Fur flies over efforts to protect piping plovers from free roaming cats

Feral cat advocates are concerned about a program to trap cats that may prey on endangered piping plovers.

Nesting piping plovers and chicks.— Photo courtesy BiodiversityWorks

Efforts by BiodiversityWorks to protect endangered and federally protected piping plovers on Martha’s Vineyard beaches from free-roaming cats has raised the ire of an Island cat rescue organization. In recent comments on social media, the leader of Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals accused the non-profit group that works to protect nesting shorebirds of unnecessarily trapping cats and sending the animals to off-Island shelters where their fate is uncertain.

In recent weeks, BiodiversityWorks trapped three cats near plover nesting areas. All three cats were destined for off-Island animal shelters. Two of the animals remained on the Island. One cat was sent to a Boston shelter but was quickly retrieved by Lee Dubin, an advocate for feral cats. All three cats eventually ended up with Kim Cyr of Oak Bluffs, head of Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals.

After learning of the trapping program, Ms. Cyr posted a message on social media. “These are domestic cats that are being sent off-Island to be placed in an off-Island shelter where their lives would be jeopardized,” Ms. Cyr wrote in a Facebook post that was often reposted, and spiraled into a firestorm of condemnation against Luanne Johnson, president of BiodiversityWorks.

Protecting plovers

Ms. Johnson is a wildlife biologist and the founder of BiodiversityWorks. The organization works around Island beaches fencing potential nesting areas and creating exclosures designed to keep predators out of the nests of protected shore birds. State and federal laws hold beach owners responsible if they do not take measures to protect shorebirds.

Ms. Johnson holds a contract with the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation to monitor and protect piping plovers nesting at Cedar Tree Neck. She also protects shore birds with the agreement of landowners in Aquinnah who live near Dogfish Bar beach.

For the past two years, she has received federal grants to trap predators that threaten nesting plovers. Ms. Johnson said she uses humane traps stocked with food, water, and bedding, which are checked twice each day. She places the traps on beach paths that lead to nesting areas.

Ms. Johnson said last year a cat killed an adult plover during the nesting period, and four chicks that hatched a day later all died within a day. Ms. Johnson said a similar scenario played out in Aquinnah two years ago, when a cat killed an adult bird and three chicks died.

“It’s heartbreaking for all of us to watch that,” Ms. Johnson said. “The biggest problem predator is anything that takes out breeding adults. If they lose their eggs, they can replace them, sometimes even in the same season. They can come back and breed the next year.”

Ms. Johnson said she was certain the cats were feral or stray cats, not domesticated pets, but still she said she made a concerted effort to see if anyone owned the animals. She placed the cats in a  kennel at Animal Health Care Associates, a veterinarian practice, at her own expense for 10 days.

“I checked with every owner along the road to Cedar Tree Neck,” Ms. Johnson said. “I posted photos at Cronig’s, posted photos around town.” She said no one stepped forward to claim the cats.

The two cats trapped at Cedar Tree Neck were handed over by Ms. Johnson to Tara Larsen, an employee of the kennel. Ms. Larsen agreed to find them homes, and agreed not to return them to the plover nesting area. She brought them to Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals.

She said she followed a similar process with a cat trapped in Aquinnah. She placed the cat in a temporary foster home, with a couple who eventually took the cat to Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.

Cat colonies

Lee Dubin of West Tisbury previously helped operate Cattrap, an organization that trapped, neutered, and released feral and stray cats. Cattrap loosely monitored and arranged food and sometimes shelter for feral and stray cats, after they were released back into the wild. Cattrap recently closed its operation.

The cat that BiodiversityWorks trapped in Aquinnah and ended up at Angell Animal Medical Center was one of the animals that Cattrap captured, neutered, and released. The cat could be identified by a notch in its ear.

The animal hospital, aware of Ms. Dubin’s work with feral cats, contacted her. She traveled to Boston, picked up the cat, and returned it to the cat shelter operated by Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals in Oak Bluffs. She feared the cat would be euthanized, because Angell Animal Medical Center classified the cat as not adoptable. She believes the cat is adoptable.

Ms. Dubin opposes the methods used by Biodiversity works to protect piping plovers. “The cats have a few rights, too,” she said. She said she does not consider feral or stray cats a significant threat to birds. “Very, very infrequently do I find a dead bird. Every now and then they are going to kill a bird.”

Ms. Dubin said she is aware of a man who feeds and shelters feral and stray cats near Dogfish Bar, and she said there are nine other cats in that colony. She would not reveal the man’s identity or the location of the colony.

Shelter in a storm

Kim Cyr also opposes the methods of BiodiversityWorks.  “It was three cats in two days,” Ms. Cyr told The Times. “This is ridiculous. I can understand they want to save these birds, and I’m not against that. That’s crazy.”

She questioned whether the three cats are feral or stray cats. “Two are domesticated, the third one is scared out of his mind,” she said. “He might be feral, but he might just be scared. They belong to somebody.”

In her message on social media, Ms. Cyr said, “The only purpose I posted them [photos and message] was not to slander anybody, but to make people aware they needed to keep their hands on their cats, to make sure they knew where there cats are at all times.”

No one has claimed the cats in response to the widespread social media alert.

Science and grants

Funding for trapping predators near endangered shorebirds comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers grants to many local groups along the New England coastline.

“I love cats, but they do not belong on a beach, especially a beach with nesting birds,”

said Susi von Oettingen, an endangered species biologist for the federal agency. Ms. von Oettingen said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken action against groups that trap, neuter and release feral and stray cats near nesting areas. In one case, the federal agency warned a New Hampshire group that they could be held liable for harming or harassing nesting plovers or other endangered species. Violations of the endangered species act can result in fines of up to $50,000 and imprisonment for up to six months.

A number of scientific studies document cat predation on birds and other wildlife.

In a study of free ranging cats and their effect on bird populations by University of Georgia Scientists Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, the authors estimate that cats kill at least 1 billion birds every year in the United States. They say studies offer little evidence that well-intentioned trap, neuter, and release programs are effective in reducing cat populations, and say there is strong evidence that cats significantly threaten birds and other wildlife.

“The attention thus far devoted to the rapidly increasing numbers of free-ranging, stray, and feral cats on American landscapes has been dominated by single species focused special interest groups that often fail to understand or appreciate the wider management implications of their actions,” the authors wrote in their study.