Beyond “Sylvester & Tweety”
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2006:
FOSTER CITY, Calif.–Tired of playing stereotypical opposing
roles in endless political re-runs of the “Sylvester & Tweety”
cats-vs.-birds battle, Homeless Cat Network “cat manager” Cimeron
Morrissey, Sequoia Audubon Society conservation committee chair
Robin Winslow Smith, and Foster City management analyst Andra Lorenz
in 2004 quit competing for TV sound bites and formed Project Bay Cat
They all knew what the problem was: more than 170 feral cats
lived along the Bay Trail, a popular scenic hiking route that
follows a long abandoned shoreline railway. Mostly the cats hunted
small rodents. Like other predators, they caught mostly the old,
the young, the sick, and the injured.
But the cats were near various threatened and endangered
species, including the California clapper rail, a bird whose last
habitats include a marsh at the northern end of the Bay Trail, where
Foster City meets San Mateo.
Efforts to protect the clapper rail from feral cats,
coyotes, and foxes had included more than fifteen years of
confrontations among animal advocates and government agencies.
Especially bitterly fought were proposals to use leghold traps to
capture and kill potential clapper rail predators. Although leghold
traps are banned in California, the ban exempts use to protect
While lawyers battled, Morrissey, Smith, Lorenz and
friends realized that none of them really wanted feral cats to be on
the Bay Trail, none of them wanted to fight, and much could be done
to reduce the feline presence if they brokered their own peace and
“The homeless cat population started as a result of illegal
abandonment by irresponsible people,” recounted Morrissey on March
27, 2006, formally the first anniversary of Project Bay Cat–but by
the time they announced that it existed, in March 2005, the
participants had already sterilized 77% of the Bay Trail cat
“Volunteers have diligently trapped the cats to have them
neutered, tested for disease, and vaccinated,” Morissey told
ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Thanks to the San Mateo Animal Hospital and Crystal
Springs Pet Hospital veterinarians, 92% of the cats who live along
the levee pedway (footpath) have now been altered. This has
stabilized the population. The Homeless Cat Network also created an
aggressive fostering and adoption program, and found homes for more
than 60 kittens and friendly adult cats. This has already reduced
the number of cats living along the levee pedway by 30%, thereby
exceeding our initial goals.”
Added Smith, “There are fewer cats on the Bay Trail now.
Those who remain appear to be healthier. Thanks to the feeding
stations and the spay/neuter effort, the cats seem to have settled
into the program, and don’t need to hunt.”
Though sterilized and fed cats may still hunt, few hunt with
the urgency of a pregnant or nursing cat mother.
“To protect birds and their habitat, and reduce debris along
the levee pedway,” where hikers often left food for cats, “10 cat
feeding stations were built by the Homeless Cat Network and installed
along the trail,” recounted Morissey.
“Appropriate locations for the stations were jointly
identified by our three groups, with special consideration given by
Sequoia Audubon Society to insure that the stations were placed away
from bird habitats. The program’s effectiveness is a result of
keeping the cats well-fed and concentrated away from avian nesting
“Evidence of the program’s effectiveness,” Morrissey said,
“is that the Sequoia Audubon Society recently found that the
endangered California clapper rail is thriving and is not impacted by
the cats. Rails are quite easily seen and heard at high tide,”
along the northern end of the Bay Trail.”
Neuter/return stabilized the Bay Trail feral cat population.
Adopting out cats who could be handled reduced the cats’ numbers and
their environmental impact. The key to success, however, is
“educating the community while enlisting help,” assessed Morrissey.
“To educate the public and encourage community involvement,
Foster City erected four Project Bay Cat signs along the levee
pedway,” Morrissey explained. “Because the homeless cat problem is
a result of animal abandonment, which is an illegal and inhumane
act, the signs discourage abandonment and ask the public to call the
police if they see suspicious or malicious activity. The signs also
ask the public not to feed the cats unless they are registered
through the Homeless Cat Network as official feeders.
“As a result of positive press coverage,” Morrissey
continued, “we have been able to educate thousands of people about
feral cats and how to humanely manage them, and have changed how
people perceive feral cats. Now people know that feral cats can be
healthy, happy, sometimes friendly, and that they deserve to live
out their lives. We have many more volunteers helping them now,
trail users have become vigilant and have prevented animal
abandonment, and many more people are protecting our furry outcasts.
They aren’t really outcasts any more–they’re celebrities,”
Morrissey noted that, “The Homeless Cat Network is seeking
additional volunteers, to help feed the cats, foster and socialize
kittens, and humanely trap cats.” as there are still a few to be
caught and sterilized, and some abandonment of intact cats may yet
But Morrissey believes Project Bay Cat has passed “the
transition from active program development to ongoing maintenance.
Volunteers will continue to provide food and water to the homeless
cats,” for the duration of their lives or until all are tamed and
adopted, “while also working to trap the remaining unaltered
“The results speak for themselves,” commented Foster City
parks and recreation director Kevin Miller. “Most impressively, we
have achieved success without expense to taxpayers, since the
program is implemented by volunteers, and by veterinarians who have
donated their services.”
