Catch-and-release is a familiar concept in fishing but is more contentious when it comes to cats. To deal humanely with feral cat populations, some advocate a trap–neuter–release approach. Wild cats are allowed to continue living freely, with food provided for them, but have been sterilized and will not continue to reproduce and add to the unwanted pet population.

The April 2010 issue of the Journal of Mammalogy reports a study of feral cat populations conducted on California’s Santa Catalina Island. For more than 20 years the Catalina Island Humane Society has practiced trap–neuter–release at designated “colonies” in Avalon and Two Harbors, the largest communities on the island.

From 2002 to 2004, researchers tracked the movements of 14 sterilized and 13 reproductively intact cats with radiocollars in the Middle Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon watersheds on the eastern half of Catalina to determine their home-range and long-range areas. Contrary to expectations, the study showed that sterilization did not keep the cats “close to home,” defending their territory against the influx of more cats. Both sterilized and intact cats roamed over long distances, traveling between the island’s developed areas and wildland interior.

In places such as Catalina, where ecologically sensitive areas abut urbanized areas, this raises questions about the impact of feral cats on native wildlife. The presence of the cats could threaten efforts to protect vulnerable species and restore native ecosystems. These cats can act as predators and food competitors of native species. With no protection from disease or parasites, the cats are susceptible and can transfer these illnesses to wildlife, humans, and pets.

The feral and stray cat population on Catalina numbers in the range of 600 to 750 animals. Even with a high rate of sterilization, it could take more than a decade for a colony of cats to become extinct. Rather than trap–neuter–release, the authors of this article recommend that, on Catalina, cats trapped in the island’s interior should be removed and delivered to a shelter where they would be adopted or euthanized.

Journal of Mammalogy, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mammalogists, is produced six times per year. A highly respected scientific journal, it details the latest research in the science of mammalogy and was recently named one of the top 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine in the last century by the Special Libraries Association. For more information, visit http://www.mammalogy.org/.

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