A hunter at heart

Ollie5

It’s hard to believe such a cute creature can harbour such a killer instinct. (The cat, not the teddy bear.) Both dogs and cats are naturally predatory animals, but domesticated cats retain much more of that instinct than most dogs do. If you’ve ever seen a cat perk up its ears at the sound of a fly buzzing in a window pane or jump up from where it’s curled up on the couch upon spotting a moth fluttering at a lamp, you’ll know what I mean. That hunting instinct is always present, even in the fattest, laziest of cats. Never take a cat for granted. If it doesn’t chase that fly, it’s not because it’s not a hunter, but rather that it simply chooses not to expend the energy at that moment (a cat’s urge to sleep is about on par with its urge to hunt).

Ollie2

I am a firm believer of an indoor-cat philosophy. Keep cats indoors. The outdoors is a dangerous place for cats. There is the risk of being hit by cars, or being caught by a predator bigger than it (coyotes and fishers are particularly fond of cat). There is the risk of it getting into fights, with racoons or wild animals, or other neighbourhood cats, and developing infection or suffering more serious injuries. The cat is also dangerous to the outdoors. If it’s smaller than the cat, it’s a target. Chipmunks, mice, birds, all favourites. Even a well-fed cat cannot resist the allure of a scurrying mouse.

Oliver looooves the outdoors. It’s fascinating, so many places to roam, so many things to see. He’d taken to scooting out through our feet as we came in the door, and had even learned how to open the door itself (it was one of those sorts without a latch), as he’s doing in the photo above. Finally, we gave in, and decided he would be okay on supervised walks where we were always outside with him.

Ollie3

He quickly asserted himself as a hunter. He would chase the crickets and meadowhawks in the lawn, with a fairly good success rate. Since meadowhawks are a dime a dozen around here, and the cat was just being a cat, we let him tackle those. When he startled up a snake and then pounced on its tail end (I was surprised it didn’t turn around and bite him), I took him inside. But aside from the meadowhawks, the arrangement seemed to be working fine.

CHSP-cat

Then yesterday Ollie disappeared on us while I was distracted setting up my moth sheet at one side of the lawn. Into the garden? The long grass beyond? I wasn’t sure. He hadn’t been far away while I was working, but then when I turned around next he was gone. I searched for him initially, but couldn’t find him. I needed to get started on dinner, so sent Dan out to resume the search. He found Ollie – perched on this guy, a Chipping Sparrow that Dan at first thought was dead. It wasn’t, although the poor thing didn’t make it, bruised and probably scared to death.

Ollie1

That’s it for Ollie. No more outdoors, supervised or otherwise. We’d let our guard down, lulled into thinking (consciously or not) that his focus was on the meadowhawks and he’d be no problem. I feel terrible for the little sparrow. It’s so easy to forget that every cat is a hunter at heart.

Last fall I wrote a post on keeping cats indoors. I strongly encourage cat owners to keep your cat indoors, no matter how pitifully he looks at you with those big, round eyes. It’s for his own good as much as it is the birds outside that you keep him indoors. If you just can’t resist, buy him a harness and tie-out lead to keep him away from problem areas where small animals or birds might frequent (eg., gardens, bird baths) and to keep him from wandering off. We learned our lesson the hard way.

Audubon Magazine recently did an excellent article on the problem of cats outdoors, brought to my attention by Clare of The House and other Arctic musings. It’s definitely worth a read.

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11 responses to “A hunter at heart

  1. You have just written ONE of the reasons I do not like cats! The other reason is the sudden jumps onto the couch back or the sink or the table. It’s the sudden movements that make me nervous. I’ll take a dog any day of the week.

  2. It’s hard to keep saying no to a cat that badly wants to go outside. But the cat’s probably not really unhappy indoors as long as it has plenty of food and mental stimulation.

    Good for you for writing this.

  3. It’s a huge problem, and the Audubon article is very nicely done. Cats can be very happy indoors, just ask nuthatch.

  4. Thank you for this excellent post, reminding us all again about the delicate balance we need to retain for wildlife and for our domestic pets. This is really important and I appreciate your taking the time to post about it.

