Piping Plover v. Feral Feline Debate Hits Long Island
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- In the Long Island community of Brookhaven, a pair of endangered piping plovers nests on Cedar Beach. The migratory birds recently returned to their annual nesting grounds, exacerbating an issue that has surfaced up and down the eastern seaboard for years.
The Cedar Beach plovers have not successfully fledged (raised) a chick in seven years – a fact some say is because of a feral cat colony in the area.
The major proponent of this argument is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which wants the felines removed, and has threatened to levy fines against the city of Brookhaven totaling $15,000 a day until the birds are safe again.
Some 30 cats -- many believed to have been dumped by irresponsible owners -- now face being removed from the area by trappers, which will cost the city $10,000. Trapping will begin in less than two weeks, once a referendum on the issue is voted on.
Joan Phillips, vice president of the Animal Alliance of Long Island, wants to negotiate a compromise that will prevent new cats from getting dumped once the existing colony is removed.
“We offered to help find solutions to get the cats out, if (they) set up cameras to catch people that dump their animals,” said Phillips, an avid animal advocate.
But Phillips said the city has chosen another route. Instead, they've given feral cat advocates two weeks to remove as many of the animals as possible before the trapper is sent in.
The plan is to remove the felines, which are invasive predators, to a nearby colony that is cared for by residents. Those that have not been through a Trap, Neuter, Return program may undergo neutering and vaccination before being released among the existing cats.
The established colony of cats has been cared for by residents for about a decade.
Currently, they live very near the plovers' nesting site, which is close to the water and not very well hidden –- the birds are an especially open target for predation, humans walking and beach maintenance machinery.
While there's no proof of a Cedar Beach cat having predated a plover, ornithologists say it's naïve to say cats are not partly responsible for the birds' situation.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons to believe cats are important predators,” said Amanda Rodewald, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University's School of Environmental and Natural Resources.
She cited felines’ habit of killing birds for sport, let alone hunger. So even if they’re well fed, they’ll kill birds and rodents for fun. And when prey, like plovers, live on the ground, Rodewald said it is likely that the cats are a serious threat to the birds’ existence.
Because the birds are at such a high risk of extinction – plovers have been on the endangered species list since 1986 – they do need protection.
“I don't think we have a choice,” said Dr. Peter Marra, a scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center with The National Zoo. “These cats should not be in the environment.”
Marra said a study he's working on found birds nesting near feral cat colonies are typically successful in raising their young.
In fact, he said the survival rate among young birds from nests near felines' habitats and those that were not were about the same.
But once young birds living near cats leave the nest, their mortality rates increase dramatically, which Marra said is due to feline predation.
In cases like Brookhaven's when an endangered animal lives so close, Marra asked, “Why should a feral cat population be allowed to exist.”
And since cats are not near extinction, protecting their habitat is low on the priority list. Marra said that if cats were native, he would not advocate so strongly their removal.
Yet he feels the birds “need our protection,” he said.
Both Marra and Phillips agree on that point, and the city plans to do just that -- remove the animals.
But there's another point of contention -- Marra and Phillips said preventing the feral cat colony from redeveloping is paramount to resolving the dilemma.
Brookhaven officials, however, have not yet developed a plan to stop cats from returning to the area.
One solution, said Phillips, would cost the city a small percentage of what's being paid to the trapper and would allow feral cat advocates to humanely trap and relocate the felines.
Her idea is for the city to spend $2,000 to $4,000 on surveillance equipment, followed by steady prosecution of cat dumpers.
“What's the point of spending $10,000 to trap the cats when the next day someone could come dump more,” said Phillips. “One person was seen dumping 41 cats. We need a guarantee that something will be done to prevent this from happening again.”
Phillips’ solution is backed by state laws, where in New York, animal dumping and abandonment are illegal and carry misdemeanor charges; she said making an example of one offender through a surveillance system would do a lot to deter dumping in the future.
An act, she contends, would do more to ensure the plovers' future than the city's current plan.
“(The city) did not sit down with the right people to plan this,” said Phillips, who also said other supporters offered to trap the cats at no cost.
The group was also even willing to relocate the felines if a surveillance system was considered.
The matter is now in the hands of a committee, which include members of the Audobon Society, FWS, the Nature Conservancy, Brookhaven legislatures, a veterinarian and Animal Alliance -- the only feral cat representative.
To date, Animal Alliance has not had much luck convincing the group that their surveillance plan is the most suitable option.
With a solution still in debate, the cats are caught in the quagmire. A decision is expected the week of April 21.
For more information, contact the Animal Alliance of Long Island at animalallianceli.org, the Eastern Long Island Audobon Society at easternlongislandaudubon.homestead.com or the Nature Conservancy at nature.org.
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