Ever wished that you could, ahem, "take care of" your neighbor's tomcat that sprays your house, cries unbearably during mating season, and rummages through your trash? Well if you live in Wisconsin, you just may get your chance.
On April 11, a majority of Wisconsin residents voted to legalize hunting of free-roaming cats, ignoring the sizable number of feline-friendly voters wearing cat whiskers and gripping cat stuffed animals. Question 62 at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress asked people in 72 counties whether free-roaming cats should be lifted from the protected species list—meaning that both wild cats and any domestic cat not under direct control of its owner or without a collar could be shot.
What does this mean for Wisconsin cat caretakers? It could mean a greater emphasis on controlling the little bundles of fur if a law is passed, but don't go out and buy kitty camouflage or a leash just yet. Cat season will remain closed if animal protection advocates like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), veterinarians, and ordinary kitty-loving citizens have anything to say about it. Along with a handful of state lawmakers who insist that Wisconsin has more pressing matters at hand, they have banded together to fight against any such legislation—and this is sure to be a real cat fight.
Currently all cats are protected under state laws that prohibit cruelty to animals, but feral cat hunting is legal in Minnesota and South Dakota, Wisconsin's upper Midwest neighbors. Why? Experts estimate that, globally, feral cats may have brought about the extinction of more bird species than any other cause except habitat destruction. In Wisconsin alone, about 2 million wild cats roam the heartland, and they kill anywhere between 39 and 139 million songbirds per year as well as an underdetermined number of small mammals.
Proponents of feral cat hunting also note that because cats are a non-native species, they compete with owls and hawks for food, dipping into their numbers, and can also carry and spread disease to other animals and humans. Many hunters, though, shied away from publicly expressing their views at the Wisconsin meetings; some suggest a reluctance to do so in the face of an already controversial mourning dove hunt.
The legalization of feral cat hunting was first proposed by Mark Smith, a firefighter from La Crosse, in last year's meeting of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. Every second Monday in April, the Congress holds public meetings to gauge opinion on various fish and wildlife issues. This citizen advisory group reports to the state Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Board, who in turn forwards findings to the Wisconsin Legislature. Then the lawmakers decide whether to introduce a bill and vote, leaving the final say up to the governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, who signs or not—and he says he won't.
On the other side of the debate, cat supporters have had their claws out from the get-go. PETA wrote a letter on behalf of its 4000 plus members and supporters in Wisconsin urging the Congress to keep free-roaming cats protected. The animal advocacy group encourages the capture of feral cats and their removal from open society, but wants a solution to the problem "in accordance with humane standards and existing laws."
PETA's letter states that the lift of the protection would be akin to "declaring an open season" on cats and would put "countless animals at the risk of violent and painful deaths." The group also warns that felony cruelty to animals cases would rise if cats were unprotected.
This view is supported by at least one group of veterinarians from WaukeshaCounty who insist that cat shootings are already a problem that would only grow with a law permitting feral cat hunting. Randy Schuett, a veterinarian who keeps barn cats, said, "Every time you shoot a cat and think you've killed it, you're wrong. I'm tired of patching up these animals." Indeed, one meeting attendant stated that he thought he was always permitted to shoot feral cats.
There are also community groups formed for the sole purpose of defending a cat's right to roam, including the Wisconsin Cat-Action Team, which espouses its views on the Web site DontShootTheCat.com. The Friends of Ferals works with the Dane County Humane Society to remove cats from the wild and spay or neuter them. However, dissidents note that when these cats are released back into the wild, they still kill.
Other than animal cruelty concerns, there are also basic biological ones. Betty Lipscomb of Cats International, a group that endeavors to help people better understand cat behavior, urges us to remember history. She notes that in the Middle Ages, we learned the hard way that free-roaming cats are a part of the ecosystem—without them, we'll have free-roaming rats.
And it's not only traditional cat lovers who are against feral cat hunting. An unlikely chirp of support came from Karen Hale, the executive director of the Madison Audubon Society, one of the largest organizations devoted to birds, when she voted "no" on the proposal, citing its controversial nature. Hale recommended more studies, analysis, and discussion to determine whether feral cat hunting is really the best solution to the disappearance of Wisconsin's songbirds.
So what are cat lovers in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) to do? Responsible pet care is always advised; in the case of new legislation, this would mean keeping Frisky out of the line of fire to avoid the heartbreaking, surreal news that your furry friend has been gunned down.
But the strategy of gathering together and letting the fur fly also seems to be working; whether alone or in groups, pals of those with paws should encourage lawmakers to investigate more humane solutions to the feral cat problem. With a concerted effort that offers constructive solutions, the friends of felines can help to assure that curiosity—and not disgruntled neighbors—remains the number one killer of cats.
Update: At a May 25, 2005, meeting, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board declared they had decided not to pursue this measure further.