Revisiting those cats and snakes

With respect to the article, “Kitties and Copperheads” [Commentary, Aug. 8], I was quite dismayed by the attitude that it is acceptable to allow “pet” cats to roam outside, and that the killing of snakes—albeit venomous (but not considered lethal)—is warranted.

Although habitat loss is probably the greatest threat to our native wildlife, free-roaming pet cats and feral cats contribute greatly to the decline. There are an estimated 90 million pet cats and 60 million feral cats in the United States, and free-roaming cats are responsible for the yearly deaths of hundreds of millions of songbirds, as well as countless millions of small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. And while predation is natural, domestic cats are not native to the U.S. and wildlife in this country have not developed defensive mechanisms to deal with such a numerous and cunning predator. A pet owner should also be concerned about the risks that face free-roaming cats, including: deadly diseases such as feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus; parasites such as fleas and ticks; poisoning from toxic substances such lawn treatments, bait used to kill rodents, and auto antifreeze; injuries from other animals such as dogs, coyotes and copperheads; human cruelty; wildlife traps; traffic accidents.

The life expectancy of indoor-only cats is approximately 17 years, compared with an average of around five years for free-roaming cats.

I have enjoyed the companionship of several cats during my life, and I admit to allowing the first of these pet cats to roam outside. However, once I realized the threat that they posed to native wildlife and the risks they themselves faced outdoors, I quickly decided it was time for them to do their roaming inside the house.

Another issue of serious concern is the author’s admission that 10 copperhead snakes had been killed in her yard. Although this snake is indeed venomous, it is not an aggressive animal and its bite is not considered to be lethal; there is no record of human fatalities from copperhead bites in the state of North Carolina. I have spent thousands of hours in Southeastern woods and in Southwestern deserts (in the snakes’ yard, if you will) and have observed scores of venomous snakes, and I have never come close to being bitten by any of them.

This mindset that induces people to eradicate all things considered a threat reminds me of a story on network TV a few years back about a lady from New York who moved to Phoenix and discovered scorpions on her property (in the desert of all places!). She demanded that they be removed. (The scorpions obviously weren’t evicted—after all, they have survived the effects of nuclear weapons testing—so she has probably since moved to a safer location such as Miami, only to face the perils of mosquitoes, hurricanes and lightning.)

Why is it that people cannot share the property where they have decided to live with the wildlife that has always existed on that property, especially if that wildlife doesn’t present a real threat to them? Is this a matter of ignorance or arrogance?

As the dominant intellectual presence on this planet, shouldn’t it be our responsibility to respect and protect all the creatures that we share this world with, including songbirds, small mammals and even venomous snakes? Our obligation as a resident of this earth should be to coexist with nature, not to conquer it.

— Jeffrey Q. Smith
Retired (mostly) wildlife biologist

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5 thoughts on “Revisiting those cats and snakes

  1. Dionysis

    “As the dominant intellectual presence on this planet, shouldn’t it be our responsibility to respect and protect all the creatures that we share this world with, including songbirds, small mammals and even venomous snakes?”

    My answer to this rhetorical question is a pronounced ‘yes’. All creatures have just as much right to this planet as the human vermin that insists on destroying it.

    A very good piece, Mr. Smith. Thank you.

  2. Carrie

    Jeffrey Q. Smith: I had commented on the original article, my dog was bitten by a copperhead. I really liked your article and thought you made very good points. However, I disagree.
    Last summer we killed 8 copperheads that were each within 5 feet of our home. One had made its way into our screened-in porch. We live on 50 acres and frequently hike all around our land. On hikes I have seen snakes and other wildlife, even rare plants and flowers. We absolutely leave them alone.
    I am not ignorant or arrogant. I, since moving here, have read much about copperheads. But, when snakes are that close to me and my family I think they have to be killed. Even though noone has died of copperhead bites they are still dangerous and very expensive to treat. Also, I’m sure you know that most people get bit trying to catch these snakes. Moving them to another location is not an option.
    On the issue of cats we plan to get two “barn cats” from the humane society which will be “fixed” and that is to control rodent populations which atttract snakes to begin with. I’m not trying to conquer nature or destroy all the species I don’t like or am afraid of, but, I am not going to let copperheads live right by my house. And they do present “a real threat” to my family, including my pets. There are other things we’ve tried but if you have any suggestions I’d like to hear from you.

  3. Thomas

    Indoor cats may live far longer, but quality of life is also important. Though at times I’ve tried to keep mine indoors, it has been clear to me that they love being outside and that not to let them go out has a negative effect on them. Of course, they never stay out for more than a couple of hours at a time and almost always seem content to come in at night. The argument about cats as predators is perhaps stronger, but if my enthusiastic, but apparently inept quartet of hunters is anything to go by, cats might have a less significant effect on the environment than is sometimes thought.

  4. Justine

    Great article! Keep it up Mr. Smith!

    Carrie, perhaps you could contact animal control to have them come to remove the next snake you find. They will do this at no charge to you. Also, there are some new products now available to the public that help to deter snakes of all kinds from areas (such as right around your home) that are quite effective. A couple of well placed calls to a local wildlife officer or an animal control officer who is knowledgeable about snakes can get you started in the right direction.
    Thomas, I believe that if you contact several different small animal vets in your area and ask them about the well being (both physical and mental) of indoor cats verses outdoor cats I suspect that their opinions will differ greatly from yours. To allow pet cats to roam freely is as responsible as allowing children to eat as much candy and watch as much television as they want. Just because children seem so much happier with the candy and television doesn’t mean it is in their best interest. When we chose to become parents or pet owners we have taken on a huge responsibility to do the very best for them… matter how much they wine or meow. There are so very many cat toys out there that are fantastic with stimulating cats play drive and prey drive that there is no need to allow them outdoors to roam. If it is terribly important that they go outside…how about leash training? My cat goes outside on occassion….while attached to an overhead cable, while I am right there in the yard with her.
    I believe that Mr. Smith’s article was intended to make people stop and think and judging from the responses to his article…he has done well. The kill numbers Mr. Smith has qouted in his article are indeed accurate as is the rest of the information he has provided. Way to step up to the plate Mr. Smith!!!!!

  5. Thomas

    Actually, the vets who take care of my cats know that they have access to the outdoors and why, and have never once suggested that I limit them to the indoors. The analogy between outdoor cats and candy-stuffing children is, with respect, just silly, and in fact they have plenty of toys indoors as well for when I am at work. It’s not the same. I think there’s an important distinction being lost between totally unrestricted roaming, and allowing cats out into the garden when I am home and around to keep an eye on them, since most of them aren’t even especially adventurous. As for leashes, I did once try it, but all my cats came to me as strays and they were too old to get the hang of it very happily – training might work well with kittens, perhaps. But in sum, I strongly suspect my cats have more fun than yours does.

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