Q&A: What's Wrong With Feeding Jerusalem's Street Cats, and What's the Key to Reducing Their Numbers?

With about 2,000 stray cats per square kilometer in Jerusalem, spaying and neutering isn't keeping the population down; how do we solve this purring problem?

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A Jerusalem street cat, January 29, 2019.
A Jerusalem street cat, January 29, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Jerusalem’s municipality announced last week that it would devote $27,000 a year to a program for feeding stray cats in the city, but experts in urban nature warn of the consequences. Haaretz explains what the problem is with feeding the hunters of rats and mice, and why neutering cats is not the solution.

How does feeding stray cats affect their numbers?

Street cats are considered feral animals, with studies showing that their numbers are directly correlated with the amount of available food. The density of these cats in Israel’s cities is among the highest in the world, with 2,000 per square kilometer counted in Jerusalem. Why is this a problem? These cats hunt mice, rats and snakes.

A lounging Jerusalem street cat, July 15, 2008.Credit: Emil Salman

Cats apparently have some role in controlling pests, but studies show that they are much worse hunters than we’d like to believe. A study of a cat population in the U.S. showed that they caught no more than two rats a month.

On the other hand, cats cause immense damage to wild birds, reptiles and mammals. An American study published in 2013 estimated that in the U.S. alone, stray cats kill at least 1.3 billion birds and 6.4 billion mammals a year. A Haaretz story in 2017 reported that one cat in Metula killed no fewer than 48 wild animals that year.

Researchers following freely-roaming house cats found that they brought their owners between 1.7 and 5.5 wild animals they’d killed a month. Another study showed that cats keep their kills, showing their owners just under half their prey. Some of the animals they hunt are only wounded, with reduced chances of surviving. Other studies show that cats are responsible for the extinction of 38 species of reptiles, birds and mammals.

A Jerusalem stray, July 13, 2008.Credit: Emil Salman

A study in Israel showed that cats hunt 26 species of birds, 17 species of reptiles and 10 species of mammals. The most common are species that accompany man, such as mice, sparrows and geckos. Others are wild species that are under threat of extinction, such as dormice, gerbils, green lizards and a snake called Micrelaps muelleri.

Do cats spread disease?

They are thought to spread Toxoplasma, caused by a parasite living in their intestines. The disease is usually not dangerous, but can pose a danger to embryos if the mother is infected during pregnancy. The chances of infection are very low. However, feeding stations for cats can attract other species that can spread diseases. One is the hyrax, which carries a parasite that causes Leishmaniasis, which can result in skin ulcers or worse. The food can also attract coyotes and boars, which are unwanted in an urban setting.

Street cats prowl the dumpsters in Jerusalem, January 29, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

So why not neuter stray cats?

Studies have shown that catching and neutering cats doesn’t help. One can’t catch all of them, with one third evading capture. These multiply and fill the gap. The neutered ones don’t fight for their territory, allowing invading cats to take over. Only catching 100 percent will help, and only in a small population in a closed area that prevents infiltration of cats from elsewhere.

So what’s the solution?

There’s no clear-cut answer. Without reducing the food people offer cats the problem cannot be diminished. Feeding stations provide only a small portion of the food available to stray cats – most is found in garbage bins. Closing these and improving garbage collection could reduce the numbers, but would starve cats currently enjoying available food. In any case their lives are short and miserable, with disease, accidents and bite injuries taking a toll.