The Project Bay Cat step-by-step “tool kit” is offered free
of charge to others who might like to start similar collaborations
among cat people and bird people, c/o <email@example.com>.
“Others around the country have requested it,” Morrissey
said. “The State of New York is looking to our example as they
consider what to do with the feral cats in their state parks.”
Originally made for theatre showing, adapted for broadcast
in the early years of network television, the “Sylvester & Tweety “
cat-versus-bird cartoons were variously set in apartment blocks
resembling New York City and suburban areas resembling Long Island.
Tweety, a canary, was more often a pet than a wild bird,
but took turns as both. Sylvester, however, was always an alley
cat, stray or feral, who got into Granny’s house to hunt Tweety
only by skulking past Spike the bulldog, and often ended up in the
pound. Long-time personnel at the no-kill North Shore Animal League
joke that the pound must have been theirs, as North Shore held
several pound contracts between 1944 and 1960, and tried to avoid
taking in cats.
Much of Long Island is now served by low-kill animal control
agencies, but not all of the island–and Long Island is now more
than ever a battleground of cat and bird rescuers. Some of the
oldest and most successful neighborhood neuter/return programs in the
U.S. operate on Long Island, along with some of the most bitterly
anticat wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists.
There are two flashpoints for conflict.
One is the visceral reaction that bird people have at seeing
cats kill animals they have watched, fed, nursed, and created
habitat for. Cat people often have the same response when coyotes,
foxes, hawks, owls, or eagles carry off cats or kittens.
The other flashpoint is habitat.
Since the “Sylvester & Tweety” cartoons were made, Long
Island has gained protected wetlands and shorelines. The pollution
that then fouled streams, beaches, and bays, inspiring the start
of the Environmental Defense Fund, is markedly reduced. Decades of
donations, public investment, and volunteer labor have gone into
restoring habitat. Maturing suburban tree canopies have also helped
Overall, Long Island today probably has far more birds than
50-60 years ago, and has tens of thousands more people who watch,
feed, and otherwise care about birds. Yet the island may not have
more bird species. Meadow birds, thriving when much of Long Island
was still open field, are often barely holding on, their feeding
habitat reduced to heavily sprayed yard lawns and golf courses.
Deer, no longer able to browse the edge habitat where fields
met woodlots, now eat the remaining brush understory beneath yard
and park trees, where meadow species nest. Neotropical migratory
songbirds are in particular trouble, losing nesting and feeding
habitat at the northern end of their range while rainforest logging
followed by beef ranching devastates their Central and South American
Sylvester and his descendants had little or nothing to do
with the decline of the bird species of most concern to Long Island
birders–but a cat seen stalking, carrying, or eating a bird is an
easy scapegoat for the frustrations of birders who may not realize
that the bird was typically caught only after being crippled by
diseases spread at feeders, by injury from colliding with cars,
windows, or microwave towers, or by ingesting lawn chemicals along
with a dinner of bugs. Usually a bird caught by a cat had little
chance of contributing to the survival of the species. Yet the
visible role of the cat in dispatching sick and injured birds can
seem to symbolize everything bad for birds about concentrated
West Islip bird rehabilitator Richard DeSantis, 56, was on
April 16, 2006 charged with fourth degree criminal mischief, fifth
degree criminal possession of stolen property, and making a false
written statement for allegedly trapping a Russian blue cat named
Coal in his yard on April 3, and taking the cat to the Town of Islip
Animal Shelter to be killed, saying Coal was his. Coal actually
belonged to neighbors Jesse and Regina Fagone and their two children.
Arraignment was set for June 5.
The Fagone family told Wil Cruz of Long Island Newsday that
shelter records they obtained through the Freedom of Information Act
showed that DeSantis in December 1998 had two cats killed, whom they
believe were two previous cats of theirs who went missing at about
the same time. Another Fagone cat disappeared in 2002, they said,
and a cat kept by across-the-street neighbor Tom Blaser,
brother-in-law of Jesse Fagone, was shot dead with a pellet gun by
an unknown attacker.
“The shelter’s records confirm that since 1995, this
gentleman has brought in five cats to be euthanized,” a Town of
Islip Animal Shelter spokesperson told New York Daily News writer
Dat dwatted cat!
Birder antipathy toward cats has been whetted since the
neuter/return method of feral cat control caught on in the U.S.
during the early 1990s by grossly exaggerated estimates of feral cat
numbers circulated by some humane groups, including Alley Cat
Allies, amplified by the American Bird Conservancy.
Excessive estimates of cat predation, based on dubious
estimates of the feral cat population, further inflame birders’
anxiety. A recent example would be Cats & Wildlife: A Conservation
Dilemma, by John S. Cole-man, Stanley A. Temple, and Scott R.
Craven, distributed since March 2005 by the Internet Center for
Wildlife Damage Management at the University of Nebraska.
Temple, a University of Wisconsin-Madison wildlife biology
professor, in 1996 projected that there are two to three times more
cats in Wisconsin than any standard animal control or pet industry
estimating method indicates, and that they kill up to 100 million
birds per year in Wisconsin alone.
