Before I go, I have something to say

The Fortunate 35 Percent

I used to let my cat, Leo, go outside for a few hours a day. He seemed to love it, and it gave me a chance to brush him without getting gobs of cat hair all over the carpet. Besides, my parents always let Patches, the cat I grew up with, go out. She was quite content to hang around the yard, sunning herself on the back porch most days.

Then Leo started to roam. We would spot him under the next-door neighbors’ bushes, or much too close to the street. That was it. I knew letting cats out was a bad idea (not to mention a no-no in Dubuque’s city code), and I scolded myself for ever opening the door for him. From then on, he’s been an exclusively indoor cat, leaving home only once a year, in a carrier, for his dreaded visit to the vet.

Thirty-five percent of the ninety million pet cats in the U.S. live exclusively indoors, while the other 65 percent – according to the American Bird Conservancy – spend all or part of their lives outdoors. I’m sure their owners let them out with the best of intentions – to give them their freedom, to allow them to breathe some fresh air, to let them chase a squirrel or two. It all looks harmless, until you know the facts.

For one thing, cats encounter other cats on their rambles. This can result in a cat fight, causing torn ears or worse. If one of those cats has an illness, it’s all too easily passed on to your pet. Feline leukemia is a fatal illness that all vets check for when you first bring your new kitty in. Even with a vaccination, any cat can catch the disease, which is second only to trauma as the leading cause of death in pet cats. If kept exclusively indoors, cats run a very low risk of contracting it.

Pet cats may be declawed, or just not very smart about protecting themselves outdoors. Just yesterday I saw the sweet black cat that lives next door slink by as a major thunderstorm revved up. She looked worried, and I was, too. Dogs can bark loudly when they want in, but how many of us will hear a little “mew” over the sound of thunder? At best, she’ll get soaked with cold water; at worst, I don’t want to think about it.

But it’s not only the cats I worry about. There’s a lot of prey out there, too. We may think it’s cute to let a cat chase a chipmunk, but, as the headline of a New York Times article that ran last January put it, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think.” Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that domestic cats in the U.S. kill some 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals (including those squirrels and chipmunks) every year.

Your Fluffy, my Leo, a killing machine? I believe it. I’ve seen what Leo does to mice that dare to enter our basement. At least he doesn’t eat them, instead leaving them like little gifts for me to trip over (if I’m lucky enough not step on them) when I come down for my morning shower. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that during an eighteen-month period, a single cat roaming a wildlife experiment station killed over 1,600 birds and small mammals.

I like birds. My husband and I spend a considerable amount of money on bird seed, lugging twenty-pound bags of it home from Theisen’s by the score just to keep our two feeders full. I change the water in the bird bath nearly every day. Birds have a pathetic habit of pooping in the water they drink – this may be where the term “bird brain” originated. I love them just the same.

I learned to love birds from my mother, who excelled at identifying the juncos and phoebes, the black-capped chickadees and goldfinches (Iowa’s state bird!) who gathered at her own R&R stations. Like her, I am impatient every spring for the first robin to show up, and sad when I realize they’ve gone as the summer fades. My Uncle Dacil, Mom’s brother, used to call from Houston with the Robin Report when they showed up there for the winter.

The two greatest threats to songbirds are habitat destruction (by people) and outdoor cats. I don’t want Mr. Leo to be one of those serial bird killers. (My friend in California had a cat that brought hummingbirds into the house, dropping them at her feet like jewelry. Hummingbirds!) Some folks think that putting a bell on a cat will warn the birds away, but a study in England showed that cats wearing bells killed more birds than cats without them. I have no idea why, but it does show the futility of belling the cat. (Cute expression; bad idea.)

Just the other day, I noticed one of the sparrows that frequent our feeders hopping on the ground. A closer look revealed his wing was broken. It broke my heart, and I could only wonder which “free” cat in the neighborhood had done the damage. I knew that bird wouldn’t last long.

And that is one reason why, after a brief, ill-advised life as a cat that ran loose, Leo now watches the birds – and the chipmunks, the squirrels, the rabbits, and the free-ranging chickens in our neighborhood – through windows. It’s Cat TV at its finest. He gets to watch, and I get to know he’s neither endangering himself nor the wildlife that have no choice but to live outside. It’s a win-win. He even enjoys watching leaves blow by, and snow fall. Deprived? I’d say he’s a lucky guy.

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