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Our View • Unity, not vitriol, will help resolve tricky environmental issue
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Staff at the Feral Cats Clinic in North Portland spay and neuter wild cats as part of the trap-neuter-release program, which aims to reduce the population of feral cats by making sure they cannot reproduce. Many bird species are declining in part due to attacks by outdoor cats.

For more than a decade, the Audubon Society of Portland and Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon have worked to find solutions to challenges facing birds and cats in our city.

The idea of an animal welfare organization and a conservation organization finding common ground should not seem radical. However, rather than focusing on a unique and productive local partnership, the Portland Tribune's Sustainable Life section instead chose to import controversy from out of state (Fowl Play: Birders clash over wild cat spaying, Jan. 19) and then follow it up with a series of remarkably vitriolic letters, again mostly from out of state (Feral cat program does not protect birds, Readers' Letters, Feb. 23).

It is a sad commentary on a paper that prides itself on telling the local story. The bottom line is that we do things differently here and we are proud of it.

There is no doubt that bird conservation groups and cat welfare groups across the nation have a longstanding feud on the issue of how to address feral cat populations. It is a tired old story that gets recycled over and over again.

Bird conservation organizations argue that free-roaming cats kill huge numbers of birds each year. Cat advocates argue that cats deserve better than to be rounded up and euthanized.

The two concerns are not mutually exclusive. Like many environmental problems, the issue of cat predation on birds is complex and is not going to be solved overnight.

Unlike in many communities across the country, Portland Audubon and the Feral Cat Coalition have chosen to work together to achieve conservation and humane outcomes rather than to spend our resources engaged in the types of attacks on one another that were exemplified in the letters to the Tribune by advocates on both sides of this issue.

Here is what we agree upon: The issue of cat predation on birds is real. Approximately one out of every four bird species in North America is experiencing serious long-term declines. The primary cause of bird population declines is habitat loss and fragmentation - that is why Audubon and other bird conservation groups spend the vast majority of their resources working on habitat-based issues.

However, at the same time, we also cannot ignore significant secondary sources of mortality, including collisions with buildings and other structures, pesticides and cat predation.

As we work to restore the ecology of our urban landscape, from backyard naturescaping to building our system of parks and natural areas, it also makes sense to try and address other significant hazards.

We also agree that cats have a unique relationship with humans. They are not just another invasive species, and there is a significant segment of our community that finds the idea of simply rounding up large numbers of cats and euthanizing them unacceptable.

Cats are companion animals that we too often have treated as disposable. We have continued to allow them to roam free, despite the inherent hazards found on our urban landscape, and procreate, despite huge cat overpopulation problems. Obscene numbers of cats continue to be euthanized on an annual basis at local shelters. Many more simply die under the wheels of cars, in the mouths of coyotes or from myriad other hazards that stare down a free-roaming feline.

Most importantly, we agree that the real solution to these issues must focus on establishing a culture of more responsible pet ownership. Neither rounding up feral cats nor trap, neuter and return programs alone will be successful as long as there is a steady stream of new cats entering the environment on a daily basis. Focusing solely on feral cats misses the point - studies show that well-fed, free-roaming pet cats are just as likely to hunt wild birds as feral cats do, and somewhere in the lineage of every feral cat is an abandoned or unfixed pet. Real solutions need to focus on the root of the problem and that lies with pet owners.

Spring breeding season for both birds and cats is fast upon us. Here is what you can do to help. If you own a cat, please consider keeping your cat indoors, in an outside enclosure or walk it on a leash (yes, it does work). Make sure that your cat is spayed or neutered.

We recognize that the transition will not happen overnight - as with the once pervasive issue of free-roaming and feral dogs, we are probably looking at a 20- to 30-year timeframe to effect significant change on the landscape.

In the short-term, we have agreed that natural areas that have been set aside for wildlife need to be the top priority for removal of free-roaming cats, and we are working together to make sure that feral cat colonies are not established in these locations. On the rest of our urban landscape, we recognize that a variety of approaches, including trap, neuter and return, should be included as part of the solution.

By finding common ground, we can and will move ahead while other cities continue to disagree on how to help cats and wildlife. There are no perfect solutions, but when mired in arguing, there are no solutions at all.

If nothing else, one last quick and final read through the unconstructive, vitriolic media landscape imported by the Tribune convinces us that the best path forward is to move forward together.

Bob Sallinger is conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. Karen Kraus is executive director of the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon.

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