Conflicts between cats and wildlife, and the clashes of their human partisans, are sharpest in states with temperate climates, fast-growing human populations and vast varieties of native animal species, like California and Florida. In these places, some cat feeders advance an argument that stray felines are not intruders in nature, but settlers. Immigrant cats thus are owed the same hands-off freedom given coyotes, chipmunks, songbirds and the least tern.
Passions run high in the quarrel, and superheated rhetoric is common. For just this reason, the leaders of the Humane Society debated the question long and vigorously before speaking out. They take pains to avoid being classed as anti-cat. Instead, they argue that the best interests of cats are served by keeping them inside because they live longer and healthier lives. Why not spare both cats and birds?
As for feral cats, the Humane Society says there is no single national policy that will solve the threat to wildlife. The group says it will support responsible local efforts to bring down the free-ranging cat population--whether ordinances to bring cats under control, the same as dogs, or carefully managed colonies where all cats are spayed or neutered and newcomers are prohibited.
The Humane Society's Pacelle, one of the most important animal rights activists in America, believes that the arguments over cats will occupy pet owners for years to come. "This is a cultural change that's being sought. And it's a debate worth having."
Wildlife advocates also dread being branded as heartless scolds. George H. Fenwick, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy, says, really, isn't anyone in his line of work, by definition, soft on animals? But birds, not cats, are in trouble. "It's real bad now in many places, and it's going to get worse in a lot more places."
Fenwick is one of those responsible for making cat-control a national conservation priority. Until his organization decided to take on the challenge this year, most of the work fell to local Audubon chapters. Other eco-groups shied away, knowing that cat owners were among their members and not wishing internal conflict.
The bird conservancy, Fenwick says, will support the Humane Society's flexible approach. "But only up to a point." After that, he suggests that wildlife advocates will have to carry the argument beyond pet owners, believing that the concerns of the larger citizenry will favor birds.
As for strays, Fenwick wants them gone, beginning in parks. He does not say how. "We have no policy. I hope they do the most humane thing possible for these cats."
Curbs Run Into Resistance
Judging from the recent past, those seeking to curb cats will encounter resistance. In 1994, the California Legislature briefly considered imposing fines on people who let their unspayed and unneutered cats range freely. Cat advocacy groups marshaled their forces, calling the proposal a "cat-killer bill" and vowing to make life miserable for any politician who crossed them. So ended consideration of the law.
Complicating the discussion is the emergence of a "no kill" animal-control philosophy. That is, the belief that animal shelters should not destroy animals. Municipal authorities and traditional humane societies say this would be impossible--not enough homes for stray animals, not enough money or space to provide permanent refuge for all. Still, the sentiment has caught on among animal advocates and is the subject of popular fancy.
Meanwhile, tonight on Miami Beach, moist tropical air carries smells of perfume, cigars, suntan oil, tropical duff and restaurant broilers. Music drifts out of Art Deco clubs. In pastel flickers of neon, young faces come alight with expectation for another night in fashionable South Beach.
No one hears the lone woman drive into an alley behind, stop, and emerge from her aromatic sedan, spoon and bowl in hand. But the cats hear. Clang, clang.
Researchers Anna Virtue in Miami and Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles assisted with this story.