My inspirations for topics come from many sources: news articles, conversations, questions from readers, long-held passions, and occasionally random thoughts. This is a random thought week. For some reason, it occurred to me that I don’t know the history of the domestication of cats. I’m not sure why I thought about that. I don’t have a cat and I don’t especially like them. Nevertheless, I decided to follow the thought and it led me to some interesting places.
The story behind the domestication of dogs is fairly well known. Sometime around 30,000-40,000 years ago, humans started to form alliances with wolves in the hunting portion of hunting and gathering. The relationship was mutually beneficial and our ancestors began a process, intentional or otherwise, of selective breeding that resulted in increasingly calm and domesticated offspring. Over the ensuing millennia, intentional selective breeding has given us the myriad of different breeds of dogs that exist today.
So what about cats? The domestication of cats began in the Fertile Crescent – modern day Iraq – in approximately 8,000 B.C. when humans began to grow wheat and barley in amounts sufficient to provide a storable excess. The stored grain attracted rodents and the rodents attracted cats, and thus a useful human-cat alliance began. Since writing had not been invented in the Fertile Crescent in 8,000 B.C., we don’t know exactly how this relationship developed. I envision the humans putting little bowls of milk near the grain storage to attract the cats and the cats eating the mice and drinking the milk while tolerating the humans with an aloof sneer. The human-cat relationship has blossomed since then. While cats are still enlisted by some farmers to control rodents, most of the 80-90 million domestic cats in the United States are sought after as companion animals.
In the process of doing my research on the domestication of cats, I came across a number that surprised me. I knew that there were feral cats around, I see them in my neighborhood and at my farm, but there are many, many more than I had imagined. The estimates that I found suggested that there are approximately 60-70 million feral cats in the U.S., almost as many as are being kept as pets! These feral cats are the descendants of unsterilized pet cats that wandered away. Although exact data is unavailable, it is clear that their population is growing. The research also suggests that they live in communities. Somehow I find that concept to be deeply disturbing. But as I mentioned in the beginning, I am not a cat person.
If you head out to the interwebs, you will find that there is a raging controversy about what these feral cats are or are not eating. Cats are hunters. So we can say with certainty that the 60-70 million feral cats are killing an eating hundreds of millions of small animals including birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and mice every year. However, we don’t have a particularly good idea on the breakdown among these different species. Squirrels, chipmunks, and mice don’t have constituencies but birds do and so do cats. People who love birds are sure that the army of feral cats is decimating them. People who love cats are convinced that cats are pretty much leaving the birds alone since they presumably take too much energy to catch. I suspect that the answer is somewhere in between these two disparate positions.
There have been intermittent attempts over the past couple of decades to control the growth in the population of feral cats. For example, there have been initiatives to try to catch, sterilize, and release them. While these efforts are well intended, given the large number of feral cats, their reproductive capacity, and their furtive natures, it is not possible to manage their population with this approach. But while human intervention may not stem the growth of the feral cat population, Mother Nature may step in.
Feral cats are not the only animals whose population is growing across the U.S. Although no one seems to know just how many there might be, there is a strong consensus that the number of coyotes is growing rapidly in the United States and that there numbers may be at an all time high. One of the drivers of their population increase is the removal of wolves, distant cousins of modern-day dogs from the ecosystem. Coyotes have colonized many of our cities and towns as well, including Chapel Hill and Carrboro. So it occurred to me that coyotes might be feral cats as a food source. It seems that I was correct. I recent study of coyotes living in Tucson, Arizona found that 42% of their caloric intake came from eating feral cats.
If you are a long time reader, you will know that there is nothing I love more than a really slow developing story, one which is far, far to slow for other media outlets to consider. This is just such a story. Let’s consider the steps and the timeline.
Exploring and considering dynamics likes like those outlined in the bullet points above, is one of the key reasons that I like writing Common Science®. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Jeff Danner discussed this week’s column with Aaron Keck on WCHL.
Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Think that this column includes important points that others should consider? Share a link to this column on Facebook or Twitter. Want more Common Science? Follow me on Twitter on @Commonscience.http://chapelboro.com/columns/common-science/cats-mans-second-best-friend
Orange County Animal Services has released a media advisory about what citizens can do to stay safe and stay smart when it comes to coexisting with wild coyotes in the county and throughout North Carolina.
The Director of Orange County Animal Services, Bob Marotto, says that while advisories about coexisting with coyotes have been issued for several years now, what prompted the latest alert was the recent surge in reports from the Hillsborough area involving missing outside cats and other small pets that are kept outdoors, which Animal Services has connected to the presence of coyotes preying on these pets.
“They are virtually everywhere,” says Marotto, “not only in all 100 counties in North Carolina, but in all of the different areas of Orange County as well.”
He says there has been a rise in coyote presence in more urban areas as well, such as one case earlier this summer in which Animal Services impounded a coyote that was found in an alley on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
Marotto says that the three greatest “attractants” for coyotes to invade areas in which they normally are not found are food, water, and shelter, which he says can come from a number of different sources.
Food sources can come from spills when feeding dogs or wild birds.
Marotto suggests that in order to prevent coyotes from becoming too habituated, or generally comfortable around human populated areas, people need to give the coyotes reasons to stay far away.
“People should haze coyotes if and when there is contact,” says Marotto. “People should make loud noises and do things that make the coyote turn around and go away from us. If we don’t do that, what happens is that coyotes become more and more comfortable or tolerant and habituated, and eventually then we do have some incidents that we really don’t want to have.”
In addition to likely food sources for coyotes coming from loose pet food, Marotto says that local wildlife biologists are certain that some cats and even small dogs have become part of the food chain for coyotes. In order to prevent outdoor pets from being taken by coyotes, Marotto offers a few recommendations as to what pet owners can do when it comes to allowing their beloved pets outdoors.
“One of them is not just leaving your cat or your dog outside, and leaving it outside, because in those circumstances there is not a person present to fend off or haze and deflect any approaches by a coyote,” says Marotto. “In addition to being present with our dogs or cats when they are outside, if there is some consideration of leaving them outside unattended, they must really be in a secure enclosure.”
Citizens are encouraged to contact Orange County Animal Services if they encounter coyotes engaging in threatening behavior or becoming habituated in residential areas, they can access the Coyote Incident Reporting Form here, or call Animal Services at (919) 942-7387.http://chapelboro.com/news/safety/orange-county-animal-services-advise-coyote-safety
The change will take effect July 1. Carrboro police captain and future chief of police, Walter Horton, explains that the time seemed right to make the switch.
“We used to have an animal control officer, and we no longer have that officer,” Horton says. “It is something that we felt made sense, since they already cover Chapel Hill.”
Director of Orange County Animal Services, Bob Marotto, says that Carrboro’s previous system of enforcing animal control made it an outlier among the towns in the county.
“I think that there has been an interest in having integrated and coordinated animal services provided by our department for the whole county,” Marotto says.
In the past, Orange County Animal Services had been called to Carrboro in the event of an outstanding animal incident.
Carrboro police and Orange County Animal Services note the multiple reported coyote sightings in Orange County and near Carrboro recently. However, there are note any outstanding issues like that currently.
One incident that Marotto remembers in particular was a family of coyotes in Carrboro near Hogan Farms that had offspring.
“They had become unfearful of people,” Marotto says. “They were closer to people than people were comfortable with.”
Horton says there have even been coyote sightings in the past months.
“Out in the northern areas, up near Sunset Creek and the old 86 area, we have two or three around there,” Horton says. “They’ve been following citizens while they walk their dogs.”
Three reports of bear sightings were made this week, but Marotto says the change is unrelated to the recent sightings in Carrboro.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/orange-county-now-providing-animal-services-in-carrboro