By Shawn Perich
The Hypocrisy of Carp and Cats
This summer the state highway department cut rumble strip grooves down the center line of Highway 61 east of Grand Marais. Intended as a safety feature, the strips alert drivers when they drift across the center line. The loud “Brrrrrrrrrp” sound as drivers hit the strips also alerts everyone else within earshot—about a mile or so—randomly, frequently, and night and day. Needless to say, the many folks who live along Highway 61 are not enamored by the new rumble strips. They want the highway department to remove them.
Now, here’s the kicker. The rumble strips are supposed to combat distracted driving, such as people drifting across the center line while they fiddle with their cell phones. I don’t know if the folks driving Highway 61 from Grand Marais to the Canadian border are any more or less distracted than drivers elsewhere, but I do know this: There is no cell phone coverage east of Grand Marais. Which leaves me wondering, why was this particular stretch of highway was chosen for rumble strips?
I guess sometimes government decisions cause you to scratch your head in wonderment. I was reminded of the rumble strips while reading about the Minneapolis City Council’s attempt to deal with the city’s feral cats. Recently, a council committee approved with a 5-0 vote a proposed ordinance that would allow Minneapolis residents to create feral cat colonies, where free-roaming cats would be trapped, neutered and then released into the urban wilds. Caretakers of feral cat colonies will also feed the free-ranging felines. The intent of the program is to prevent feral cats from being euthanized by city animal control workers.
Now, before strolling any further down this path, let it be known that I’m ambivalent about cats, feral or otherwise. I point this out because the care and feeding of feral cats is an intensely emotional issue. Folks who love cats believe it is the right thing to do; caring for the cats while preventing them from breeding. On the other hand, conservationists believe feral cats are an ecologically destructive invasive species, responsible for killing millions of small birds and mammals annually.
Now, let’s set aside the debate between feral cat advocates and conservationists. Instead, let’s focus on just two words in the paragraph above: invasive species. Since feral cats are not native to North America, are released into the natural environment by people and are destructive predators, they seem to clearly meet the definition of invasive species. If that is so, why isn’t the feral cat issue being addressed by the Minnesota DNR?
After all, in recent years we’ve seen the DNR, at the direction of the Minnesota Legislature, go after invasive species “offenders” with the sort of enforcement zeal typically employed by banana republic dictators. We now have armed agents with police dogs patrolling public boat landings to sniff out stowaway snails on fishing boats. That suggests the powers-that-be take invasive species control very seriously. So why hasn’t the DNR weighed in on the feral cat issue?
Via email, I asked that very question of DNR communications director Chris Niskanen, who referred me to Ann Pierce, the agency’s invasive species coordinator. From Pierce, I learned that in the eyes of the law, feral cats are defined as domestic animals. The DNR has no statutory authority over feral cats and their depredations.
So I asked, “Does this mean I could dump koi in Lake Minnetonka? After all, they are domesticated fish.”
Absolutely not, Pierce told me, because koi are listed in the statute that defines aquatic invasive species. In addition to better known invasive species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels, the list includes such critters as mute swans, Asian raccoon dogs and European wild boar. Not on the list are free-ranging dogs or pigs, both of which are regulated under local ordinances. Pierce suggested I talk to a DNR nongame biologist who could tell me about the depredations of feral cats and said the agency has Keep Cats Indoors information posted on its website. I didn’t call the nongame biologist, but I did listen to a 60 radio spot filed on the DNR website encouraging people to keep cats indoors. Oh boy.
Ever hopeful that somewhere in the DNR someone was grappling with the loss of wildlife—nongame or otherwise—to feral cats, I contacted Ed Boggess, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division. There, too, I learned, feral cats fall through the regulatory cracks. Dogs, however, can be shot at certain times of year for chasing big game.
“It’s a deer protection statute, not a dog statute,” Boggess explained.
Otherwise, cats and dogs are domestic animals not under game and fish purview. He said the DNR can’t tell people to shoot cats because they might be someone’s property, which could lead to a civil court action. Killing a cat may also violate animal cruelty laws, some of which are felonies. Under such laws, a hunter convicted of cat killing could lose the right to own a gun.
In Minnesota, free-ranging cats are truly free to prey upon small birds and mammals, ducking beneath the state’s regulatory framework. Even if the agency chose to address this invasive species, it could only do so under the direction of the Legislature. If the Legislature did decide to control cat depredations, Boggess isn’t sure if the DNR or the Department of Agriculture would be the lead agency. However, at this juncture, it seems unlikely that the Legislature will attempt to regulate feral cats, because doing so would be highly controversial.
“This (feral cat control) is a highly charged issue,” Boggess said.
And so it is. But another fact remains. Right now, Asian carp are a will-of-the-wisp—a problem that hasn’t happened—while free ranging cats are here and preying upon songbirds and other wildlife. The funny thing is we’re spending millions to address our fears of an Asian carp “invasion” and nothing to diminish the ongoing depredations of feral cats. The state’s hypocrisy regarding the control of imaginary carp and real cats leaves me shaking my head.