Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an ongoing debate in our letters page that started with a column by Jim Anderson (Killer Cat 5-21) about a domestic cat at the High Desert Museum that nabbed a chipmunk in front of patrons.
By Tom Rodhouse
At the risk of fanning the flames here, I cannot sit idly by. By way of reply to an email response from The High Desert Museum to Jim Anderson's "Killer Cat" article last week, I have been compelled to clarify that the cat in question was nowhere near the cabin "scene" but was hunting around the bird feeders at the sitting area above the otter exhibit.
This particular part of the Museum is a wildlife viewing area, not a historical reconstruction. Jim's article, perhaps a result of editing down for word count, failed to mention that the cat actually caught a yellow-pine chipmunk, and was not just stalking it. And it was indeed a chipmunk, not one of the "overrunning" ground squirrels that the Museum complains about. As a wildlife biologist with a life-long fascination with predatory animals, I have to admit I was mighty impressed with the facility this cat exhibited. Honestly, I have never seen such a talented hunter at work before. If it were a bobcat, I'd have chalked it up as one of my life list's top wonderful natural history moments. The cat clearly was a pro working around the feeders and the rocks and log adjacent to the clearing. It did run halfway up a tree after another chipmunk or bird moments after I tried to run it off after its first catch. The cat was serious about its business and clearly had spent time working that particular area over before. Of course at the time I had no idea this was a sanctioned Museum exhibition, and assumed it was one of the many feral cats wreaking havoc on native wildlife in our open lands. I was shocked when I was met with resistance by Museum staff over this issue, and I am amazed at the Museum's continued insistence that the cat is not a detriment.
The Museum is on the wrong side of the issue here. If I were at all confident that one could track down the various cadavers accrued by Ellie Mae in a typical work week, I would challenge the Museum to a "duel" of dead things. I would bet a substantial amount of money and professional credibility that she would bring in a surprising number of native species in addition to the targeted varmints they are after. There is a lot of scientific literature on the impact of free-ranging cats on native wildlife. These studies have repeatedly demonstrated that house cats collectively eliminate millions of native songbirds and small mammals on an annual basis. Focused studies have shown that house cats are behind alarming declines in endangered species. One of the more interesting ones was published late last year in the Journal of Wildlife Management from the San Francisco Bay Area. The study used stable isotope analysis and found that the federally endangered salt marsh harvest mouse was at considerable risk from house cats. What I found particularly noteworthy was the fact that while the house cats examined had killed hundreds of wild animals, most of their nutrition originated from supplemental food sources outside the natural system. In other words, these cats were being fed at home, in an alley trashcan, or from a feral cat rescue station, but were still preying on wild species as well. As Jim Anderson mentioned in his article, spaying and neutering is an important long-run task, but doesn't remove the immediate predation threat. The San Francisco Bay study and many others like them indicate that humane rescue efforts involving the feeding of free-ranging cats also serves to artificially sustain elevated populations of destructive feral cats.
The Museum's assertion that Ellie Mae is simply part of the nineteenth-century historical scene doing things "just as they did..." in the good ole days is of course preposterous and a frightfully myopic attitude. They did lots of neat things in the 1800s that we now know better not to do - acid-leach mining, crapping in the stream, infecting blankets with small-pox, dynamiting streams, slaughtering buffalo from train windows...So let's not muddle the issue with confused sentimentality.
As a Museum member, I encourage the organization to put a lid on Ellie Mae's unbridled enthusiasm for sport and that of any of her other feline associates that may be working out there. This is a great opportunity for the Museum to address the issue head on, perhaps with an interpretive sign near the wildlife viewing area, addressing the concern, and encouraging pet cat owners to assume responsibility for protecting native wildlife. And let's not get lost in the details, for goodness sake. The point is not that Ellie Mae is killing chipmunks and deer mice with reckless abandon, but rather that the High Desert Museum is in the business not only of interpreting the history of our region, but of promoting a sense of stewardship and land-ethic for the high desert ecosystem and its native flora and fauna. By its own admission, the Museum "strives to promote thoughtful decision making to sustain the region's natural and cultural heritage." Barn cats are no more a part of that mission than would be a carousing group of drunken poker players shooting at bottles behind the sawmill.
The author is a wildlife biologist with the National Parks Service and a museum member. He also writes an occasional wine column for the Source.