Why The Pandemic Made It Harder To Protect Birds From Hawaii’s Feral Cats

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed conservation efforts across the state, including efforts to capture and sterilize cats that are eating endangered birds.

Many conservationists feared it would cause cat numbers to explode, posing a major risk to endangered birds, marine animals, and even human health.

While there is no official census of the wild cat population in Hawaii, neither the state, the Humane Society, or bird conservationists have reported a dramatic increase in the population. Partly because of a surge in adoptions, increased animal feed donations, and because the Hawaiian economy hasn’t had the same long-term impact that forced many people to abandon their pets after the 2008 financial crisis.

But many endangered species in Hawaii are “hanging by a thread”, and even a slight increase in the wildcat population could bring some species to extinction.

“While we may not be fully aware of the implications of the 2020 hiatus, I’m concerned,” said Chris Farmer, Hawaii program director at the American Bird Conservancy.

An iiwi feeds on the lehua flower of the ohia tree in the Hakalua Forest Reserve on the Big Island. Wild cats pose a great risk to native bird populations. Courtesy: Bettina Arrigoni / Flickr

C.onservationists In Hawaii, regularly migrate to remote locations and install predator-proof fences, place wildlife cameras, and install traps to protect endangered birds that have not evolved to evade human-introduced predators such as cats.

During the pandemic, Farmer said work on the Big Island was much slower as forest crews had to travel in separate cars, helicopters and ATVs, meaning fewer people have access to remote areas where these birds live. Delays in the supply chain made it difficult or expensive to source critical equipment.

Farmer has no doubt that during this time predators broke defense mechanisms, which could affect the survival of entire species.

“We’re talking about species that are 100 or 1,000 individuals,” he said. “These are birds on the verge of extinction and it will take the dedicated efforts of dozens of people for them to recover.”

Cats are one of the most important predators contributing to biodiversity loss around the world. Cat feces spread a dangerous parasite throughout the river basin, and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources considers feral and free-range cats a “major concern.”

One study found that cats killed more than 250 native birds in the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge in two years. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species, including the Lanai Hookbill and Hawaiian Rail, and endangered seabirds have been found to have been killed in extremely remote locations.

Alex Dutcher, senior biologist and co-owner of Hallux Ecosystem Restoration, a company that manages predators such as cats and rats in remote areas of Kauai, said she saw firsthand how a single cat can have “devastating effects” on seabird colonies.

Hallux Ecosystem Restoration staff were considered important workers and much of their work is done outdoors so they could continue their work monitoring game cameras and catching and euthanizing cats that are killing native birds during the pandemic.

Kauai wildlife cameras regularly catch wild cats eating endangered birds. Conservation workers identify cats by their unique markings and set traps. Courtesy of Hawaii DLNR

Dutchman and co-owner Kyle Pias both have house cats and stress that the animals they target are wild animals in remote areas, not pets.

“You’ve never seen people before,” said Dutcher. “If we were to interact with a cat that appears to be kind … we would take it to the Humane Society, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Last year, a single cat killed 12 Newell’s shearwater, or aos, an endemic seabird that is endemic to Hawaii and nests on steep mountain slopes. The bird does not breed until it is 6 or 7 years old, so the loss of a single adult is of great concern.

“It was devastating,” said Pias.

Cats also indirectly kill native species by shedding a deadly parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite can only multiply in a cat’s digestive tract, making cats a definitive host.

Toxoplasma gondii is one of the top killers of the Hawaiian goose, or nene, and has been found in other species such as the Hawaiian crow and the red-footed booby. Marine animals such as the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal have also been killed by the parasite.

A recent study found that more than 40% of the chickens on Kauai are carrying Toxoplasma gondii, causing alarms about the prevalence of the parasite across the catchment area.

Toxoplasma gondii can affect humans too, and infections can cause anything from flu-like symptoms to blindness and miscarriages.

“There is a real concern about the human and wildlife health effects of cats living in the wild,” said David Smith, who heads DLNR’s Forestry and Wildlife Division.

A resident who refused to give her name feeds cats at Kakaako Waterfront Park. DLNR demands that people do not feed cat colonies, especially on public land. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

The Hawaiian Humane Society hopes to reduce the wild cat population over time by capturing, sterilizing, and releasing cats.

But it had to pause its trap castration release program between March and June 2020 to implement new safety protocols and source supplies like face masks for veterinarians and volunteers.

At one point during the pandemic, the Hawaiian Humane Society had a waiting list of 300 people to care for a pet. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

According to Daniel Roselle, director of community relations for the Hawaiian Humane Society, the organization sterilized approximately 1,500 cats in fiscal 2020. However, more than 5,000 sterilizations were completed in fiscal year 2021, which is even more than the 2,800 cats sterilized in 2019.

“Our castration numbers essentially doubled in fiscal 2021,” said Roselle.

He attributes the increase to the new establishment of the Humane Society and the elimination of sterilization fees by the city and county of Honolulu. “And there was such a demand for adoptions on all the islands that we fired on all cylinders to process adoptions.”

The Humane Society also gave away 61,000 pounds of pet food, which enabled many people to keep pets in their homes instead of leaving them to the Humane Society or releasing them into the wild.

“We were really concerned, but it was amazing how the community really developed,” said Roselle, adding that cat owners can further help by keeping their pet indoors.

“Cats live safer and healthier indoors,” he said. “It’s not a matter of judgment, but there is a risk of disease, risk of injury from cars … and we agree with conservationists that it is not good for the environment.”

Discussion approaches

While DLNR also emphasizes the importance of keeping domestic cats indoors, the ministry and many conservationists do not support the release of cats after sterilization.

“We don’t think this is a good animal management situation,” said DLNR’s Smith, citing research that programs to capture, neuter and release animals are not reducing wildcat populations. The department is also trying to discourage people from omitting food for free-range cats, especially on public land or near wildlife sanctuaries. “My motto has always been: If you want this cat, great. Take it home with you. “

Unlike mongoose and rats, which are rarely kept as pets and therefore euthanized without controversy – or stray dogs, which are a more obvious public health threat and therefore tightly regulated – the feral cat populations in Hawaii are causing heated debate.

“This problem did not arise overnight and it will not be resolved overnight,” said Roselle. “While we don’t all agree on the solution, we definitely agree that we need to work together.”

The Hawaiian crow, or alala, has become extinct in the wild and reintroduction efforts have been unsuccessful. Courtesy: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Conservationists point to the Lanai Cat Sanctuary as a kill-free option that protects native wildlife while providing medical care and socialization for cats. Efforts to open protected areas on other islands have stalled due to a lack of funds and the difficulty of finding a suitable location.

“We don’t blame cats for what they do, but we need to recognize the damage they are causing to the environment and that humans have introduced,” said Grant Sizemore, director of invasive species programs at the American Bird Conservancy.

“We’re not talking about cat extinction, we’re talking about protecting life that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. And once they’re gone, they’re gone forever, ”he said. “You can either have cats roaming the Hawaiian countryside or we can have native birds, but unfortunately we can’t have both.”

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