Mural by Nancy Peterson

Bird and Cat Advocates in Harmony: Yes, When Pigs Fly!

Meeting Mary Harris after I retired and moved to Colorado changed my life. She’s the chair of Roaring Fork Audubon and became my mentor for all things bird. Although I was a birdwatcher back in Maryland, I was not a birder. I enjoyed sitting on my couch or working in my garden and observing birds at my feeders. Occasionally, I birdwatched with real birders who had an impressive knowledge of birds.  

 In 2017, my sister and I moved to Carbondale, Colorado, and built a house. Shortly after moving in, we landscaped the property with native plants that supply habitat and sustenance for birds, bees, bugs, and butterflies. We also provide feeders, a heated birdbath, roosting and nesting boxes, and piles of leaves and twigs for the birds and bees. We have treated our windows to prevent bird strikes. Our property recently received Habitat Hero Garden designation from Audubon Rockies, and we proudly display the plaque in our front yard.  

 Jenny and I now cuddle on the couch and watch the wildlife. Jenny is our cat. I fostered her and her four feral siblings when they were trapped at 4-1/2 weeks of age. Jenny is now 11 and living the good life in the great indoors of our wonderful home. 

During COVID, I became an avid birder. In Carbondale, that means getting off the couch. I have hiked many miles in many places with Mary, other members of Roaring Fork Audubon, and others interested in learning about birds. I now know many wonderful birds and people! 

 The more I know about birds, the more I am in awe of their lives and survival struggles. It is not easy being a bird. Many threats include habitat loss, flying into building glass, pesticides, cat predation, and more.  

During my years as Community Cats Program Manager for the HSUS, my colleagues Andrew Rowan, John Hadidian, and I shared a passion for building bridges between feral cat and bird advocates. “When pigs fly,” we were told. The saying refers to something that will not happen or is very unlikely to happen.  

For those of you unfamiliar with feral cats, they are a subset of community cats who live outdoors and have had little or no human contact. Until Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) approaches became more widespread at the end of the 20th century, feral cats were  trapped and killed. This was a vicious cycle that did not sustain a reduction in their numbers 

That is where TNR comes in. When carried out strategically and in a sustained manner in appropriate locations, TNR has been shown to decrease the number of feral cats, improve their health, and reduce disease concerns and nuisance behaviors associated with sexually intact cats. TNR ideally involves removing young feral kittens, like Jenny and her siblings, for socialization. TNR of adult feral cats involves humane trapping, spaying or neutering; vaccinating against rabies; ear-tipping (the universal sign of a spayed or neutered cat); and returning healthy animals to their safe and monitored outdoor home. Although they are not suitable as pets, feral cats also deserve our care and protection. 

However, birds and other wildlife also deserve our protection. Conservationists and others who want to protect birds also want to reduce the number of feral community cats. However, most oppose TNR because some cats remain outdoors and may prey on birds. My previous article talks about this debate and offers tips to keep birds at feeders and cats safe. Another excellent resource on the debate is a recent book by Wald and Peterson (no relation).   

I would also add my mural initiative as another initiative to promote engagement between bird and cat advocates. The inspiration came from the National Audubon Society’s bird murals in New York City. I decided that Carbondale needed a bird mural. But not just any bird mural. My mural would feature native birds and plants, local scenery, and a cat. A cat? Yes, and not just any cat. My cat Jenny! The mural would also deliver an important message promoting the protection of birds and cats by keeping pet cats indoors. After several false starts, I found an artist and location for the mural. Roaring Fork Audubon, of which I am a member, agreed to support fundraising for the project. 

I am a member of the National Audubon Society and several of its chapters, as well as other bird and conservation nonprofits, and I struggle to engage them, especially about TNR as a strategy to protect birds and cats by reducing the number of cats outdoors. I hope for a time when conservationists and bird and community cat advocates will work together to seek solutions rather than continue the unproductive debate that has now endured for decades. The aim is for my mural to be part of the solution. I have received favorable responses from some of the 450 Audubon chapters I contacted to encourage them to create similar murals in their communities.  

Please join those of us who are seeking solutions that will make the world a safer place for birds and cats and the environments that support them. 

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States and a retired registered veterinary technician. She currently fosters kittens for her local animal shelter, Colorado Animal Rescue, is a board member of two national nonprofits, Neighborhood Cats and The National Kitten Coalition, and is a Focus on Felines working group member of Human Animal Support Services. 

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