Cats are one of the biggest threats to Cape May County’s ecosystems
By Collin Hall
Don’t tell the county commissioners, but cats are the true lawmakers in Cape May County.
Spend a couple days in Wildwood, Sea Isle City, Cape May, or any of Cape May County’s barrier islands and you’ll likely come face to face with man’s second-best friend. Packs of feral cats are commonly found in the Cape May dunes, underneath the Wildwoods boardwalk, around Avalon’s promenade, and generally anywhere where there is reprieve from the busyness of a hot, tourist-filled day.
Fun as a chance encounter with a cat is, that’s a horrible reality for the long-term health of our county.
Cats (even the cute ones) are among the biggest ecological threats our barrier islands face. That’s no small feat: our islands are plagued by wicked storms, sea level rise, and retreating sands. These ecosystems are delicate, partially because their cut-off land area limits access for four-legged predators. The life that bubbles up here, or that visits on a migration south, isn’t prepared for the fierce claws of your neighbor’s fat pet cat Wally.
And those suckers multiply fast. I wrote an in-depth story about the destruction that feral cats bring to Cape May County in a story for the Herald last year, and one of my chief sources was Peter Mara, Ph.D., former director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and author of “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer.”
Mara estimated that as many as 4 billion birds are killed by free-roaming cats each year. This includes pet cats that roam the neighborhood around your house. Coyotes make an occasional cameo, but cats sit high and mighty atop the food chain here.
Without competition outside their own species, feral cats have made dunes into veritable nests. Local shelters, and animal control companies contracted by local towns, try frivolously to curb the number of feral cats through “trap and release” programs. But without more drastic measures, the problem will continue and vulnerable shore birds, and any other small creature that dares to roam the islands, will die in large numbers as a result.
The problem got so bad in Cape May that the federal government intervened in 2008. Towns with a high population of endangered species are obligated by the federal Endangered Species Act to protect them. The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service claimed that Cape May was failing to protect vulnerable bird populations by allowing so many feral cats to roam the dunes.
The Feds worked a deal with the City of Cape May, and cats were relocated from the beaches and a cat-free one-mile radius was supposed to be enforced by the town going forward.
Years later, the results of this program seem to be mixed. It’s hard to tally these numbers exactly, but local animal shelters have told me on numerous occasions that they are “overwhelmed” by the number of feral cats in the county.
The scale of this problem is daunting, but if you’re reading this, there are a few things you can do. And remember, no pressure!
First, consider volunteering at an animal shelter where you live. Shelters are often under-resourced and given the tremendous task of caring for animals in their time of need. Second, don’t let your cat outside! Feral cats are a problem, but so are house cats that hunt small game for fun. You’re doing local birds, rabbits, and your cat, a favor – cats that are indoors only live 15 to 20 years on average, while outdoor cats live on average only 2 to 5 years.
Have you spotted any feral cats in Cape May County this summer? Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org