Feral cats living in an exclusive Florida community may be causing the near-extinction of an endangered species of rat. Guest host Bruce Gellerman speaks with Craig Pittman, environment reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
GELLERMAN: Florida also has a problem with feral felines. For the past half-century wild cats have been roaming an exclusive community near Miami. Homeowners brought them in to deal with rats, but soon the cat population got out of control. Today, a “trap, neuter and release” program has cut the number of cats to about 500. But critics say the cats are still ravaging wildlife, including an endangered species of rat that lives in a neighboring national wildlife refuge. Joining me is Craig Pittman. He's an environment reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. Hello, Craig.
GELLERMAN: These cats, they sound like they’re living the life of Riley, sort of aristo-cats.
PITTMAN: They have the nicest life of any cat you can imagine. They roam around about a two thousand acre property. They are fed regularly. The folks who live there spend about 75 thousand dollars a year on their care and feeding. And the program they have set up there is probably one of the more sophisticated trap, neuter, and release programs in the country.
GELLERMAN: Well, does the program work to reduce the numbers?
PITTMAN: The folks who run it say, yes it does. But they are unable to completely get rid of the feral cat colony there because they believe – at least part of the problem is the folks who work there, the workman who are building and things like that, bring cats there and drop them off because they know they will be very well taken care of.
GELLERMAN: So, of course, they roam all around, including to the nearby national wildlife refuge.
PITTMAN: That’s the belief of the federal biologists at the wildlife refuge. The endangered Key Largo wood rat population is entirely located within the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. And the population of the wood rats there has just plummeted, just since the trap, neuter, and release program began next door at the Ocean Reef Club. And so federal biologists are absolutely convinced that a big reason for that is these cats. Even though they’re being very well fed, nevertheless, because they are predators they are compelled to go over to the wildlife refuge and kill these rats.
GELLERMAN: So, explain to me why you’d want to save a rat.
PITTMAN: Well, they’re a crucial part of the ecosystem. The argument is they’re seed distributers. They are, of course, prey for other animals who are part of the natural system there, owls and so forth. And under our Endangered Species Act they are protected. To the point, in fact, where federal biologists made the decision last year to start a captive breeding program. So, yes indeed, the taxpayers are paying to breed rats right now.
GELLERMAN: How much are we paying?
PITTMAN: It’s about 12 thousand dollars a year right now. It may go up. They’re hoping to eventually have about 24 of them breeding, and then they would want to release them back into the wildlife refuge. But before they do that, they want to make sure that the cats won’t come in and wipe them out again. So, as a result, this past week they actually began putting out traps to try and trap the cats coming over from Ocean Reef.
GELLERMAN: But don’t scientists still have to prove that these wild cats are killing the rats?
PITTMAN: Well, that’s what they’re hoping that trapping program will do. The cats that have been taken in and cared for by the Ocean Reef program all have a particular marking on them that show that they are Ocean Reef Cats. And so if the traps that have been set our around the wildlife refuge catch those cats, they’ll be able to look at them and know, hey, these are Ocean Reef cats.
GELLERMAN: Well, what happens to the wild cats once they’re caught?
PITTMAN: Well, if they trap any of the Ocean Reef cats, then the instructions are to take them back to Ocean Reef where they’ll be cooped up, they won’t be allowed to get out. If they’re just regular cats they’ll be taken to an animal shelter down in Key Largo.
GELLERMAN: Are there any plans to get rid of the entire population of wild cats there?
PITTMAN: I think if you were to propose something like that the folks at Ocean Reef would take up arms to oppose you. They really love their cats there.
GELLERMAN: Craig Pittman is an environmental reporter with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Craig, thank you very much.
PITTMAN: You’re welcome.
[MUSIC: Beck “Hotwax” ODELAY (Geffen Records – 1996)]
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