Friday, January 25, 2008

Cat in the field

Today's a day off, but yesterday I took my redtail Stekoa (an intermewed passager, of indeterminate sex but probably a tiercel) to one of our favorite hunting spots, a mixed-grass meadow liberally dotted with eastern red-cedar trees. Released from his travel box, he took a perch atop one of the cedars, and almost immediately started chasing what I assumed was a cottontail. His intended quarry made it to another large cedar before he could close, so he pitched up and landed atop the same tree. Peering underneath, I found not the expected rabbit but a feral cat.

Cats are dangerous: redtails can and occasionally do catch them, but the bacteria harbored in cats' claws are deadly to hawks and other birds; even a small scratch, if not noticed and treated, can cause a deadly infection. So I did my best to encourage the cat to depart in a direction that afforded the best possible cover and the slightest chance of detection by Stekoa. But what I really wanted -- and I don't often feel this way in the field -- was a firearm.

State wildlife agencies used to encourage hunters, via the regulation manuals issued with hunting licenses, to shoot cats found in the field. They still should. Unfortunately, such recommendations are no longer considered tactful, or politically correct, or something along those lines. But it remains damned good advice for those of us who care about wildlife. Researchers estimate that cats kill billions (yes, billions with a "b") of native birds and rodents every year -- and a fair number of rabbits as well.

This is a brand-new blog, so I'm not expecting to be flamed, but let me preempt some of the likely attacks anyway:

"It's not the cat's fault it's out there." True enough. The cat is someone's responsibility, or was until they abdicated it. But it's not about "punishing" the cat; it's about protecting wildlife, particularly on public land. (I'd have to check my map to find out whether this particular spot is a State Recreation Area or a Wildlife Management Area, but both SRAs and WMAs are supposed to be managed for game and non-game wildlife.) The cat has no business being there, and should be removed as expeditiously as possible -- which usually means shooting.

"How is the cat any different from your hawk? They're both predators." Again, true -- but only up to a point. The hawk is a native predator, part of the same ecosystem as the birds, mice, and rabbits I'm concerned about. The cat, on the other hand, is an exotic species introduced by man. Again, it has no business being there. (Note that I would not be complaining about a native felid. We have bobcats and even cougars in the area, and they can eat all they want. I'd be delighted just to see one.)

"But," someone might argue, "your hawk isn't really wild." Okay... He was trapped from the wild, and will most likely be permanently returned to the wild someday, but he is currently "under my control" -- an introduced predator in the sense that I gave him a ride to the cedar meadow yesterday. But I help to pay for the management of that land by my investment in hunting licenses, habitat stamps, and park permits; consequently, I have certain rights on that land, including the right to hunt game species, in season, by legal methods which include falconry. The cat's (former) owner, on the other hand, is not hunting with his or her cat. It's not legal, or even feasible, to do so. That individual has merely shrugged off his or her responsibility and inflicted this non-native predator, year-round until it is finally hit by a car or meets a bigger, tougher predator, on an ecosystem to which he or she evidently feels no connection.

"You just don't like cats." A big assumption, and irrelevant in any case. For the record, I'm fine with cats kept indoors. Many of my friends have cats, and a couple entrust their care to me when they're out of town. But housecats belong in houses, and unless someone starts shooting the idiots who "release" them into the wild (and the well-meaning but even more misguided individuals who set up feeding stations for feral cats, often in or near sensitive areas), shooting and trapping feral cats is the only way to mitigate the environmental damage they do.

Postscript: As it happens, Stekoa didn't see the cat depart, and we soon got a rabbit going. He missed that one -- which is altogether routine -- but caught another cottontail a short while later, which I'm happy to say is also routine. I thanked Rabbit, Stekoa had dinner, and we went home.

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