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Feathers fly in bird vs. cat battle in Cape May

Feathers fly in bird vs. cat battle in Cape May
August 5, 2007

CAPE MAY -- In most other cities, cats killing birds would not attract much attention. But this is not most other cities.

Cats are as much a part of genteel Cape May culture as rainbow-colored Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, trolley tours and cocktails on the porch at sunset.

But Cape May is also one of the prime bird-watching spots in all of North America; the World Series of Birding is held here each year. And with bird watching and related expenditures bringing in nearly $2 billion a year to New Jersey's economy, no one wants to kill the golden goose.

Up and down the East Coast, rare birds including the piping plover, a tiny white-and-black fuzz ball of a bird that has closed beaches and stopped development projects in the interest of protecting its habitat, are being eaten by wild cats and other predators.

So far this year in New Jersey, cats are the prime suspects in the deaths of three endangered birds, including plovers. With only 115 pairs of piping plovers left in the state, each death is a big deal to environmentalists.

The federal government may intervene on the side of the birds, which has set both fur and feathers flying here. Cat lovers fear the felines will be euthanized; bird lovers are wary of rare species being wiped out.

"This is a very emotional issue; this really is a cat town," said resident Pat Peckham. "I think they should leave the cats where they are. I'm a firm believer in letting nature take its course."

That's also what Bill Schemel wants -- but for a different reason.

"I think the cats are more of a nuisance than anything else," he said. "They're killing endangered birds that belong out here. Cats are not part of the natural environment. They're here because someone's cat had a litter and they dumped them out in the woods."

That, agrees Jim Cramer, a spokesman for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is the root of the problem.

"In an ideal world we wouldn't have feral cat populations," he said. "All cats would be given good homes and be kept indoors. But that's not the reality we're dealing with. We're dealing with a mess."

The stakes are high. Wildlife watching and related expenditures pump more than $2 billion a year into New Jersey economy, about 80 percent of which comes from bird-watchers, according to Eric Stiles, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society.

Few people might have taken notice of the colonies of feral cats here had it not been for the presence of the piping plover, a small shorebird that is considered threatened by the federal government, and endangered by New Jersey environmental authorities.

The plovers nest in sandy, open stretches of beach, making them and their chicks easy prey for a variety of predators, including foxes, gulls, raccoons, and cats.

As part of federally mandated beach management programs, communities with populations of threatened or endangered species are required to prevent the birds from being harmed. And those measures are paying off: plover populations along the East Coast have rebounded from 722 pairs in 1985 to 1,743 this year, federal officials said.

When plovers die, cats often are the first suspects. A study by the American Bird Conservancy blamed cats for harassing and killing plovers in Avalon, at Townsend's Inlet, Island Beach State Park, Monmouth Beach and Sea Bright in recent years.

For the past 12 years, Cape May has been attempting to keep its cat population in check through a program known as trap, neuter and release, said John Queenan, the city's animal control officer.

After being "fixed," the cats are quarantined to ensure that they are healthy, then returned to the wild. But a May 18 fire destroyed a trailer that a local animal rescue group had used to house the cats, killing 37 of them.

Annette Scherer, a senior biologist with the Fish & Wildlife Service, said the agency is studying the situation in Cape May.

Possible recommendations could include asking the city to adopt laws requiring cats to be licensed, prohibiting free-roaming cats, and prohibiting abandonment of cats and feeding of wildlife, including feral cats.

The issue has cat lovers riled up across the country. Jessica Frohman, an official with the Bethesda, Md.-based Alley Cat Allies, wants to ensure that communities like Cape May will still be allowed to return neutered feral cats to the wild if no one adopts them. She and other cat lovers don't want to see strays sent to shelters, where most are euthanized if they can't find a home.

"We're intent on protecting all species," she said. "But birds are not somehow more important than cats."

Stiles, the Audubon Society official, is working on a pilot project to find a middle ground in the debate.

"It doesn't have to be cats versus birds; it can be cats and birds," he said.

The program, to be unveiled this winter, would bring together animal control officials with birds and cat advocacy groups to share information on known locations of endangered birds and cat colonies. Cats that are near endangered birds could be relocated, while others deemed to be sufficiently far away could continue undisturbed.

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