An enormous and growing population of free-roaming cats exists in Florida, posing a threat to the state’s native animal species and creating a serious public health concern.
Cats are not indigenous to Florida or anywhere in North America. As a non-indigenous species, or “invasive” species, cats have spread throughout the continent and threaten to destabilize native ecosystems.
Not only do cats impact Florida wildlife through predation and spread of disease, but they can outnumber and compete with native predators, such as owls, hawks and foxes. Domestic cats hunt many of the same animals that native predators do, and when present in large numbers, cats can reduce the availability of prey for native predators.
The instinctive hunting behavior in cats is decoupled from their hunger mechanism so that they kill impulsively even when they are not hungry.
The study of two Miami-Dade County cat colonies found that the colonies did not decline in size over time, partly because people continued to illegally dump their unwanted cats and also because not all the cats were sterilized.
The problem, as well as the solution, lies with human behavior. At the state and local levels, there must be a loud and continuing campaign to educate the public about the impacts of free-roaming cats on Florida’s wildlife and human health. The campaign must include public service announcements on television, radio and in newspapers, as well as education in public schools.
Local governments should post signs in public parks warning that it is illegal to feed stray cats and dogs as well as to feed wildlife. Local governments should enforce mandatory sterilization of all cats and dogs placed for adoption at shelters.
If state and local governments continue to ignore this crisis and pass the buck, the feral cat population will continue to grow. It is up to the human population to decide how many native Florida species we will let become extinct, and how big a public health problem we will allow free-roaming cats to become.
Ana Zanetti, BSCE ’06, writes from Miami, FL.