Cayman has seen its share of invasive species in recent years: the lionfish and the green iguana are two well-known examples that have triggered local culling efforts.
The Department of Environment told Cayman 27 free-ranging cats are also classified as an invasive species.
“We tend to think of them as our pets and family members, but they are classified as an invasive species as soon as they exit our houses and start running the ecosystems at large,” said DOE research officer Jane Haakonsson of the Terrestrial Resources Unit.
Ms. Haakonsson said cats are capable hunters who prey on anything they can get their claws on.
“It is just their nature. They are very playful and they also do kill for the thrill, so you can feed a pet cat all you want, but there’s still going to be a drive for it to chase and kill smaller animals,” said Ms. Haakonsson.
On Cayman Brac, Ms. Haakonsson said cats have shown a taste for brown boobies and their eggs. She said cats are to blame for around 16 booby deaths this year.
“That’s a relatively large percentage of the population, it’s an alarming percent with about 73 breeding pairs localized in 2017, that’s of the utmost concern,” said Ms. Haakonsson.
She said there is also evidence sister islands rock iguanas are falling prey to felines.
“We had researchers come and study them, including putting trackers on hatchlings, and two of 28 trackers were going straight to a live cat and one into cat regurgitate,” said Ms. Haakonsson.
A 2013 scientific study estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill from 1.3 to 4 billion birds and up to 22.3 billion mammals annually in the United States alone. The study said free-ranging cats on islands have caused or contributed to 14% of modern bird, mammal and reptile extinctions.
“Because we are a small Caribbean island, we have higher risk of extinction rates for our endemic species, so extinction is real, it happened most recently in Jamaica, the Jamaican Petrel actually went extinct because of cat predation, so it is a risk we are facing in all three islands,” said Ms. Haakonsson.
While the threat to endemic wildlife is real, Ms. Haakonsson said an important distinction is to be made between pets and feral cats.
“It’s more of a time to treat pet cats like dogs and having them be a part of our responsible pet ownership,” said Ms. Haakonsson. “Feral cats on the other hand aren’t being looked after by people, and have to make their own way and often it is a hard life.”
In February of this year, the DOE was set to undertake a joint operation with the Department of Agriculture to cull feral cats on Little Cayman, according to reports. That plan was halted after two animal welfare charities secured an injunction in the courts.
After a preliminary hearing, the DOE and DOA agreed not to proceed with the cull until the issues raised by the two charities had been addressed.