Among monk seals, spinner dolphins, native birds and feral cats, there are no winners on the islands of Hawaii.
Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have traced the dwindling numbers of some of the regions most endangered species to parasites in the poop of feral cats.
Cat feces can harbor Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii), a parasite that is toxic in various degrees to other warm-blooded animals, including humans. Acute toxoplasmosis can cause seizures, tremors, muscle weakness and paralysis. Pregnant women are advised not to handle cat litter as T. gondii can be transmitted through the mother to her unborn child.
It is thought that the parasite has been transmitted to native animals via cat poop that is either carried to the ocean in polluted runoff or scattered throughout the environment where it can live for up to 18 months. Over the past 10 years Toxoplasmosis has reportedly killed at least eight monk seals, including a two-year old the locals named Uilani - a beloved mascot of sorts who used to greet paddlers out in the sea. Nene geese (the official state bird), Hawaiian crows (now extinct in the wild) and spinner dolphins have also succumbed to the disease.
The NOAA report has sparked a titanic clash between cat lovers and conservationists. Local animal welfare groups advocate for a trap, neuter, release (TNR) approach to thinning the feral cat population. However, feral cats are breeding much faster than animal advocate groups can perform TNP. The Hawaii Humane Society (HHS) estimates that there are 300,000 feral cats on the Island of Oahu alone and officials say they can only sterilize about 7,000 cats per year.
Some NOAA officials and the Department of Land and Natural Resources propose an aggressive alternative: euthanizing most - or all - the feral cats on the islands, outlawing the feeding of feral cats and imposing stiff penalties for cat owners who let their felines roam outdoors.
A state bill that would have outlawed the feeding of feral cats on state lands died in the Hawaii State Senate in February. Animal welfare advocates testified that starving feral cats would be an ineffective strategy that would only render the cats more aggressive in their pursuit of food. Moreover, in a letter opposing the state bill, HHS President and CEO, Pamela Burns, said that designating animals as “native” and “invasive” creates a “hierarchy in which the protection of certain animals comes at the suffering of others.”
Charles Litttnan, lead scientist at NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Research Seal Program, stressed the importance of actively managing the feral cat problem “so that there are ultimately fewer cats in the wild,” he told BuzzFeed News. “That will be a multi-prong approach that will look at responsible pet ownership, stopping abandonment and working with people to come up with effective strategies for cats that are already in the wild.”
The term “effective strategies” in this case inspires both dread and outrage; dread at the thought that people could be given license to shoot feral cats at will because it seems impossible to rescue them all, and outrage that human irresponsibility created the conditions in which a “final solution” is even being considered.
Unfortunately, it’s advents like those in Hawaii that add fodder to the arguments made by some animal rights activists that having animals as companions is tantamount to meddling in nature - to the inevitable demise of the animals.
However, I believe that, for every irresponsible pet owner, there are a dozen pet parents who respect the sovereignty of animal life and want to do right by their pets and the environment. I pray that, for every cat turned out from the home it once knew, hundreds of rescuers rally to find homes for those who never knew a home.
I’m a die-hard believer that the worst can bring out our best.