MADISON, Wis. — The fight over stray cats here has turned downright feral.
Hunters and feline lovers hissed at each other across the state Monday night as they participated in an advisory vote to decide whether to make stray domestic cats an unprotected species -- and potentially allow the public to hunt and shoot them.
The debate began earlier this year after Mark Smith, a La Crosse firefighter and hunter, told officials with the Wisconsin Conservation Congress that he was upset with cats that had camped under the bird feeder outside his home.
He proposed that farmers, hunters and other residents be allowed to kill domestic strays to control their population -- as long as the method of killing the animal did not break any existing laws.
Shooting a stray cat in the city, for instance, would be illegal -- but doing so in rural areas could be acceptable.
The Conservation Congress is an elected group that advises the state Department of Natural Resources and state legislators on environmental and resource issues.
Since his proposal, the fight has turned catty.
Death threats reportedly have been made against Smith and Stanley A. Temple, a scientist whose research has reported that stray cats in Wisconsin are a problem for grassland birds.
"This whole thing has become insane," said Temple, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The police have had to be called in about this."
Smith could not be reached for comment.
At a rally in Madison on Monday, scores of cat fans gathered around protest signs. Some featured photographs of kittens and pleas written in blood-red ink: "Please don't kill me!"
At least a thousand men and women -- some in camouflage shirts and hunter-orange ball caps, others with "Free the Cats!" T-shirts -- crammed into chairs and squeezed onto the carpet inside a meeting hall at the Alliant Energy Center.
For more than an hour, the residents debated. Some people were so upset, they cried. Others left in disgust. Jim White, a hunter from Belleville, Wis., was simply flabbergasted.
"People shoot cats. It's just the way things are out here," said White, who attended the meeting wearing a T-shirt that read "I do what the voices in my tree stand tell me to do."
"Why is this coming as a surprise?" White asked.
Nearby, Carolyn Pagel fiddled with the fabric cat ears perched on the top of her head and listened in horror.
"We're talking about cats," said Pagel, 28. "They purr. They want love. How can you possibly want to hunt a kitty?"
Officials said they were prepared for tens of thousands of people to turn out for the advisory meetings, which were held in each of the state's 72 counties Monday night. The soonest the ballots are expected to be tallied is today.
If voters side with the proposal to kill the cats, it would still require the approval of the state Natural Resources Board and state legislators.
How the state would classify such cats remains unclear. If categorized as a public nuisance, no small-game license would be needed to hunt them.
If ruled as wild animals -- such as skunks and opossums -- hunters would need to obtain authorization or a license before shooting or otherwise killing the cats.
"I just can't imagine the state allowing an official cat-hunting season, but the state needs to do something about this," said Burt Bushke, a hunter from Mayville and a coordinator for the nonprofit bird conservation group, Wings Over Wisconsin. "Realistically, feral cats are a problem."
State officials point to studies that estimate there are more than a million feral cats -- those not under an owner's direct control or that don't have an identifying collar -- in Wisconsin.
Some of this data come from Temple who, while studying the habits of wild birds in Wisconsin in the 1990s, said he found that some bird populations were beginning to slump.
"One of the things we couldn't help but notice was there were a lot of cats out in the rural grasslands," Temple said.
Over time, the team began studying cat droppings, along with capturing stray cats to study what they had eaten and attaching radio transmitters to track their movements.
The project -- which Temple said was partly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- resulted in a published paper that reported there could be as many as 1.4 million "free-range" cats in Wisconsin. State officials estimate that a minimum of 47 million songbirds are killed because of such cats each year.
Animal rights groups say Temple's project and the state's findings are flawed, and that dwindling habitat caused by development has become a bigger problem for the birds than cats.
They also add that pet owners make the situation worse by not neutering or spaying their animals, or by abandoning their unwanted cats in the countryside.
"Dealing with the population this way would be inhumane," said Ted O'Donnell, a Madison area pet-store owner who has organized the "Don't Shoot the Cat" grass-roots effort. "There are other ways to deal with a population boom than with a gun."
Not since 2000, when there was a push to create a hunting season for mourning doves, has there been such brouhaha over the killing of a particular animal.
At the time, hunters and animal rights activists clashed over the issue, which quickly shifted from a cultural debate to a political battle: Then-state Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud of Eastman held a dove-tasting lunch to promote his support of such hunts.
The first official mourning dove hunt, in which an estimated 24,000 hunters took part, was held in September 2003. The legal challenges ended in April 2004, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously upheld the hunting policy.