by Lillie Kline, Habitat Conservation Program Coordinator
Outdoor, free-roaming cats are a hot button and widely controversial issue that unfortunately often pits organizations and neighbors against one another. Just as non-native English ivy and Chinese privet reduces both plant and animal diversity, invasive mammalian species like free-roaming domestic cats and stray dogs can devastate our ecosystems and prey upon our already-threatened native wildlife. Non-native species like domestic cats not only impact wildlife populations, but also face many dangers outdoors themselves. This is why Atlanta Audubon is strongly in favor of keeping cats safely indoors, in line with the Humane Society’s recommendations for pet care and wildlife protection. No matter your stance on this important issue, we can all agree that the health and safety of our pets and our wildlife are of the utmost importance.
The good news? There are many ways for your cat to enjoy the great outdoors without endangering wildlife or themselves. “Catios,” an enclosed play area similar to a hen house, are a great option for unsupervised outdoor time. Cats can also play outside in a fenced backyard with a pet parent nearby to make sure no one gets eaten and that kitty doesn’t squeeze through the fence. Don’t have a yard? Take a page out of Lisa Tantillo’s and Zack Callaghan’s book and train your cat to walk on a leash.
You may know Lisa and Zack better as Calou Calay, the talented artist duo who painted our Chimney Swift Tower in Piedmont Park. When they are not making art, however, the two spend their free time walking their rescue kittens Django and Pavi around the Blue Heron Nature Preserve. Lisa’s family had three cats growing up, the first of which was an outdoor cat that was allowed to roam freely. Sadly, Lisa tells me that their first cat “ended up eating poison because he was unsupervised. We found him dead under our house.” After that painful experience, the family decided to keep their cats indoors.
Lisa, however, believes that cats are meant to be outside, so when she and her fiancée Zack adopted a pair of kittens this past year, it was important to them to find a way for Django and Pavi to experience the joys of being outdoors while keeping them safe from dangers like cars and coyotes. “We wanted to be able to go outside with them and for them to eventually be hiking adventure cats. We follow organizations like AdventureCats.org, which shows people traveling with their cats almost like dogs, and it seems like an awesome way to spend more time with their cats doing things they love. I want to keep wildlife safe from cats, but I also want to keep the cats safe from dangers,” says Lisa.
For those who are interested in ways to keep both their pets and wildlife safe in the great outdoors, Lisa recommends harness training, but cautions that patience is key, and starting cats young is your best bet. “People underestimate how trainable cats are, especially if you work with them when they are hungry. They are very responsive and intelligent.” Lisa and Zack’s favorite outdoor cat resources include AdventureCats.org, Puppia harnesses, and Jackson Galaxy, who Lisa calls a “cat whisperer.” She tells me that he “has good videos on getting older cats used to a leash. He has some tutorials that are really great.”
When talking to neighbors with free-roaming outdoor cats about keeping them inside, Lisa emphasizes the importance of being respectful and cautions against an approach that condemns the cat owner. “I would be concerned about the welfare of their cat, as there are a lot of predators like coyotes that could kill your cat, in addition to lawn chemicals that can poison the cat. I would bring it up from that cat safety perspective. I would gauge the person’s response and then also mention the environmental impact.”
With so many wonderful options that keep pets and wildlife safe, enjoying the great outdoors with your cat has never been easier. With 432 species of North American birds in need of urgent conservation action, talking to your neighbors and making conscientious choices for wildlife has never been more important (State of the Birds, 2016).