
throughout the world as result of a “Policy Letter Preventing Feral
Cat and Dog Populations on Navy Property” issued on January 10, 2002
by Admiral Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations.
Explains Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson, “The
policy expressly prohibits feeding feral animals and/or implementing
trap/neuter/return programs,” and requires “humane capture and
removal of all free roaming cats and dogs” by January 1, 2003.
“Humane capture and removal,” as defined by the Navy, means
extermination as a self-perpetuating make-work project for USDA
Wildlife Services trappers. It will be self-perpetuating because no
fast-breeding mammal species has ever been lastingly extirpated from
mainland habitat by means of catch-and-kill. As with the 62-year-old
Wildlife Services war on coyotes, thousands of cats will be trapped
and killed, and millions of dollars will be wasted, before the
effort is widely recognized as a complete waste. Even then, it may
be as politically difficult as the ongoing coyote massacre to halt or
even restrain, between the need of the Navy for someone else to
blame for shoreline and sea bird losses, and the need of Wildlife
Services to find an ever-expanding mission so as to avoid the
Congressional budget ax.
Incidentally, while killing cats to save birds, the Navy on
June 7, 2002, obtained from the U.S. Court of Appeals for
Washington D.C. an emergency stay of a permanent restraining order
twice issued by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan against ongoing
use of Farallon de Medinilla for target practice. The small cat-free
island in the northern Marianas chain is nesting habitat for at least
two dozen protected bird species, including great frigatebirds,
masked boobies, and endangered Micronesian megapodes. The Navy and
other U.S. armed forces hope to soon obtain legislation permanently
exempting them from obeying the Endangered Species Act, Marine
Mammal Protection Act, and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Meanwhile,
naval bombardment of the island continues.
The republication and update of Maverick Cats is certainly
timely. It is an essential primer for anyone concerned with cats at