The case of what doctors are calling bubonic plague that hit the headlines recently in Bend opens some nasty doors.
From the time it was first identified as the scourge it is, in 1347, it has killed millions of people throughout the world.
In the beginning everyone said it was spread by people coughing on each other, so everyone scattered to get away from the agony of death. That didn't work because no one had figured out that the horrifying disease wasn't spread by people coughing on or touching one another, but by a tiny flea that lives on rats. And rats are still trying to live with us.
The disease is transferred the same way today. The Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) is a parasite of rodents, primarily of the genus rattus, which includes the brown rat, black rat, and wharf rat—all of which are found worldwide. However, it is also found on our lovely golden-mantled ground squirrel, belding's ground squirrel, bushy-tailed packrat, white-footed mouse, etc., etc. And that opens the door to feral and outdoor cats.
The feral cat that bit Mr. Paul Gaylord of Prineville, who is now a thin thread away from dying, must have had the plague, which means the flea(s) that carry the plague may still be around, living on the rodents under or near his home.
History has shown that cats are a key ingredient in the spread of the disease.
People were keeping cats in and around their homes as so-called "pets" when the plague ravaged the Byzantine Empire during the reign of the emperor Justinian in 542 AD. Cats probably hauled dead rats infested with hungry fleas into the people's homes. Ultimately, 25 million people died of the plague—and they (literally) didn't know what hit them.
Whether we like it or not, the oriental rat flea is on the periphery of our domesticity. Back in the '50s and '60s I worked with some very brilliant scientists who were trained in the field of epidemiology and studied how wildlife transmits diseases to humans. They were looking for rabies in the local bat population and found none.
But they did find plague fleas in our rodent populations. We also searched packrat middens and ground squirrel borrows and found the flea there, too.
According to the American Society for the Prevention for Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the number of feral cats in the U.S. is estimated to be in the tens of millions. The ASPCA endorses Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as the only proven humane and effective method to manage feral cat colonies. I disagree most strongly.
It makes no ecological or health-oriented sense to place a feral cat back into the wild to fight for food and predation. It only comes out as another health threat to us, because outdoor cats transmit wildlife-borne diseases that contribute to the death of hundreds of thousands of indigenous wildlife.
To all you wonderful, good-hearted people who love cats and want to see them live a happy life, I'm sorry to say this, but feral cats should be humanely euthanized.
They have been eliminated from many parts of the world because they were out of control, killing indigenous wildlife and spreading disease. Even with motor vehicles, coyotes and great horned owls, they're out of control here too.
Cats—whether the people who love and keep them like it or not—are killers by instinct. They have genes that force them to be curious about anything that moves, which usually ends with them killing it. The people who "put the cat out" are not only sending it to kill our birds, reptiles and small mammals, they are endangering their cats and endangering us.
Not too long ago I was asked to help a man in Sisters who had bats in his home. During the time we discussed his dilemma, I noticed he had two very beautiful house-cats whom he was worried about with bats in his home. I asked him if he let his cats out and his response was, "Oh, no! I love my cats too much to let them run outside."
OK, cool down cat people and please think for a moment. How many times have you let your cats back into your home in the morning and found a mouse, bird, lizard or even a nice, big juicy June Bug on your doorstep? Cats kill things. Like it or not—that's what cats do.
If there happens to be a flea needing a blood meal on the dead mouse on your door-step, that may be a serious problem—for you. That's not my imagination speaking, that's reality. A few years back, a dear young child let her cat in one morning and the cat came in carrying a dead ground squirrel. A flea leaped off the ground squirrel onto the child for a blood meal and left the child to die from the plague.
The reality is that plague is here in our rodent population. It does not reach epidemic proportions because man and flea don't usually mix. But with the cat population growing—in part because of the good-hearted people of "Spay and Save" letting them loose, the potential for more contact with plague vectors is, literally, at our doorstep.
It is way past time to manage cats the same way we manage dogs. As nonsensical as it sounds, there should be a "leash-law" for cats as there is for dogs. My neighbor's cats come over and kill my wild cottontail rabbits, chipmunks, lizards and birds—and I can't do anything about it.
I do not want them leaving anymore dead mice on my back porch for me to take care of, not with the chance I might end up in the hospital slowly dying of some disease brought into my home by someone else's cat.
Cats should be registered the same way dog are registered, and identified with a collar and name tag, so everyone knows who the cat is supposed to belong to.
That way, we can capture an unwanted outdoor cat in a live-trap, call the owner to come get it and talk about "pet responsibility." If it has no tag, it is a feral cat and can be humanely euthanized. If we catch the same cat again, we talk to county animal control about it.
It's time for cats to not only be managed, but pay their own way as dog-owners do.