How the Cats Saved the Rats

A heated confrontation has embroiled pet owners, cat lovers, and the Crocodile Lakes Wildlife Refuge. The issues were aired in a meeting on November 10th with the Regional Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

First, a little background. In the late 1980's Ocean Reef and the surrounding area was overrun with cats. There were well over 2000 feral cats in our area when Ocean Reef homeowner Alan Litman decided to enlist the Ocean Reef Community Association in his one-man effort to humanely reduce the cat population. Mr. Litman had set up several feeding stations that he was using to lure cats so they could be trapped, neutered and released. The problem was: too many cats for one person to manage.

ORCA entered the cat reduction business in 1995 when ORCAT was significantly enhanced. Three Vet Tech/trappers were hired, a veterinarian was brought in weekly to care for and spay and neuter the cats; and the Club donated a building near the sewer plant to house the operation. From those humble beginnings, it has become one of the most successful Trap Neuter and Release (TNR) programs in the country.

Some have argued that if it wasn't for the Ocean Reef cat reduction program there would be no woodrats or cotton mice in the Crocodile Lakes Nation Refuge. In fact, Alan Litman, ORCAT's founder was also instrumental in creating the Crocodile Refuge where the rats and mice live. It is easy to imagine what would have happened if ORCAT did not exist. The 2000 feral cats would have multiplied to several thousand more cats, spreading throughout the Refuge and decimating the woodrat population.

Trap neuter and release programs work. The cats in our area have been reduced from a population of over 2000 to less than 300. A number of local TNR programs catch cats from the Refuge and neuter them so they don't reproduce. If the neighbors surrounding the Refuge did not catch the cats in the Refuge and neuter them for the past 20 years the cat population would be much greater and the rat population nil.

The Refuge neighbors are not irresponsible pet owners as they are often portrayed; quite the contrary, they are the ones responsible for protecting the woodrats from an overpopulation of cats. Nevertheless, the Refuge has followed an aggressive program of trapping cats on the extreme fringes of their 6700 acre refuge, including near Ocean Reef neighborhoods on the north, and other angry neighbors to the south. Cats have been injured by the traps, left for days without food or water and taken to the Key Largo Animal Center to be killed - all on the theory that these pets are travelling six or seven miles down the road to kill woodrats, then running back home with innocent expressions.

In fact there are no cats killing woodrats. The woodrats are located in the center of the Refuge. The Refuge has cameras monitoring the rats (no, this is not the NSA at work, but surveillance by the wildlife refuge itself). There are no current sightings of cats near the rats.

Since there are no cats near the rats, the Refuge has taken the position that they will find cats somewhere. That somewhere is our neighborhoods. The Refuge is trapping close to Ocean Reef homes, using cat food and catnip to lure pets. No wonder there is outrage.

The whole focus on cats is misguided. There has been a study in the Florida Keys located in close proximity to the Refuge conducted by the government. The study on Palo Alto Key, just north of Key Largo, placed 15 woodrats on an island where there are no cats. Even in the absence of cats all of the rats died. This fact is lost on the current Refuge staff. They somehow think cats are killing the rats instead of focusing on the reason the rats are really losing their Darwinian struggle.

If the real goal is to protect the woodrats from extinction, the focus needs to be changed from killing cats to the other 10 causes of their demise. We hope our next meeting with the Regional Wildlife Director will bring some reason to this conflict.