  5. Thank you for this post!!! Having always lived near Galveston Island, I’d see “vacation pets” left to fend for themselves after vacationers had gone back home after the summer and the kitties were sooo sickly looking – if they didn’t get run over, they’d starve in spite of eating the island’s critters. Also, thank you for admitting that you let your guard down and witnessed the consequences. Many people think that if they don’t ever find anything dead, nothing died…

  6. I’m a cat fanatic, but I’m also a nature fanatic who thinks domestic cats should be kept indoors at all times. It’s best for them and it’s best for wildlife.

    That said, the Audubon article is troubling at best, predictably one-side at worst. ‘House cat’? Where did that come from? Do we call dogs ‘house wolves’? That killed the article for me up front; it’s a misleading play on words to slant the reader’s perspective up front so the rest of the article can be swallowed from a very specific point of view–one intended to pit birders against anyone who likes cats. I expected as much.

    Considering how close most wildcat species are to extinction, thanks entirely to humans, it behooves us to consider feral and stray domestic cats in a light other than as the enemy. I’m not saying they should run loose and kill wantonly, but I am saying there’s a predatory niche that we’re about to leave irreversibly empty. Ultimately, there’s a lot more to this story than just TNR programs and killing felines on the street so we can save birds. It’s a shame Audubon missed the opportunity to look at the bigger picture and took the low road to emotional warfare instead.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jason. I didn’t take as much objection to the article as you did, but it’s true that any article is likely to project at least a little bias, and a subject such as this perhaps more so. There probably is a lot more to the story than was presented there – but I guess there’s only so much you can do with 2000 words (something I struggle with regularly in my newsletter editor duties).

      I would disagree with the idea that feral cats are filling a predatory niche, however. The native wild cats, at least in my part of the country, have always been exceptionally uncommon – even in all the hiking I’ve done, I have yet to see a real, live, wild lynx or bobcat. Feral cats are also much more efficient hunters than any of the native predators that may once have existed in the landscape – raccoons, coyotes, foxes, snakes, hawks, etc. And finally, particularly in urban and suburban areas where feral cat populations are highest, the poor birds and small mammals already have enough artificial threats to contend with in the form of cars, buildings and poisons that they don’t need the additional pressure of feral cats.

  7. Interesting article. Some aspects of it concerned me, however. Such as his use of Hawaii as an example. It is clear that cats ranging over Hawaii are more likely to be a threat to endangered species than, say, in downtown Toronto. While TNR might not be appropriate in sensitive locations, it might be a reasonable solution in others. The article also doesn’t address the real cause of the problem: irresponsible pet owners. There are numerous restrictions on dog ownership. Many places require a license, dogs that run loose can be picked up by Animal Control, you have to stoop and scoop when you walk your dog, you can’t keep a pit bull in some places, etc. Cat ownership has few restrictions. One pet food store owner I talked to thought that pet stores should not be legally allowed to sell or place unneutered kittens. A public information campaign from communities on keeping cats indoors would help to change attitudes. I’m sure there are thoughtful solutions that would at least help to slow down the problem. They aren’t discussed much. Many people still think of a cat hunting as a perfectly natural thing. Cats are a part of nature, right? Well, no.

    • Yes, undoubtedly more should be done to control urban and suburban cat populations. It’s funny that they’ve been given so much leniency compared to dogs. I wonder why that is?

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Cats, and particularly outdoor cats, can be such a polarizing subject. Many people (myself included, let’s be fair), have strong opinions on pets and pets outdoors. It’s sometimes difficult to balance the welfare of our pets with that of the wildlife outdoors, and it can be hard to find a solution that will keep both sides healthy and happy, but I think this is one situation where the answer is relatively easy.

  9. Seems like we get the same magazines, for the Audubon article prompted me to write my own for the Adirondack Almanack blog last week (or the week before).

    One cat I had temporarily (can two years be temporary?) was taken in as a feral stray. She was on one had a great cat, and on the other a real handful – a bit of a Jeckle-Hyde personality. Anyway, she was a bonafide hunter, and earned her name, Bug, from the prey she usually caught and brought in the house: giant grasshoppers and darner dragonflies (often still alive). I called it quits, though, when she added hummingbirds to the list.

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