In the last few years a serious dispute has broken out between cat lovers and bird lovers in many countries, and both sides seem unwilling to agree on a solution. Bird lovers and researchers claim that cats prey on and eat many birds and disturb their reproductive ability. The supporters of the cats claim these accusations are vastly exaggerated and say they oppose such ideas as thinning out the number of street cats or imposing restrictions, including forbidding cats to leave their homes.

The argument has recently made the headlines of the major newspapers in the United States. A few weeks ago, The New York Times devoted a lengthy article to the subject, focusing on the story of Texas ornithologist Jim Stevenson. A year and a half ago, Stevenson shot to death a cat that was about to pounce on a bird of the plover species, which is protected by law.

A traffic supervisor who used to feed that very same cat then initiated legal proceedings against Stevenson. Stevenson told the court that he had acted within the law and had defended a species facing extinction. The jury was stalemated and the case was dismissed.

The story gave rise to a controversy over whether there was justification for taking steps against cats that threaten wild animals. The cats referred to are urban, feral felines, and cats that have reverted once again to the wild.

While the cat lovers demanded that the full rigor of the law be applied to the shooter, the supporters of the birds believed he should be awarded a medal.

There is also no agreement among those who deal with ethical and philosophical issues concerning animals. Prof. G. Baird Callicott, president of the International Association of Environmental Ethics, told The Times that in his opinion the interest of securing a species' existence trumped the wellbeing of an individual cat.

Jeffrey Masson has written several books on the behavior of animals and raises a number of cats. He decided that he would continue to allow his cats to roam outside the house.

"Cats hunt in order to survive," he said. "They have the instincts of a hunter. We can prevent them from doing so, but do we need to? After all, we have already deprived them of their sexuality by sterilizing and castrating them and there are people who even remove their nails. How far can we go before destroying them completely?"

The cat supporters argue that the talk of damage cats cause to wild animals is exaggerated, but research of the past few years has shown just the opposite. The experience of centers for saving and taking care of birds also indicates that cats can cause significant damage.

One reported that close to 40 percent of the birds brought there for treatment had been injured by cats. In many cases, most of the damage consists of an infection caused by bites.

About a year ago, the journal "Animal Conservation" published a study carried out by scientists at Britain's Sheffield University. Its subject was the decline of the urban bird population and the fear of cats.

The scientists based their research on a sophisticated model that tried to assess the extent of the damage caused by feline attacks and reached the conclusion that the cats have a detrimental effect on the reproduction of songbirds and their ability to raise their chicks.

The reason for this is the birds' perpetual fear of cats, which greatly disrupts their lives. It must be remembered that urban conditions are nothing like the natural habitat of predators and prey.

The research showed that there can be more than 500 cats per square kilometer (more than three times the number found in a natural setting), as opposed to 20-300 song birds.

Even when there are few cases of cats devouring birds, the fear of the cats disturbs the songbirds in raising their young. This in turn can lead to a cumulative decline in their numbers.

The researchers recommend taking steps that would not totally restrict the movement of cats (even though this is also welcome) but would lessen the amount of contact between felines and birds. For example, it is possible to add a bell to a cat's collar so that the birds will sense its approach. It is also possible to set up feeders for birds in the cities, in order to limit the size of the area in which they are forced to seek food. In this way, they will be saved from exposure to an animal that is a pet for its owners but which preys on sparrows, blackbirds and many other species.

Wheelchair-friendly

After years of ignoring the needs of handicapped people who would like to enjoy leisure and recreational facilities, several sites in Israel have recently begun taking steps to enable them to access nature reserves and forests. Last month, a picnic site was inaugurated at the Afek park near Rosh Ha'ayin that is wheelchair-accessible. The project was the joint initiative of the Coca-Cola company and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) in cooperation with the "Negishut Yisrael" ("Israel is accessible") organization. The corner includes a special table that has been adapted to the needs of people in wheelchairs as well specially designed paths.

Over the past few years, the INPA and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) have stepped up activities aimed at providing greater accessibility, but until now only a small number of sites have been adapted. Within the JNF, a special team was established to handle the matter. Picnic tables have been set up at the Shahariya forest near Kiryat Gat, some of which can be reached by those bound to wheelchairs. All the facilities along this park's central path are also wheelchair-accessible. At Ya'ar Hashofet, in the vicinity of Ramat Menashe, the JNF has launched an experimental project assisted by experts in the field as well as a group of handicapped people who visited the forest and recommended several ways to improve the routes. In addition, the JNF plans to implement a program for improving accessibility at the Huleh nature reserve, one of Israel's most popular sites for day trips.