Animal welfare groups and conservation scientists found a “common enemy” last week in their decades-old fight over free-roaming cats in Hawaii: political inaction.

But fundamental disagreements remain over the approach that should be taken and tools that could be used to remove thousands of feral, stray and abandoned cats from forests, beaches and urban areas.

State and federal scientists underscored the urgency in protecting endangered seabirds and seals from the direct and indirect threat the cats pose.

Animal welfare organizations have stood in the way of culling the cat colonies. But it’s also proven challenging to get more government support for programs that both sides agree on, such as sterilization and responsible pet-ownership education.

Free-roaming cats wait for onlookers to go away so they can come out from the brush in Hawaii Kai. The notch in the ear means these cats have been sterilized.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

It was standing room only at the first of two sessions on this long-standing issue last week at the Hawaii Conservation Conference in Honolulu.

A few hundred people packed a room at the Hawaii Convention Center to hear what experts had to say about the effort to manage the threat that feral cats pose to endangered seabirds, including the Newell’s shearwater and Hawaiian petrel, as well as Hawaiian spinner dolphins and critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals.

André Raine and Kyle Pias have been working with the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and Hono O Na Pali Seabird Mitigation Project to set up cameras and traps in remote areas to capture cats that are hunting rare seabirds that nest on the ground.

In a five-year period on Kauai, 268 kills were logged, including eggs, chicks and adult birds. Cats killed just over a third of these animals and rats killed about half. The cats are of particular concern because they are hunting breeding pairs of petrels and shearwaters, whereas the rats mostly eat the eggs.

At just one site, Raine said cats were recorded visiting bird burrows 90 times. In some cases, the cats were raising their kittens in burrows where they had killed the birds and then teaching their offspring how to hunt.

Raine and Pias are perfecting their traps, testing the use of baited versus unbaited traps depending on the situation. But with so many cats and so few resources, it’s an enormous challenge.

“Some of the remote places on the island are littered with cats,” Pias said, adding that necropsies have shown the cats’ stomachs are filled with feathers.

Meanwhile, other scientists are in a different fight over the spread of an incurable parasitic disease that’s killing marine mammals.

Toxoplasmosis, which is only spread through cat feces, has killed eight monk seals and two spinner dolphins, said Michelle Barbierri of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

With estimates of 300,000 feral cats on Oahu alone and only 300 monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands, Barbierri said it’s critical that a sensible, humane and effective plan be implemented.

Toxoplasmosis is also killing introduced birds, including francolin on Kauai, and native species such as the red-footed booby on Oahu and nene on Maui. But mortality is not as high.

A Hawaiian monk seal and her pup hauled out at Kaimana Beach in July.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Despite being such a “thorny issue,” Barbieri is optimistic that the animal welfare groups and conservationists can come together to solve the problem.

Peter Adler, a professional mediator, facilitated a two-hour panel discussion among the two sides.  

A major sticking point is the perceived value of the animals.

“Some cats are absolutely loved and adored and some cats are vilified,” said Mary Steiner of the Hawaiian Humane Society, which opposes euthanasia. “We believe that all animals have intrinsic value and we don’t separate one from the other.”

That’s not how conservationists view the issue. They see the animals more in terms of populations, not individuals.

Afsheen Siddiqi of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife said Hawaii is home to 28 percent of the endangered species in the United States and Hawaii is where 78 percent of species have gone extinct.

“We’re talking about a very fragile community,” she said.

Hawaiian petrel chicks tucked into new nests at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

Ann Bell/USFWS

There are legal requirements to protect endangered species, which has prompted some jurisdictions to view the problem as a financial liability, said Chris Lepczyk, who’s been working at the University of Hawaii on understanding human wildlife conflict and trying to find solutions.

He said there is broad public support to reduce the number of free-roaming outdoor cats. But there is disagreement over whether euthanasia should be part of that effort and if trap-neuter-release programs are actually effective.

“You’re wasting resources if you’re not getting to the point where you’re actually reducing populations,” said Kate Atema of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Nearly 70 percent of Oahu voters want feral cats removed from Hawaii, according to a Civil Beat poll in October. Just 13 percent wanted to leave the cats alone, 9 percent had no opinion either way and 9 percent were unsure.

Steiner said accessible, low-fee, spay and neuter services could help. The Humane Cociety has sterilized 54,000 cats since 1994, which scientists have said is laudable but barely puts a dent in the enormous population of feral cats.

Grant Sizemore of the American Bird Conservancy said feral cats have been a documented problem in Hawaii for more than 100 years.

“Talk is cheap,” he said.

Newell’s shearwaters, called ‘a’o in Hawaiian, are threatened with extinction due to introduced species like cats and rats.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Atema said some steps need to be taken, no matter how small, to instill faith in the ability to address this issue.

“The common enemy, if we need one, is there’s been a lack of action,” she said.

Even with a workable solution in hand, elected and appointed officials need to carry it out.

“There’s a political will issue,” Lepczyk said, adding that people in power don’t like change. “We need people to take the issue forward.”

Sizemore encouraged people to vote and to testify on measures when they go before the county councils or the Legislature.

“We need you to speak up and let them know that having feral cats running around the beach parks or up in the mountains predating Newell’s shearwaters or Hawaiian petrels is unacceptable,” he said.

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