Over the summer, the DC government released a draft of its Wildlife Action Plan, the first revamp to the document in a decade. It predictably includes sections about things like climate change and biodiversity, but among them—on page 145—is this assertion: “Cats (Felis catus) are non-native predators that have been among the worst invasive species globally.”
District cat advocates—and there are many—interpret the plan’s intentions as the equivalent of kitty doomsday.
The Washington Humane Society and other animal-welfare groups immediately circulated scathing PR materials. As a result, publications as far away as the UK’s Mirror—which referred to the American capital’s “possible scheme to kill the wild felines”—picked up the story. According to spokeswoman Julia Christian, the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), the agency that released the draft, has received upward of 12,000 critical e-mails.
Christian says the goal of publishing the document was to have an open dialogue with the public, but instead the ordeal has felt like “a cross between Parks and Recreation and a Christopher Guest movie.”
The wildlife plan, it should be noted, doesn’t literally advocate rounding up and killing outdoor cats. It calls for revisiting the District’s current practice of “trapping, neutering, and returning” (TNR) the animals to the streets—a means of controlling the feral feline population. But it also suggests that the captured cats instead be housed by shelters. This is the part that opponents say amounts to killing them, because feral animals—which are not socialized to humans and thus are essentially unadoptable—generally wind up euthanized by shelters.
For many Washingtonians, the debate over the animals is personal: Feral cats may not be conventional pets, but there are nonetheless thousands of volunteers caring for them throughout the city by providing food, clean water, and makeshift shelters. And even for run-of-the-mill cat owners, a report that puts your pet’s relatives on the same level as invasive predators of the less fluffy variety—such as snakehead fish and flatworms—can sound harsh.
Plus, the fight has deep roots in the District. After a multi-year push for the policy, TNR became the city’s official practice in 2008. The campaign was led in large part by the advocacy group Alley Cat Allies, founded 25 years ago as a two-woman operation in Adams Morgan and now an $8.8-million national nonprofit. Among other things, the organization established National Feral Cat Day and provides instructional videos about TNR.
The group has the crucial backing of the Washington Humane Society, which provides support for DC’s feral-cat caretakers, and provides the sterilization and vaccination services necessary for the program to work. (And according to the Humane Society, it has worked, with a 71-percent decrease in euthanization rates for its shelter cats and a 17-percent drop in intake of “free-roaming” cats, a sign that DC’s stray-cat population is decreasing.)
The reason for disrupting such an entrenched status quo is ironic: Folks on the other side of the issue want to protect animals, too—they just disagree about which ones. The four DOEE biologists who authored the draft wildlife plan say that “free-roaming” cats are leading predators of native species and kill as many as 4 billion birds and 22.3 billion “small mammals” nationally every year. (The draft doesn’t give DC-specific numbers.)
Christian, the DOEE spokeswoman, concedes that groups such as the Humane Society and Alley Cat Allies—both of which provided form letters for citizens to send to the city in protest—“won the messaging battle.” The biggest fight, however, is likely still to come. The draft plan is now subject to review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Once that’s over—assuming the language about TNR survives—the real wrangling over what to do with DC’s feral cats will begin.
In other words, Christian should clean out her in box for another tidal wave of angry e-mails.
This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.