Claw and Order
Outdoor cats have become in issue to the ecosystem, KSNAG, local humane society work to stem the problem
By Sydney Wilmot
The increasing stray cat population in Houghton County is an invisible issue tackled by the Copper Country Humane Society (CCHS) and Keweenaw Spay and Neuter Assistance Group (KSNAG). Domesticated cats living outdoors are often considered an invasive species, as they can cause significant damage to the ecosystem.
Stray cats have been an issue in the area since CCHS first formed in 1974. These cats kill billions of birds and small mammals in the US annually, according to this study from Nature Communications. A stray cat was defined by Rebecca Brink (Assistant Manager of CCHS) as a “any cat that’s out roaming, especially outside of [the owner’s] property… Technically, even if they have a home, if they’re just out roaming, I would still consider them a stray.”
A roaming cat still has significant impact on the ecosystem, even if they aren’t hunting to eat.
Dawn VerBerkmoes, the woman running KSNAG, has a set of questions that must be answered to define a cat as a stray: How long has the cat been there? Does it look thin and bedraggled? Check with your neighbors first, has anyone moved in the neighborhood? If the cat looks healthy and well-fed, it most likely has a home.
If a person who calls about a stray cannot take in the cat, then a volunteer from KSNAG will retrieve it. KSNAG advertises they have the cat and call the CCHS to see if anyone has called looking for the same one. They also check if the cat is microchipped. Only after four days of being unclaimed is it considered a stray, and can be put up for adoption. Though there are a few who may feed strays or build them a warm place for the winter, the responsibility of finding these cats a good home remains solely on the CCHS and KSNAG.
Brink said that outdoor cats often have shorter life spans: “Disease, wildlife attacking, domestic cats attacking, a lot of dogs don’t like cats, and cruel people… you would be surprised at some of the things people say they will do to cats and actually follow through with if they are on their property.”
VerBerkmoes said that when she first started in 1975, “People were taking newborn kittens and… putting them in plastic bags and throwing them at the dump… there would be a man that kinda managed the dump, and if he heard kittens crying or heard something, he’d bring them to us. But usually they were too far gone to save.”
She continues to say that it has gotten better, especially with the decrease in euthanasia at shelters. Both VerBerkmoes and Brink mentioned an increase in abandoned kittens this year, and they both stated it was likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic that caused vets to restrict their visitors and appointments. They said it was likely the cats people got during quarantine couldn’t get spayed, or they wanted the cat to have a litter of kittens. If or when the cat got pregnant, the kittens were abandoned when homes couldn’t be found for them, and they ended up dead or at the shelter.
Both Brink and VerBerkmoes said that strays often use children’s sandboxes as litter boxes, which puts children at risk for illness. There is also disease that is shared between stray cats.
“There’s two diseases with cats that roam,” VerBerkmoes said. “One is feline leukemia. The other is… Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, which is FIV, and that’s cat AIDS… It’s usually unneutered males living outside that fight, and when they fight, that’s how the disease is transmitted through bodily fluids.”
She said if there is an unneutered male roaming on people’s porches that spray, it can make the house cats upset and start wetting and spraying inside. House cats who are allowed to roam also cause an unbalance in the ecosystem. They do not have the need to hunt for food, but still drag home their prey. In some places, they have even caused species to go extinct.
It is a tragic story that is common among stray cats in the Upper Peninsula, as there is no animal control to pick them up. Police and sheriffs will pick up wandering or stray dogs, but not cats. It’s a misconception that cats can fend for themselves easily in the wild, or that elderly animals wander off to die alone. Often, they end up at the shelter with nobody looking for them. Some places with mild climates have cat colonies, but the long, harsh winters up here frequently result in the death of cats and kittens without a home.
If a stray cat is found, contact CCHS. The quickest reply is on Facebook, but you can call (906) 487-9560 and leave a message, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the location you found it, and a description/photo of the cat. CCHS will post the information on Facebook and Instagram. If you cannot take in the cat until the owner is found or comes forward, make arrangements to bring the cat into the shelter. If you bring the cat in, you will fill out a form to inform them where the cat was found.