Twenty years ago I had an orange-striped tabby named Mr. Mooney. I doted on Mr. Mooney. He was a beautiful cat: smart, affectionate—and lethal to the neighborhood birds. Every day when I came home from work, I’d brace myself before opening the front door. Often I would be greeted with a grisly scene, tufts of feathers floating here and there, blood smeared on the floor, and somewhere, deeper in the house, the mangled body of a songbird. I tried keeping Mr. Mooney inside, but he howled nonstop in protest. I put a bell around his neck, but the bell didn’t do any good. The more birds he caught, the better he got at it.
I cringe when I think of those days. Because I, and not Mr. Mooney, was to blame for all that needless killing. My justification for allowing Mr. Mooney to roam outdoors—he enjoyed it and it was convenient for me—was directly responsible for the gruesome deaths of innumerable birds. Not to mention the collateral damage: the nestlings who starved when their parent failed to return to the nest; the bereaved partners of the dead (many bird species mate for life and raise families together every year).
Mr. Mooney is long gone, but domestic cats continue to catch astonishing numbers of birds. By far the most common patients Native Animal Rescue treats are songbirds injured by pet cats. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats in the U.S. kill hundreds of millions of birds and possibly billions of small mammals like chipmunks, voles, moles, and baby squirrels and rabbits every year. When cats kill small critters like mice, rats, and gophers, they are taking food out of the mouths of native predators like foxes, bobcats and coyotes and birds of prey like owls and hawks.
Many people argue that it’s natural for cats to hunt and that we shouldn’t interfere with nature. While cats certainly have an instinctive prey drive, Felis catus, the domestic housecat, is not a natural part of any ecosystem, but an introduced species that has become one of the most widespread predators in the world. Cats have decimated populations of songbirds, many of them endangered species, in every habitat in which they are extant. Well-fed, well-loved cats like Mr. Mooney are responsible for much of this carnage.
Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, writes that “animals have the capacity to suffer, and we humans have the capacity to help them. We hold all the power over animals, and our choices and conduct have enormous consequences for them.” The choices we make, from the foods we eat, to the clothing we wear, to decisions like whether or not to let our cats outside, all have moral consequences. In Mr. Mooney’s day, the only way to stop a cat from killing birds was to keep the cat indoors. While that is still the most foolproof solution, today there are other options: the first is a simple, inexpensive invention called the CatBib.
The CatBib is a thin neoprene bib that attaches to the cat’s collar and looks exactly like what it’s called: a bib. The orange-striped tabby I have today, Sherman, wears a bib when he goes outside and it does not hinder him in any way. He is still able to run and leap and climb and stalk and pounce, but when he reaches out to grab a bird with his claws, the CatBib flips up at the critical moment, preventing him from seizing his prey. Sherman suffers not at all from his failure to catch birds; as with most cats, it is the stalking that engrosses him. It took about five minutes for Sherman to get used to wearing his bib, and he quickly learned to sit and wait for me to buckle it on before going outside.
The second option is a cat enclosure, or as some call it, a catio, a confined space where cats can get fresh air and sunlight, and can watch birds but can’t catch them. These spaces range from large aviary-like enclosures to secured balconies and decks to entirely fenced-in yards. A few products on the market, such as Purrfect Fence or Cat Fence In, can convert a patio into a catio in just a few hours.
We want our cats to be fulfilled and content, and that’s why some of us accept the very real risks that come with allowing cats to go outdoors: roving dogs, hungry coyotes, fast-moving cars, pesticides, poisons and parasites. But permitting our cats to senselessly kill other living beings shouldn’t be part of the deal. I miss Mr. Mooney, but I don’t miss the feelings of horror and guilt that came with every dead or damaged bird he brought home. Choosing to get a CatBib or keeping your cat safely confined in a catio will allow you to enjoy your cat’s wild nature and keep our wild neighbors safe at the same time.
Tai Moses is the author of Zooburbia: Meditations On The Wild Animals Among Us (Parallax Press, 2014). She lives in Santa Cruz.