Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Wisconsin considers cat hunting
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A Tomah vet holds a kitten whose mother was recently rescued. Under a proposal being considered by Wisconsin hunters, feral cats could eventually become fair game. Currently state law regards such cats as protected species. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
There's an old saw that says you can divide the world into two groups of people: cat-lovers and cat-haters. Those two factions are going head-to-head in Wisconsin over a proposal to allow cat hunting. The idea has generated plenty of controversy since it was first proposed by a LaCrosse firefighter, who was tired of watching cats attack songbirds in his backyard.

Cashton, Wis. — Barb Morrow squats down and looks underneath a car just off an alleyway in Tomah, Wisconsin. She's clutching a yellow bag of cat food.

"Here kitty, kitty, kitty!" she calls.

This is one of three feral, or wild, cat communities that Morrow helps to care for in Tomah. She comes every day like clockwork, to check on the cats and make sure they have enough to eat. On this morning the cats are gone, but she says come nightfall they'll be back.

Morrow is opposed to a plan that would make it legal to kill cats like these. Last year she rescued 16 cats from this location and had them all spayed, neutered and eventually adopted.

Back in her living room, surrounded by her own cats, Morrow says what's known as Proposition 62 won't eliminate the state's feral cat population.

"Feral cats you can live-trap," she explains. "You bring them in, get them spayed and neutered, and release them, and in time the problem is going to take care of itself. You don't have to go out there with a shotgun and blow them away."

The cat-killing proposal is a long way from becoming law. The proposal comes up for a vote by members of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress on Monday night. The Congress is an independent organization of citizens of the state, and serves in an advisory role to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Monday night, WCC meetings will be held in counties throughout the state to discuss and vote on the feral cat resolution, along with other matters involving fishing and hunting in Wisconsin.

If the hunters endorse the plan, it will go before the Wisconsin DNR. If the DNR gives it the OK, it then has to go before the Wisconsin Legislature.

Wisconsin is home to an estimated 1.4 million feral cats, and not all of them have people like Barb Morrow who help them survive.

Instead, many of the cats starve or freeze to death, especially during the state's harsh winters.

According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, feral cats prey heavily on wildlife. They eat a lot of birds -- about eight million every year.

Stanley Temple, a professor of wildlife ecology at UW-Madison, began studying Wisconsin's feral cat population back in the 1990s. He is the leading state expert on the topic. He says he doesn't endorse or oppose the cat hunting plan.

"The proposition to list cats as an unprotected species I simply cannot evaluate," says Temple. "I couldn't even venture a guess of whether this would control cat numbers. And that's because I don't know how many people in Wisconsin would actually exercise the privilege of dealing with cats on their property."

Even though he's not taken a position, Temple's research has placed him in the center of the cat hunt debate. Many people are very upset, and he's received multiple death threats.

Cats are the most popular American pets. According to the Humane Society there are roughly 77 million of them in the U.S., compared to about 68 million pet dogs. So it's easy to see how the idea of hunting cats can stir emotions.

In Minnesota, it's legal to shoot feral cats.

Mike Fry, who heads the Minnesota organization Animal Ark, says people have been killing cats in Minnesota for years.

"We hear from farmers and property owners of all kinds that they have been trying fatal means to manage the population, and it simply doesn't work," says Fry. "Because even if a couple survive, you'll have a large number of cats in no time."

Fry says over a seven-year period, one female cat and her offspring can produce as many as 420,000 additional animals.

That's just one of the reasons Jerome Hundt says he'll vote in favor of Wisconsin proposal at Monday's meeting. He's an avid hunter and fisherman who lives in the tiny town of Cashton, Wisconsin. He says he's tired of seeing so many cats malnourished and suffering. He also says in the wild, cats are able predators.

"I have seen them moving one foot at a time. They become very skilled at it," says Hundt. "I have never shot cats myself either in the woods, but I certainly have been tempted to."

Hundt says in his 81 years, it's hard to recall anything that's caused quite so much controversy. He says he doubts the proposal will ever become law in Wisconsin.

That's because the decision is ultimately up to state lawmakers, and Hundt says it's easy to predict that many politicians would be reluctant to endorse a plan to hunt cats.

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