“Are you a cat person or a dog person?” is a commonly asked question when discussing pet preferences. Far less frequently asked, however, is the question, “what do we do with feral or stray cats?”
Carleton College has been “home” to some famous domestic outdoor cats like Toff and Lynam, as well as many anonymous stray cats. Cats wander around Parish, Nourse, behind the LDC, and almost everywhere in between. Sooner or later many of Carleton’s cats end up in the Arboretum.
“Any cat that roams outside is a problem. Even one is a problem,” said Nancy Braker, the Arboretum Director. She sees the issue as having two parts: first, the lack of human care for these cats in the wild; and second, the fact that these cats—which aren’t pets—survive the Minnesota winter by being fed out of people’s homes.
While cats are likely to prey on mice that would otherwise infest buildings, they are also drawn to the Arboretum’s native small animals—mice and voles, for instance, as well as songbirds. Domestic outdoor cats are especially problematic because they are fed and thus have plenty of energy with which to kill birds.
Braker, a cat owner herself, said, “Killing birds is instinctual for cats, but people have caused this problem by allowing their cats to roam free and not spaying or neutering their pets.” She is an advocate for spaying or neutering cats and keeping them inside, because they have a negative impact on nature.
Feral cats have not been domesticated; they have no owner and roam freely outside. “When I think about it, cats living in the wild have a really hard life,” said Braker. “They get run over by cars, attacked by coyotes and raccoons, freeze slowly to death and starve, especially because their paws are too small to walk on the snow.”
Nearly ever year, Braker receives reports about people dumping kittens in the Arb, a highly irresponsible action because the kittens will most likely die.
A few years ago Braker assisted a student who found a feral mother cat with kittens under the porch of Farm House. Eventually the mother left with all but one kitten and Braker helped the student, who was living off-campus, adopt it.
There are also students living in Carleton-owned houses who secretly shelter cats. Sources who have declined to be named have stated that Resident Assistants have been known to harbor stray cats for concerned residents or even for themselves.
While the Arboretum staff is aware that many cats roam the fringe between town and the Arboretum, and take note of the cats they do see, they do not have enough data to indicate whether the problem is increasing.
In December, the Arboretum hosts bowhunting for deer. The archers inform the Arboretum if they see any cats, allowing the Arb staff to collect data during a consistent time period.
Braker says the problem is being monitored, but the Arboretum staff has no accepted plan at the moment. As this time, she thinks it is best to educate the community about the negative impact outdoor cats have on the environment.
Asked about a potentially declining situation, Braker posed a counter-question: “Is it better for feral cats to be humanely euthanized than deal with the harshness of nature?” While Braker and the Arboretum team do not have clear answers yet, there are students and faculty on campus engaged with the subject.
ENTS professor Kim Smith teaches Environmental Ethics, and last year several students investigated the most ethical way to deal with the feral cats. Students debated and wrote about management strategies including euthanasia, trap-neuter-release, and educating the community.
Smith says some of the questions students asked included, “Why do we prefer an arboretum without feral cats to one with feral cats?” and “Are we justified in a fairly aggressive policy, in other words, killing them?” Some other questions were: “Why are cats less valuable than prairie voles?” and “Why do people value biodiversity?”
Emily Manahan ’14 wrote a paper in Smith’s class regarding the most ethical solution to the feral cat problem. She concluded that, while it is a very murky subject, trap-neuter-release paired with community education about not feeding cats and keeping cats indoors would be the most ethical solutions.