Some wildlife conservationists say that street cats are decimating urban songbird populations and call for extreme measures to control them. Pro-cat charities favor sterilization.
By Zafrir Rinat

An opinion piece posted recently on a Jewish National Fund Web site by Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov and Dr. Eli Gefen of Tel Aviv University was removed soon afterward by the site’s operators, apparently under pressure from animal rights activists. The article questioned the efficacy of sterilization programs in reducing Israel’s growing population of street cats.

A street cat feeding station in Jaffa.

A street cat feeding station in Jaffa.
Photo by: Limor Edrey

Yom-Tov and Gefen argued that foreign studies have not proved the effectiveness of spaying and neutering in reducing the numbers of feral cats. They suggested imposing restrictions on feeding street cats and even to consider culling them. “As long as the feral cat populations continue to rise there is no choice but to introduce regulations to permit the trapping and killing of cats in any area that is not distinctly urban, and in urban areas where the density of the feral cat population exceeds a certain level,” Yom-Tov and Gefen wrote. “In ancient Egypt the cat was a sacred animal. In Israel there is no justification for this.”

After a long period in which all sterilization of feral cats in Israel was left to local governments and animal welfare organizations, recently the state has stepped in. The ministries of agriculture and of environmental protection have begun to fund spaying and neutering, and this year they have budgeted NIS 4.5 million for that purpose. The goal is to thin the colonies of street cats, which live in difficult conditions and can pose a risk to public sanitation.

Wildlife conservation researchers who doubt the efficacy of sterilization fear that growing numbers of feral cats will continue to kill wild animals, wreaking significant damage to the ecosystem.

The issue was addressed in a recent issue of Conservation Biology, published in the United States and considered a journal of record in the field. In an article, a group of researchers argued that street cats, including those that are fed regularly, are systematically exterminating wild animal populations including reptiles, small mammals and many species of birds. The authors also claimed that the catch, neuter and return method, in which feral cats are trapped, sterilized and returned to their territories, has not proved effective at reducing their numbers. They claim that studies demonstrate that more than 70 percent of the feral cat population must be sterilized in order to achieve a significant reduction, and that this has only been done in a few cases. The authors base their claim, in part, on studies conducted in large cities such as Rome and London.

Another group of researchers, writing in the same journal, noted that while the problem affects many cities around the world there is no consensus regarding a solution. Nobody wants to put animals to sleep or to see them suffer, the second group wrote. But it is less humane to allow a colony of feral cats in poor health to live than it is to put them down. We as a society are unwilling to let dogs or farm animals wander around freely, and it must be the same with feral cats,” the researchers wrote.

License to feed

The Chief Animal Welfare Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Deganit Ben-Dov, is also pessimistic about the ability of the sterilization programs now being funded by the ministry to significantly reduce Israel’s feral cat colonies. “I’ve seen hundreds of articles and have found no proof that this is an effective means of regulating the cat population,” said Ben-Dov, a veterinarian whose job includes enforcing the state Animal Welfare Law.

Sterilization can help in urban areas, Ben-Dov explained, but those who feed the street cats must be made to accept some responsibility. She favors issuing permits to regular feeders that stipulate when and where they can put out food for street cats. “A minimum distance from hospitals or kindergartens should be specified, and only dry food should be permitted. Many of the feeders already follow these rules,” Ben-Dov said.
She added that street cats are prone to serious health problems as a result of overcrowding and rapid population growth, which facilitate the spread of disease. “Ninety percent of the kittens die in their first year. In cities like Haifa more than 2,000 reports are received every year of cats being run over and killed.”

One of the first nonprofit organizations to conduct a sterilization campaign was the Cat Welfare Society of Israel. Founder Rivi Mayer, now a consultant to animal welfare organization Let the Animals Live, has no doubts about the efficacy of such activity. “It has judicial legitimacy; the High Court of Justice imposed strict limitations on euthanizing cats. It also has broad public support,” Mayer said. “Today there are veterinarians who spay and neuter at cost, and there are local authorities, like Kfar Sava and Ra’anana that allocate funds for sterilizing street cats.”

According to Mayer, the trap, sterilize and return method is always successful, when implemented in an organized, professional manner. “The idea is to focus on territories with 20 to 25 cats. My experience and data I’ve received indicate that this succeeds in stabilizing the cat population. Of course supervision must be improved and nonprofessional cat catchers must be monitored. There must be an organization to coordinate operations and deal with education and training as well,” Mayer said.
In response to the wildlife conservations who claim that feral cats are systematically eliminating wild animals, Mayer claimed that birds, for example, are not the preferred prey of street cats. “They usually hunt animals that are on their own level, not above them.”

Health concerns

Hilit Finkler of Tel Aviv University has been studying street cats in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area for several years, including conducting a joint study with Dr. Idit Ginter, a veterinarian who currently for the local authority on the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron. Finkler was the first researcher to estimate the size of Tel Aviv’s feral cat population, which she puts at about 40,000 cats today.

“There are benefits to sterilization, such as improving the cats’ health,” Finkler said. “It can only bring about a decline in population if a high percentage of cats is sterilized in the initial phase and half the population is sterilized every subsequent year. That, of course, requires a big budget,” Finkler explained. If the sterilization rate is insufficient some of the cats continue to multiply; they are joined by cats from other places; and their numbers continue to rise.

Finkler supports looking into making small cities responsible for their own sterilization programs. She recommends initiating pilot studies of at least five years’ duration in one town and one small city, and then comparing the results. “Currently there are no estimates of the size of the feral cat populations in the various communities, and the efficacy of sterilization has not been examined,” Ginter added. “We must allocate money for research in order to decide on the proper way to deal with the problem.”