Peri<i>paw</i>tetic puss: The great roaming cat debate rages

The shooting of a pet cat in Albemarle County last month has outraged area residents as well as animal rights activists. But the incident has even pitted animal lover against animal lover over one question: Should cats be allowed to roam?

For some, the answer is a resounding "No."

"We feel that cats are as defenseless and fragile as toddlers, yet rational people who would never dream of dispatching a child into the street often let their cats outdoors and leave them unattended," says Teresa Chagrin of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA supports keeping all cats inside. "We receive calls all day from people whose cats have been shot, poisoned, or otherwise harmed by neighbors who consider the animals a nuisance or by bored psychotic people."

Such was the case with Carmen, a three-year-old black cat belonging to Klaus and Vanessa Wintersteiger. Carmen's April 24 shooting, allegedly by the Wintersteigers' neighbor, George Seymour, was the subject of the Hook's May 18 cover story, "Claws and Effect: Bentivar shooting sparks outrage."

Carmen dragged herself home, and although the family took her to the emergency veterinary clinic that night, her injuries were so profound they decided to euthanize her. The alleged shooter, a purveyor of second-hand imported cars, faces trial June 20 on a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge in Albemarle District Court.

While Carmen's case, says Chagrin, is a perfect example of why cats should be kept inside– safety of cats is not the only issue, some say.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, free roaming cats are responsible for hundreds of millions of bird deaths annually, and the Conservancy estimates the number of small rodents killed by cats each year at about a billion.

So strongly does the Conservancy feel about the issue that in 1997 it launched Cats Indoors: The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats. The campaign– explained at– teaches that cats are devastating biodiversity by over-hunting certain bird and rodent species and by depriving native predators of their prey. The campaign also focuses on the life-shortening problems free roaming causes cats, including the transmission of disease and dangers posed by dogs, cars, and perhaps even gun-wielding neighbors.

Cat Indoors director Linda Winter says she's seen the movement gain ground in the 10 years since she took office, but she admits she has a long way to go to convince all cat owners. 

"I really do know why people let their cats out," says Winter. "That's what they've always done, and they think that's what the cat wants."

Reading the reports provided at the Cats Indoors website, it might seem hard to argue with the wisdom of keeping cats inside. But cat owners shouldn't make the decision based on that information alone, says a prominent cat advocate who insists that cats can be allowed outdoors without harmful consequences.

"We have completely abandoned common sense in favor of dogma," says Nathan Winograd, executive director of the San Clemente, California-based animal rights nonprofit No Kill Solutions. Winograd, once director of operations for the San Francisco SPCA, says cats in urban or heavily trafficked areas should be kept inside, but he says research shows that cats in rural or suburban areas can live long, healthy lives indoors or out. 

"We're putting this huge effort on a problem that is less real than the American Bird Conservancy would like you to believe," he says. 

Winograd says the Conservancy's stance on cats is primarily based on one study by Stanley Temple at the University of Wisconsin, who cites an astronomical number of bird and rodent deaths. In fact, says Winograd, Temple's facts and figures were simply projections that he hoped to test, rather than peer-reviewed research.

"That hasn't stopped the Audubon society or American Bird Conservancy from accepting it as fact," says Winograd, who, in a recent newsletter, cites a study conducted in the U.S. and Great Britain by biologist Roger Tabor showing that most of the diet of unfed feral cats comes from scavenger material such as garbage, plants, insects, and rats. 

"Studies on four continents reach the same conclusion,"Winograd writes. "The common belief that feral cats are serious predators of birds is apparently without basis."

In fact, Winograd says, cats are "scapegoats for human activity."

But trying to stop a bulldozer is tougher than keeping Fluffy inside.

"The [Conservancy] would lose the battle against building homes, schools, shopping malls," he says, "even though they know full well that bird decline is due to these other factors."

Winter acknowledges those human threats to bird life, but she says the damage caused by cats cannot be underestimated.

Winograd also blames the indoor cat movement for "almost epidemic levels" of obesity in the cat population. But Winter, also a cat owner, points out that interactive toys can keep an indoor cat slim. "There are lots of ways for them to have a good time, use hunting instints to get exercise, and they're not bored," she explains, "but they're not killing something in the process."

Winograd agrees it's possible for indoor cats to live active, healthy lives– but he says that level of daily interaction may not be realistic for all cat owners.

"In this day and age, with our hectic schedules, there's really very little time for concentrated effort in socializing and exercising," he says. 

He's particularly incensed by a policy at many SPCAs and humane societies across the country that prohibits cat adoptions unless the would-be owner signs a pledge that the cat will be kept indoors. 

"We're going to turn cat lovers into criminals and kill cats in shelters becuase of the risk, however slight, that they might be run over by a car, shot by a neighbor, or eaten by a coyote," says Winograd.  (The Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA does not require potential cat owners to sign such a pledge, according to executive director Suzanne Kogut.)

In the end, Winograd says, the decision to have an indoor or outdoor cat should be made by the owner.

"It depends on where you live, if you're in front of a busy street, or whether your neighbors are hostile," he says. "If you live in an area that's relatively safe, it's joyful to have your cat out romping in the garden." 

After the shooting of Carmen the cat in Albemarle County, the debate rages: should cats be allowed to roam?