Credible estimates of bird predation by cats nationwide range
from 100 million per year, projected in 2003 by U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Management Office biologist Al
Manville, to 134 million per year, projected in 2000 by Carol Fiore
of the Wichita State University Department of Biological
Sciences–and Fiore estimated that approximately twice as many pet
cats are allowed to roam as other studies showed.
Yet the Temple claims were influential enough within
Wisconsin to motivate 57% of the participants in the April 2005 state
Conservation Congress caucuses to vote in favor of allowing hunters
to shoot feral cats.
How many cats?
ANIMAL PEOPLE in November 1992, March 1996, June 2003, and
November 2003 extensively reviewed the evolution of feral cat
population estimates, each time incorporating new data from multiple
sources. The findings of researchers other than Temple and
colleagues have been easily reconciled, pointing consistently toward
the conclusion summarized in the November 2003 headline “Roadkills of
cats fall 90% in 10 years–are feral cats on their way out?”
Outdoor and feral cat numbers have been in free fall since
the introduction of neuter/return, while urbanized coyotes, foxes,
hawks, and owls are now rapidly reclaiming former feral cat habitat
including even Central Park in the center of New York City.
The U.S. pet cat population has increased during the past
five years from about 74 million to 90 million, according to the Pet
Product Manufacturers Association–but fewer cats roam than ever.
The biggest factor in the increase is not rising births or
acquisitions, but rather decreased mortality among the elder half of
the ever-growing percentage of pet cats, now more than two-thirds of
all pet cats, who are kept indoors.
The most distant ancestor of the Pet Product Manufacturers
Association data was compiled in 1953 by the National Family Opinion
Survey, funded by the American Can Company, summarized by study
director John Marbanks in early 1954 for the National Humane Review,
the long-defunct general audience humane magazine that once helped to
support the American Humane Association.
Marbanks projected that the total U.S. cat population then,
when Sylvester was in his prime, was about 50 million, including
about 13.2 million barn cats, 6.5 million other rural cats, 7.0
million cats in urban homes, and 23 million ferals. Up to 80% of
the cats, at least, had opportunity to hunt birds. About 42
million cats–or more–were at large.
The numbers of barn cats, other rural cats, and ferals
appear to have remained relatively steady for about 40 years, even
as the numbers of cats in urban homes increased tenfold. But, as
about half of all cat-keepers allowed their cats to roam, the
numbers of cats at large soared, especially after dog-keepers began
keeping their pets confined in the 1970s and 1980s, giving
free-roaming pet cats more opportunity to hunt, scavenge, and
interbreed with the barn cats, rural cats, and ferals.
Neuter/return arrived coincidental with cat-keepers attitudes
toward keeping pets indoors catching up with the practices of
dog-keepers. The numbers of free-roaming pet cats and feral cats
“Birth and Death Rate Estimates of Cats and Dogs in U.S.
Households and Related Factors,” published in 2005 in volume 7.4 of
the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, established from a
1996 survey of 7,399 U.S. households that the cat birth rate was
then not more than about 11.2 kittens per 100 cats in households.
Attrition included a death rate of 8.3% among cats, plus a
disappearance rate of 3%. In short, cat births in households
The study authors included John C. New Jr. and William Kelch
of the University of Tennessee, Jennifer Hutchison of the
Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry, Mo
Salman and Mike King of Colorado State University, Janet Scarlett of
Cornell University, and Philip Kass of the University of California
Their findings confirmed that movement of feral cats into
homes and shelters was just about equal to net growth in the
household population plus cat killing in shelters, exactly as long
projected by ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Therefore the number of feral cats can be estimated by adding
net cat acquisition to shelter killing and multiplying by three, to
account for the numbers of queens, toms, and siblings not entering
homes or shelters who must exist to produce the numbers of ferals who
are either adopted or killed.
U.S. pet cat acquisitions appear to exceed attrition by about
1.5% per year: 1.1 million, about half of net population growth,
with decreased mortality among older cats accounting for the rest.
Nationally, animal shelters kill about two million cats per year,
according to ongoing shelter data collection & analysis conducted by
ANIMAL PEOPLE since 1993.
Thus the U.S. feral cat population appears to be about 9.3
million on a year-round average, rising in spring and summer, but
contracting in fall and winter.
This number is most meaningful when compared to the national
carrying capacity, estimated relative to the volume of food that
would be available to dogs and cats if humans did not artificially
elevate the carrying capacity by deliberately feeding them.
In poor nations where most dogs are street dogs, and few
people deliberately feed them, dog populations tend to peak at about
one dog per 10 humans, as in India, and run far lower in harsher
climates. When street dogs are sterilized or killed, feral cats
gradually replace dogs at a ratio of approximately three cats taking
the niche of one dog. This is close to their relative average
Thus the U.S. national feral cat carrying capacity might be
as high as 100 million, higher even than the pet cat population–if
coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls, eagles, fishers, ferrets, snakes,
and many other predators of small rodents were not absorbing most of
the carrying capacity wherever they can.