Cats in paper bags are better than cats in bushes for Ottawa's ecosystem. Image: Aly Murphy/Fulcrum
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Cat curfew could be beneficial for both wildlife and our feline companions

In light of a recent string of cat deaths, the Ottawa Humane Society has called for a 24-hour ‘cat curfew’. 

Beginning June 15, cats started turning up dead in the city’s west end. A total of seven mutilated bodies were found, the last on June 21. During this time, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) began investigating the possibility of a ‘cat killer’.

Following a necropsy conducted at the University of Guelph’s Animal Health Laboratory in Kemptville, the OPS concluded the perpetrator was not a human but a coyote. The OPS has since closed its investigation; nevertheless, according to Captial Current residents and even an expert in coyotes remain skeptical.

“I’ve also never seen coyotes do anything like that with other prey, including livestock. I would say it is doubtful that a coyote would completely skin an animal without consuming part of it, but I also would not take it out of the realm of possibility,” said Stanley Ghert, the coyote expert in question, to the Current’s Hana Sabah

Regardless, these tragic events have spurred discussions on the larger issue of cats roaming outdoors. 

“The dangers to cats roaming are myriad,” explained Bruce Roney, the Ottawa Humane Society’s CEO. “We have seen [it] in the last few weeks with the cats that [the] community believed were tortured and killed by humans …  It turned out it was predators but, one way or another, those cats suffered horribly and they’re dead.”

Ottawa Humane Society pushing for ‘Cat Curfew’ bylaw

As a result, the Ottawa Humane Society has begun pushing city council to launch a ‘cat curfew’ that would require cat owners to keep their cats on their property or face fines. 

In effect, the cat curfew would amount to a no-roam bylaw. With the curfew in place cats could still go outdoors on an owner’s property but would need to remain on a leash or in a catio (a kind of cat patio). 

Other animal groups like Nature Canada and the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre (OVWBCC) support the Ottawa Humane Society’s call for a cat curfew in Ottawa. 

“In Gatineau, [a cat curfew] already exists, essentially stating that cat owners are responsible for keeping their pets on their property (cats, dogs, etc) at all times (unless they are under control such as on a leash),” explained Ted Cheskey, naturalist director at Nature Canada.

“Allowing a cat to roam off one’s property would be a contravention of the bylaw and subject to consequences. We have determined that over 150 municipalities in Canada have one form or another of a no-roam bylaw. Any such bylaw should be preceded by an educational campaign and backed up by enforcement,” he added.

In Gatineau, Theo’s owner, the Fulcrum’s Editor-in-Chief, would be fined for letting his feline off his property. Image: Charley Dutil/Fulcrum

However, this isn’t Ottawa’s first attempt at imposing a restriction on outdoor cats.

“A little over a decade ago, we made a very impassioned presentation to city council. In the end, we were unsuccessful. What we got was a nuisance bylaw, so the city will intervene if there’s a cat on your property causing a nuisance,” said Roney. “I’m not sure that council is ready to change [the law] right now.”

Cats and Wildlife a bad mix

In the meantime, Nature Canada encourages Ottawa to adopt strategies to reduce populations of unowned cats and offer highly subsidized or free sterilization in the case of low-income cat owners’ pets. 

According to the organization, domestic pets and wildlife simply do not mix. When they do, the outcome is rarely positive. Cats often die, can spread diseases and even become vectors of zoonotic diseases.

Cats are natural, highly adept hunters, they are responsible for a huge toll on wildlife populations. Across North America, it is estimated that cats kill billions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year.

The hunting instincts that make cats so good at killing wildlife can be satisfied by caring owners through a stimulating indoor environment and fresh-air opportunities such as walking on a leash or in catios.

Fig, the Fulcrum’s managing editor’s kitten, is enjoying a stimulating indoor environment looking at birds from a window. Image: Aly Murphy/Fulcrum

In Nature Canada’s Bird-Friendly City Certification Program, one of the many criteria on which a city is evaluated is how it addresses the issue of roaming outdoor cats. Cities can get points towards accreditation by possessing a no-roam bylaw, by having an educational campaign in support of this, by having a strategy to reduce the number of unowned cats, and by implementing a means of measuring progress over time. So far only Toronto, London, Calgary, and Vancouver have been certified Bird Friendly Cities. 

“Cats are the number one killer of wild birds in Canada killing up to 350 million per year; 38 per cent [of that is done by] domestic cats, and the remainder by feral [cats],” said Sandra Sawers, Executive Director of the OVWBCC. “If 10,000 cats roam in Ottawa (low estimate) and each kill an average of one to two birds per week, that would equal 520,000 to 1,040,000 wild birds killed each year!”

Cats a major threat to birds and a concern for endangered species 

When it comes to cat attacks, the OVWBC says that despite their best efforts and expert medical care, less than 20 per cent of birds that are victims of a domestic feline attack survive and can be released back in the wild. 

“In 2020 alone [at the OVWBC], 480 birds were cared for from 45 different species following cat attacks — 214 (45 per cent) died, 173 (36 per cent) were humanely euthanized, and 93 (19 per cent) were successfully released,” said Sawers.

“While backyard birds like American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and Mourning Doves are the more common victims, many threatened and endangered species are also impacted”

Wild birds will not always show noticeable signs of being injured, but even the smallest puncture to a bird’s skin is a death sentence. A bird’s skin is as thin as tissue paper and does not often bleed when it is cut making small punctures hard to detect. As well, a cat’s mouth and its sharp nails harbour a high concentration of bacteria that can lead to life-threatening infections if left untreated. Wild birds, like many animals, will hide signs of injury and weakness so they do not signal to predators that they are compromised. 

“Time and time again we hear from cat owners that their cat brought a bird home but thankfully it was “OK” and was able to fly away. It is deeply unsettling to see hundreds of birds each year arriving at our centre due to preventable cat attacks, and it is even more heartbreaking because we know they are only a small percentage of the birds that will die from their injuries in the wild,” added Sawers.

How to be a responsible cat owner

With the help of responsible pet owners, the OVWBC believes it is possible to save millions of birds’ lives each year. According to the OVWBC, there are a number of things that pet owners can do to not only protect birds but also their own pets from the dangers of the wild. 

The OVWBC, reiterates that for both your cat and for wild birds’ safety to keep your little feline indoors, on a leash, or in a catio. This is especially important during nesting season (May-September) when baby birds are on the ground learning how to fly and become easy targets for cats. 

For those who have bird feeders in their yard, it is primordial to not let your cat out according to the centre. It is also to keep an eye on neighbourhood cats frequenting your yard and to place bird feeders away from potential hiding spots for cats and limit the amount of ground feeding. 

Cat in the bush
Cats like Theo, who hide in bushes near bird feeders, are a danger for birds. Image: Charley Dutil/Fulcrum

Finally, if your cat brings home a bird, it is important to remember that the bird is not ‘ok’ and needs immediate care. 

“We feel it is important to educate the public that any wild bird that has been in contact with a cat is not ok and will likely die as a result of its interaction.”

The Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Centre is located at 822 Cedarview Rd. and operates from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 365 days a year to accept injured birds.